Death makes distance greater.
I have lived in London for nearly three years, nearly as far away from my home country of New Zealand as it is possible to be. Homesickness is an inevitability that comes with both good and bad moments; missing the familiar is most pronounced when something unfamiliar occurs. For the most part, I can recognize how lucky I am to live in the era of easy and immediate communications, and even if a week passes where my only contact with home is the constant game of Scrabble I have with my mother, then that’s OK. Time zones and thousands of miles don’t change the fact that they can still feel close.
Death does change it.
This week my grandmother died, my Irish grandmother who lived to 101 years old, whom I have been saying goodbye to every time I left her in the last 15 years. To me, she has always been old. Even when she was 80, smart, sarcastic and lucid, I was only 6 years old and incapable of seeing her as anyone other than the woman who brought me Marks and Spencer’s nail polish and spoke in that plummy, odd way.
My grandmother died and the grief, really, belongs to my mother and her brother, who idolised and adored her – their father died when they were young and they were raised by a woman utterly capable of dealing with that. Of moving them across countries and teaching them and supporting them. To them, she was everything.
To me, now, she is a collection of facts.
She was born before the first world war. She had three university degrees, one of which, earned in her 50’s, she studied for just because she “wanted to know more”. She taught soldiers to drive tanks; she taught herself computer programming. She was a poet, though nobody knew that until after she could no longer write. I know these things only through my mother, who loved her and who remembers her.
She moved to New Zealand at the age of 86 to be near to us, and to me she was Granny, whom we visited every Friday for dinner, who cooked mushrooms in butter and laughed at our ridiculousness and painted the seascape from her sunroom.
My grief is selfish because I grieve for the woman I didn’t know, rather than the one I did, because she lived a thousand lives before I grew old enough and selflessness enough to care about even one of them.
The last time I saw her was in the rest home a year ago, laid back in an easy chair in a patch of sunlight. We were all there – me, my sisters, my mum and dad – and we gathered around her chair and gave a camera to the nurse to capture the moment. She had a hard time doing it, simply because Granny, who barely spoke or ate, was turned away from the camera looking at her family crouched around her, blue eyes lit.
When I told people how old she was, the reaction is always awe and respect, but I don’t think she saw it that way. “There’s no future in being old” was the last line of one of her poems, and for that reason I’m glad I’ll never tell anyone that my Granny is 101 years old again. She was a writer and an artist and mathematician and a mother and one hundred other things and my grief is not for the fact that she isn’t those things anymore. She was ready to go and so I can’t be sorry that she’s gone.
But the fact that I can never again ask her about any of those things? That’s worth grieving for.
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