My Grandma Hazel used to talk about the “lightness” of people. “Lightness” was a word used to express people’s angelic qualities: their generosity, sensitivity to others or peacefulness. “Oh, the lightness of her,” she would say to my dad often, referring to me as she sighed and simultaneously tried to make herself more comfortable within the constraints of her wheelchair.
Hazel died while I was still young, and I do not have very many memories of her. All I can recollect is brief snippets. I remember riding up and down the elevators at the hospital with my Granddad while Grandma was hospitalised. I remember the smell of the hospital ward: a combination of sterility and warmth as the two dissonant scents of powerful bleach and vegetable soup from the hospital kitchen wafted and mingled together. I recollect grandma’s wet kisses, which were meant to convey fondness and affection, but which to the receiver felt something more akin to being licked by a drooling pooch. Grandma never read books to me or played games as I was in many ways an adult, even at my raw, innocent age. Instead we sat, the three of us – Grandma, Dad and I – and had grown-up conversations. Mostly Grandma talked to my dad about her worries about our transportation. While we weren’t destitute, we didn’t have much money. Oftentimes we didn’t have a car, but sometimes Dad would manage to assemble $200, and we would go and buy a used vehicle off the lot. Each one came with a certain set of mechanical issues and this worried grandma immensely, and used to provoke long conversations about our respective safety.
Multiple Sclerosis is the name of the autoimmune disease my grandma had, and it was from observing the impacts of this disease upon her that I gained my first glimpse into the world of disabilities. My grandma loved crossword puzzles, and for her they were a measure of her illness on a daily basis. Some days Hazel would be able to grip a pen with her fingers and thumb and do her puzzles, yet on other days her muscles simply would not obey these basic commands.
When Grandma died, I inherited a bunch of half-completed puzzle books, filled with writing that was at times clear and discernible, although the greater portion of times it plummeted into an indecipherable mess of squiggly, jerky lines. I kept those books for several years and labouriously completed the puzzles she had been unable to finish. In doing so I felt that I was allowing her presence to linger with me, maintaining our fragile connection.
We were nearly late to her funeral, Dad and I. We woke up on the day of the funeral and realised I had nothing to wear, as I didn’t own a dress. I suggested to my dad that I just wear pants, but he insisted that wasn’t appropriate attire for the occasion. So we rushed downtown to a second-hand clothes shop, where my dad picked out a long-sleeved, floor-length red fabric dress which he deemed to be suitably solemn. When we arrived at the funeral parlour, the funeral director and minister were nervously pacing and looking at their watches, keeping alert for our arrival. They ushered us inside and seated us promptly in the front row, as the organist started playing “What a friend we have in Jesus”.
I seldom cried as a child, but between the hymns and eulogies I wept copiously. I wept with gratitude for the brief sliver of light my grandma had provided and enabled me to imbibe in my otherwise bleak world, and I wept with sorrow for the light now extinguished and the darkness closing in on my claustrophobic being. Then my aunt handed me a handkerchief from her oversized purse and said, “It will be all right” in a hushed tone, the ways adults typically try to console children with clichéd platitudes.
The funny thing though was that she was right — eventually it was okay. Maybe as I got older the loss of my grandmother was superseded by other problems. Or perhaps, despite my intense dislike of overused sayings, I became aware over time that sometimes such things are repeated so frequently through the generations because they distil an essence of truth amidst the chaos of life and loss.
Michelle is something of a goals freak, hence she is welcoming in 2013 by writing a mammoth list of aims and desires. She also recently joined Twitter. You can follow her there at @MichelleBunt1