One year ago today, we celebrated what we didn’t know would be your last birthday with us in the flesh. I remember debating whether or not I would be able to make a 24 hour trip happen so I could be there. I came to the conclusion that I would never forgive myself if this was your last one and I hadn’t been there, while also grieving the fact that we had reached the point where this was a legitimate thing to consider.
I have a lot of regrets in life, but I am thankful that missing one more celebration of your life before standing here reading you this letter is not one of them.
You being gone still doesn’t feel real, most days. I never thought I would have to say goodbye without being able to hug you, to hold your hand, to look into your eyes and tell you how much you mean to me.
I don’t think I ever let myself believe that day would come at all, if I’m being honest.
Death is inevitable; we all knew this day would come. But we were spoiled with a strong, sharp, wonderful woman as a mother, a grandmother, a great grandmother, a great great grandmother – who convinced us otherwise because she hardly aged over the years.
“Oh yeah,” people said. “She’s still driving, still living by herself, still getting around pretty good for a little granny.”
And it was true. You got around better and longer than most. Up until your health reached the point where you could no longer live alone safely anymore, there were few signs that you too, were in fact, susceptible to age. Your transition into assisted living was about the time I would cry every time I said goodbye to you after a visit.
I remember one visit specifically. Zinni was two months old and you were meeting her for the first time. Your shaky hands held her on your lap. I came close to help hold her up and you looked right in my eyes, smiled reassuringly, and said, “Don’t worry Sugar, I’ve got her.” Tears filled my eyes. It was as if we were acknowledging together the slow, but now suddenly tangible process over the years of you going from being the one to steady my shaky young hands, to you being acutely aware of the fact that I was now the one there to steady yours. You took care of me and held me up exactly like you were holding up my own baby right in front of my eyes. A lot of your mind had left you at this point, but not enough to miss the significance for both of us that you lived to meet my babies.
As soon as you said that, we both laughed, you cackling your Granny Goose laugh that only you can. The laugh we would all do anything to hear one more time.
You then looked at her and asked me her name.
I held back tears. Tears of grief that you had heard her name already, but I couldn’t be there often enough for you to remember like you used to.
“Zinni,” I answered. “Short for Zinnia.”
We talked a few more minutes, and then you asked me again.
And again, and again, and again.
It took everything in me not to switch spots with Zinni and break down in your lap and weep. I was watching the one who was once my caregiver being the one in need of care. It was apparent that we had come one step closer to you not being here.
It was a taste of the very thing I’d spent my life trying not to think about. The whole age and death thing was not supposed to happen to you.
Grief still holds more weight than gratitude when I think of you. Saying goodbye to you on was the hardest thing I’ve ever done. Some moments still feel like I just got off that FaceTime call. A lot of moments, I actually still find myself in that moment once again and the unrelenting grief that I can’t pick up the phone and hear your voice say, “Hi sugar!” consumes every ounce of me.
Even in your last, hardest days when you didn’t quite know which one of us was who, you knew our voices and that it was one of your people on the other end of the phone.
Grief has not stolen my ability to enjoy you in the memories and the pictures and the videos and the cards I have from you.
I think of you when I check out at the grocery store, and how you said yes every single time I asked for tic tacs. I always chose wintergreen because that’s what you got. It’s still my first choice.
When I eat peach cobbler – you made it one year for my birthday and it quickly became a favorite of mine. No one makes it like you did.
When I make my coffee every morning. When I was little and would sleepover at your house, I loved waking up early for coffee and the paper. I would put a little coffee in a full glass of French vanilla creamer and do the crosswords, while you drank actual coffee and read the actual newspaper.
When I discreetly try to get food out of my teeth, and how you had no shame in taking out a full set of dentures to clean them and thought we were the crazy ones for getting a good belly laugh.
When I garden.
When I bake.
When I play Mexican dominoes.
When I watch crime shows late at night.
When my girls lay pigeon toed on the bed.
When I pray.
In most things, really. Now more than ever, I think we all feel and see you in everything.
You are a part of us and we were a part of you, which is why we can both, smile and laugh, AND grieve and weep, at the thought of you.
You live on in each of us, but also left a hole in each of our hearts when you left the earth. A hole that will never be filled, but that will always remind us who you were, and who we are because of you.
We hold both.
We always will.
But when the sting of grief and death hits out of nowhere from time to time and the pain of you being gone feels too heavy, we will remember what you taught us, and that is this:
Grief and death do not have the final word. Jesus does. And because you raised us all to love him and love each other, there is not one thing that we cannot endure because we are never alone.
I love you, Gigi. Thank you for every precious moment you spent with me, for everything you taught me, for loving and supporting me unconditionally, and for being such a beautiful example of faith, strength, and love. Even though you are gone, your legacy will never be forgotten.