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'What Mattered Was That I Had Been Present': Saying A Long-Distance Goodbye To My Grandmother

The moon rises behind Zion Church, built in 1881, at the Madison County Historical Society on October 29, 2020 in Winterset, Iowa. (Mario Tama/Getty Images)
The moon rises behind Zion Church, built in 1881, at the Madison County Historical Society on October 29, 2020 in Winterset, Iowa. (Mario Tama/Getty Images)

When I got the text from my mom, I was in the bathroom, putting on makeup for my next Zoom conference. Her message was about a different kind of virtual meeting. Did I want to see Grandma one last time; did I want to say goodbye?

As a program manager at a nonprofit, I’ve adapted to hosting online events across various platforms. But when it came to my family in the Midwest, no software had managed to make me feel close.

Over the past months I’d watched from the East Coast as my mom and her siblings made the decision to take their mother out of the nursing home where she’d been quarantined, to bring her back to her Iowa farmhouse. There, caretakers made up of her children, their children, friends, and healthcare and hospice workers tended to my grandmother in carefully managed shifts.

While the burden of care fell on family members near her, those of us at a distance too great to travel safely struggled to be present during Grandma Bette’s last months. When she had the strength, I would FaceTime with her, or send cards and the occasional package. But there was no replacement for being in her quiet presence in the familiar farmhouse.

The author and her grandmother Bette Brinkman, a librarian, outside her Iowa farmhouse in 2008. (Courtesy)
The author and her grandmother Bette Brinkman, a librarian, outside her Iowa farmhouse in 2008. (Courtesy)

I put away the mascara that was already beginning to run and sat down to take my mom’s call. She told me Grandma was not responsive that morning, but they believed she could still hear us. The hospice worker had told her, “hearing was the last to go.”

On FaceTime, as my mom searched for the button that would reverse the picture on my phone, I prepared myself to see my grandmother for the last time. I knew she would be changed, but I wasn’t sure how to process her passing without bearing witness to the decline, even on a screen.

Grandma lay on her back with her soft, snow-white hair framing her face, the skin across her cheekbones blanched and taut. Her eyes were closed and her mouth open, but when I began to speak, she closed her lips in a happy, noiseless gasp.

I told Grandma that I loved her, and I thanked her for loving me, for making me feel exceptional — something I still carry with me. I told her about the other things I got from her, from my love of books to my hazel eyes. I told her how much I missed her. I told her goodbye.

Only after the call did I realize that, for the first time, the virtual medium hadn’t really mattered. At this point, Grandma was only taking in voices. For all she knew, I might have been in the room with her. What mattered was that I had been present.

And she had listened. Hearing might be the last to go for us all, but it made sense that this perception lingered long with my grandma. She’d always been a quiet listener in a loud family — a trait I shared with her. How fitting that this is what remained to us of her, a quiet receptacle, a deep reservoir of peace.

Perhaps our imaginations are trained to keep people close when they are the farthest.

The funeral was delayed a week because my uncle had COVID-19. In that time, we learned that many of the residents at my grandma’s former nursing home did too. When my mom made arrangements at the funeral home, she’d noticed memorials to several of my grandmother’s friends — vulnerable people who we all should have known by now to protect.

The family-only service takes place at Grandma’s rural church — Faith Community, a cavernous sanctuary in the middle of cornfields. I apply mascara, put on a black dress and even pull on black nylons, though I stop short at shoes — no one will see me. I make myself a mug of strong black coffee and join the livestream on the church’s website, identifying each family member by the back of their head, spread out among the pews. I see tissues applied beneath masks, watch solitary shoulders shake with sobs.

I cry too, alone on my couch in Rhode Island, as I sing along to my Grandma’s favorite hymn — "Great is Thy Faithfulness,” and carol — "O Little Town of Bethlehem.” After the service, my sister calls as they drive my grandmother’s casket around the farm where she lived for 70 years so that I can be part of the send-off. On the screen, I watch clusters of cousins waving the hearse down the gravel road, silhouettes I’ve memorized from the most joyful arrivals and most tender departures of my childhood.

The farmhouse in Rolfe, Iowa, on the morning the author's grandmother passed away, and Bette Brinkman, 1928-2020. (Courtesy)
The farmhouse in Rolfe, Iowa, on the morning the author's grandmother passed away, and Bette Brinkman, 1928-2020. (Courtesy)

The night before my grandma died, I’d dreamed my extended family — now scattered throughout the world — was together again. We weren’t on the farm, but instead gathered in various hotels. Throughout the dream I kept losing things — my camera, my shoes. But then, at one hotel, everything was returned to me. I then saw my entire family on a mountaintop, singing a hymn we’d sung at my grandfather’s funeral a few years before.

As our minds grapple with ways to be with each other across unfathomable distances, my last call to my grandmother reminds me that, just as there is technology to carry our voices across the spaces between us, there are miraculous and mysterious ways to be present with those we love. Perhaps our imaginations are trained to keep people close when they are the farthest.

I know I feel my grandma’s presence more keenly now that she is gone. I don’t know what voices she is hearing, but I hope they are uplifted in song.

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Jodie Noel Vinson Twitter Cognoscenti contributor
Jodie Noel Vinson is a writer based in Providence, Rhode Island.

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