In November we celebrated the feasts of All Saints and All Souls, remembering our loved ones who have passed from this life into the next. It wasn’t a surprise, but I found myself thinking about my grandma quite a bit in November this year. It has been over seven months since she passed away, but I still miss her.
Grandma lived to be 93 and a half years old. She would be quick to point out that 93 years is a long time. I am blessed to have known my grandma pretty well for 33 of her 93 years. The love that she shared with all of us in her family is deep, and I have very positive memories of her reaching back to my early childhood. She always made time to play with me as a kid, and she had a knack for keeping my sisters and me entertained with a mix of old toys, imaginative games, and creative things to do. As a kid, I liked going to Grandma’s house so much that when it was time to go home, I frequently hid somewhere in the house to keep from having to leave. Though this childish behavior frustrated my parents, it showed just how much I enjoyed spending time with her.
As I got older, I stayed close to Grandma even though the geographic distance between us increased. I wasn’t perfect at it, but I tried to make a point to stop by to see her when I could. Even during brief visits, conversation with Grandma always covered a lot of ground and reinforced my admiration of the sharp, intelligent person she was. When my busy young adult life made it impractical to stop by to visit, I sometimes used another of her preferred means of communication – mailing letters. She never learned to use a computer or email, but Grandma was good at the “old school” art of writing letters. She was the most reliable pen pal anyone could want, always writing back. I can’t say that I was always a great pen pal on the other side, but I did manage to collect a stack of letters that she wrote me from my time in high school, college, and after.
It would be wrong to write about Grandma without mentioning her incredible cooking and baking abilities. At holiday gatherings, we would all stuff our faces with a delicious meal of meat, potatoes, rolls, baked apples, and vegetables cooked entirely by Grandma (she refused to let anyone else help). Then would come dessert. Maybe it was natural talent or years of practice or both, but her pies were second to none. At each holiday, she would make at least three beautiful looking, perfectly shaped pies – and at least one would be strawberry (my favorite). She would also have a variety of perfectly circular cookies and a couple of ice cream rolls (think chocolate cake and vanilla ice cream rolled up together in a log shape). As Grandma would set out this dessert spread for us (arguably good enough to win most competitive cooking shows), she never missed a chance to apologize to us all about how dessert “didn’t really turn out” this time.
As much as I vividly remember playing, conversing, and eating, the most striking image I have of my Grandma is her quiet but confident witness of faith. In the living room of her house, images of Jesus and Mary hung on the wall not far from pictures of her children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren. When I was a kid, I remember sleeping over at her house one night. As I was falling asleep, she sat in the room with me, rocking in the chair, clutching her rosary, and quietly praying. Grandma lived her marriage vocation for 50 years and cared for my grandpa even as his health declined. She continued on another 18 years as a widow after he passed away, going to Mass most every day, both praying for and cooking for others in her small town until her own health began to fail.
Grandma’s lifetime faith witness was effective, yet it never seemed that she felt the need to be loud about it. Over the years, the small town she lived in changed around her. At times she found herself disagreeing with others with different world views or experiences. She did not vocally criticize or argue. She managed to treat everyone with respect even if she knew they were wrong, whether they were the neighbor or the pastor or someone she didn’t know very well. I never heard her say it, but I suspect that this was her way of trying to imitate Jesus with her life. From what I can tell and from what I heard people tell me about her when she passed, she did pretty well at it. Grandma set an example of being a witness to faith that I will spend a lifetime trying to emulate.
Earlier this year, I went to see Grandma at the nursing home a few weeks before she died. It was clear that she was declining and nearing the end. Her quick perception had slowed, and her sharp wit had dulled. She enjoyed watching my young kids play with the few toys that were stashed in her room (a pastime she greatly enjoyed in her last few years), but throughout the visit she struck me as deeply tired. Not the kind of tired that comes from lack of sleep, but a kind that seemed to reach down deeply into her bones, pushing her toward a very long, deep slumber. She seemed to be on the verge of slipping into this sleep, and thought I didn’t really want to admit it, I knew in my heart that this visit would be my last one with her.
