When I was a kid, I had a small fascination with personalized items. I liked to hunt for the ones with my name when we visited souvenir shops. Chelsea was common enough to not be completely impossible to find, but not so common that I found it on every single trip. At the time, I didn't quite have my mind around the concept of getting something custom made, and so I was insistent on finding physical items with my name. I never actually bought very many of them; the only one I can recall is a tiny little hardback book that had details on what my name meant. (It was “harbor” or something like that.)
My grandmother, though, was named Elna, and that was a name I couldn't find anywhere, no matter how hard I hunted. Not one to be dissuaded, I told her that one day I would find her something with her name on it. She always told me I'd have to get it made special, but that answer didn't satisfy me. No, I insisted, I will find it myself.
But there's no real sense being coy about it any longer. You know where this is going.
journal entry - early february 2011
up until a few weeks ago, i had a grandmother.
on january 30, 2011, she died.
a few days prior, she had a sudden heart attack and went into a coma. by the time the ambulance got there, she’d been without oxygen for too long. so they made the decision to take her off life support.
the thing is, she’d been diagnosed with diabetes a couple of weeks before. but she was doing really well. and it didn’t have anything to do with her death. they all said she was healthy.
i saw her two days before she died. in the hospital, her hair was slicked back in a weird way. blood kept coming out of her mouth past the ventilator, and dad kept cleaning it up. he told her i was there, like she could hear me. i don’t know if she actually could.
i got the last letter she wrote me on what turned out to be the day she had her heart attack. i still have that letter, but reading it makes me cry now.
the last time i called her was the saturday before. i said i loved her, which is about the only piece of comfort. i was going to call her the day of her heart attack, but i figured i’d just do it that weekend. and then she died.
i cried a lot at her funeral. the only other person who did was her neighbor. seeing her cry made me feel better.
i miss her so much. she was the family member i was closest to. she was the only one i knew wouldn’t judge me.
she was proud of me for going to college, but she had no idea i’m failing out. my parents told me that now i have to do better for her, but i still can’t. because i’m that weak.
i feel like i’m about to cry again writing this. and i probably will once the other person sitting here leaves.
i just don’t understand why it had to be her.
To say I did not take it well would be an insulting understatement.
I was in my freshman year of college at the time, failing out fast and realizing how little I wanted to be there even faster. I was in the very beginnings of what would become an on-and-off relationship of around six years. My best friend at the time was being abused by her boyfriend, a man who'd threatened to kill me and probably could have done it. So that was all happening. But it was funny how quickly all of those things stopped mattering.
I remember not being able to stop crying at the funeral. I remember someone coming up to my grandfather and not knowing what to say, and his response was, “There's nothing you can say.” I remember my mom telling me I could pick where we ate after the service; I chose Pizza Hut, and my mom laughed and said Grandma would have expected me to pick that place. I remember not going to another class that semester. I remember cutting my inner thighs, then pulling leggings over the cuts and feeling satisfied with the way it hurt. I remember the numbness that followed after that relationship went off, after my best friend stopped talking to me, and I remember it growing into a vast pit that I could have thrown dump trucks worth of garbage into without it ever being full. But for the most part, those first few months afterwards are a blur. I was journaling at the time, but most of those writings wound up getting deleted when I couldn't stand to look at them anymore.
Things got a little better after those months, once I had things like homelessness and crazy friends and my loss of virginity to distract myself with. Scar tissues formed everywhere in my brain, aching when I saw my grandfather again, or when I reread my grandmother's obituary. For years I couldn't stand to see anything that reminded me of her, a blanket that, I'm ashamed to admit, included my grandfather. He would eventually develop dementia, move into assisted living, and pass away almost exactly five years later. Speaking to him was a whole other can of heartbreak, and I will always regret that I didn't talk to him as much as I could have during the last years, even if he flipped between thinking I was a little girl and thinking he'd given me his old car when he hadn't.
I miss her. What else have I really said here? I miss her so much that I can't stand it. I miss calling her. I regret not asking her more about her life, or about how to can peaches, or if she could teach me how to sew. Even after years and years of living in a reality where she isn't alive, I can't completely wrap my head around it.
I feel like she was the only family member who never judged me on anything, but I realize full well that this may be the idealism talking. I don't know how she would have taken my failure at schooling or my sexuality struggles or the extreme cynicism that makes up nearly everything I write, because she never got to find out. I like to think she would have been proud of me for taking that childhood dream of mine and stubbornly shoving it in the back until it became a reality just to shut me up, but at the same time, I would only have ever showed her the tamest of my tame works. I like to think she would have told me it was okay not to succeed at school, despite my mom insisting that she not find out about my poor grades, but maybe that's just because no one else ever told me that.
Everyone has this story, it seems. It's one of the most timeless tales of all: A close relative passes away and it changes your life forever. It probably only seems unique to me because I'm entirely too close to it by definition.
She was cremated, and her ashes eventually ended up buried with my grandfather once he passed away, in a veterans cemetery that was coincidentally in the same town I lived in at the time. It was a bit weird going to visit, especially since they didn't actually have gravestones; they had what I would describe as two plaques on a giant brick full of them. I've never been the type to leave flowers, so I suppose it worked out, and it was nice to finally have something concrete (no pun intended) to visit.
I've gotten to a point where I can sit next to the fact that my grandmother is no longer here. I can exist with it. Sometimes it's hard still. Like when I walked into the laundry room of my latest apartment complex and the smell reminded me of her house. Or when Dad handed me a book of memories that she'd kept for me since I was born, with a note in the front saying that she was proud of me and would always be there for me. It's hard. I don't know if I'll ever be over it, exactly. I don't know if there is such a thing as that. But I'm still going.
A few months after she died, I went looking on the Internet for something with the name Elna on it. It turned out to be a brand of sewing machine, with the name printed on the side.
I told my parents about it. My mom, at least, was able to laugh and find the humor in it. I barely got through the conversation without crying.