When it was time for us to leave and after the rest of my family had said their farewells in the way that they usually would after a visit, I leaned in to say goodbye. I wasn’t really sure what to say, knowing that this was probably my last chance to say something with both of us on this side of life together. My family is formed in the stoic German mold where we do not openly talk about feelings and emotions. With the help of the Holy Spirit, I decided that the best thing I could do was push that aside for the moment and say the simple thing that for some reason does not come easily to us. I leaned in, gave Grandma a hug, and said “Bye, Grandma. I love you!” She looked at me carefully and mustered a slow, but very deliberate response. “I… have loved you… a long… time.”
My usual emotional restraint was shattered at that moment. I sobbed my way out of her room and into the car and, after a minute or two, pulled myself together enough to start the drive back home. Meghann and the kids were with me, but I had to drive for about an hour before I could gather enough strength to tell Meghann what Grandma had said to me. (As the reality of life with small children goes, during my emotional farewell to Grandma Meghann was holding our squirmy almost 1 year old and simultaneously trying to appease our 3 year old who was halfway out the door and continually asking us if we were ready to go yet)
Grandma passed away a few weeks after this, on Holy Saturday, the day before Easter. My dad asked me to give the eulogy at her funeral, and I humbly did my best to capture the grandson’s perspective on the amazing woman that she was in this life. We rode the whirlwind of emotion that comes with a family funeral, enjoying the highs of talking about the good times and walking through the lows that come with the reality of grief. We made it through with faith to the best of our abilities, entrusting her to God and taking comfort in the fact that after 18 years apart she is now once again with Grandpa.
I have heard many people say that grief comes in waves, and I think there is truth to that. In the past seven months, my parents, aunts, and uncles have worked hard to clean out Grandma and Grandpa’s house to prepare it for sale. Grandma and Grandpa don’t need it anymore, and someone new will hopefully build their own home in it soon. Going through their stuff has triggered varying waves of grief for all of us at unpredictable times. It’s not the stuff itself that causes the grief but the continual coping with her permanent physical absence in our life. We lean on our faith, which enables us to take comfort in the fact that God understands grief too. After all, Jesus himself wept at the death of his friend Lazarus. Remembering this doesn’t magically cure our grief, but it reminds us that we are not alone when the waves hit us. Most recently for me, Thanksgiving jogged new waves, as I simultaneously missed Grandma’s company and realized that it is now up to me to make the strawberry pie. I’m doing ok on the taste, but my pies don’t look as pretty as hers.
As much as grief can get us down, our faith reminds us that Heaven is actually not very far away. The communion of saints is a real thing. Not only are our loved ones who are united with God very close to us, they can still talk to us as God enables. This is true of canonized Saints like Blessed Adele and ordinary saints like Grandma. The feast days of All Saints and All Souls remind us of that every year.
Practically speaking, this reality means that I still see and hear Grandma from time to time. I have written previously about how I heard her voice as plain as ever telling me that she is ok this spring. More recently, Meghann, the kids, and I went to daily Mass on a Tuesday in October in our parish. It was near her birthday, and I was able to get the Mass intention for the day to be for Grandma. At some point during Mass I was holding my 18 month old daughter, and she was looking over my shoulder making faces at someone. She had the perfect little kid “I’m cute, and I know you are fussing over me and my cuteness” look on her face. I could not see anyone in the pew behind us, but I had a strong sense that Grandma was standing behind us, making playful faces back at my daughter and greatly enjoying the cuteness of her great-granddaughter. It’s what she would have been doing when she was physically here on Earth, and it is not hard to believe that she is doing the same thing on the other side.
Over the last seven months, I have begun to suspect that the passing of every loved one close to us will leave a permanent hole in our lives. The pain of grief and loss lessens over time, but the gap will still exist. Yet, our faith enables us to believe that life is not ended at death but changed. We are still the people we are now, but better when we cross over. I am becoming convinced that I will always miss Grandma, but that that’s ok. Faith enables me to believe that I will bump into her every sometimes while I am here and to hope that I will be in the same place with her again some day. When that happens I’m quite sure that the strawberry pies will be fantastic. After all, God has loved us a long time.