In Memoriam: Grandma Carolyn

The butter in the cast iron skillet crackled and bubbled as I adjusted the temperature, creating a lazy yellow stream as it snaked across the pan. I carefully placed the soft bread in the hot lava, layering sliced American and sprinkles of Cheddar with just a hint of garlic powder. The house, usually brimming with the cacophony of our five children, was uncharacteristically quiet. And, as the quiet gently proffers, my thoughts able to tumble about, blessedly uninterrupted.

Suddenly, there we were. I was four and sitting on her daybed. She breathed rhythmically, with the short, jagged breaths of end-stage COPD. The cannula never helped much. We were watching the Price is Right and they were playing Plinko – my favorite. I had a grilled cheese on my plate that Papa made for me, and she sipped her hot, steamy beef consomme’ and nibbled at some saltine crackers. She didn’t eat much anymore, but she always let me have some of her saltines.

During her many hospitalizations, I’d visit and ask for her yeast roll from her lunchtime meal. She always saved them for me. Looking back, I know now it was probably the most palatable morsel on her tray, yet she always saved them for me. She was always doing that: saving the best for me. She made sure there were Lucky Charms ever-present in her pantry. She had an infinite supply of Oreos. When my crayons broke, they went into a bucket - she’d use the broken ones and let me have the others. She sewed me the cutest clothes, and hand sewed the clothes for my Cabbage Patch doll. She even made us matching dresses! She paid a fortune for professional pictures of me every year, and spent another small fortune developing roll upon roll of candid shots. Papa wasn’t happy about the fortune-spending. She didn’t care.

One afternoon, late in my kindergarten year, I made another get well card for her as I rode home on the bus. The bumps in the road caused my printing to squiggle, but she wouldn’t mind. She never minded when I made a mistake, not even the time I walked backwards into her hot iron (though she definitely dreaded telling mom about it!) She would love this card, I knew, because I asked some of my bus friends to sign it too. I couldn’t wait to show her when we visited later! She could add it to her collection of cards from me on her hospital room wall. Maybe she’d even have a roll for me.

But she didn’t. Because when I showed my mom the card that day, she very bravely told me we couldn’t go see her. In fact, we wouldn’t see her again until we saw her with God in Heaven. “Because, Wendy…” Here she took a ragged breath. “Grandma Carolyn died today.”

Died. My Gummaw. My best friend. Died.

Fast forward to all these years later, and grief poured out as I gripped my granite countertops and sobbed with the overwhelming desperation of just wanting to see her again, forever, with Jesus. My sandwich was burning, and so was my heart – consumed with a desire to see her face, to snuggle next to her, to hear her voice. To never, ever be separated from her again. When I caught a glimpse of the calendar off the kitchen and realized there remained mere days until the 30th anniversary of her death? I turned off the stove and cried until my chest ached with a searing pain that matched my longing for Heaven – and her.

Thirty years since I’ve seen her face, with the perfectly arched eyebrows that would shoot up to her hairline if she caught you doing something you shouldn’t. Thirty years without her yelling “ACK!” when I spilled something (or backed into an iron). Thirty years since we watched the Sound of Music together, and she taught me to sing “Do-Re-Mi” with Julie Andrews. Thirty years since she laughed at me dipping my Oreo into my milk and nibbling all the way around the logo. Thirty years of life she’s missed. Thirty years of my life I’ve missed her.

Once, in front of a roomful of people, when I was giving a very personal talk on how God used my crisis pregnancy to enflesh my hardened heart, I felt what I believed to be her presence in a powerful way. As I spoke, I sensed a voice speaking in my soul – “She’s here, Wendy. And she is so incredibly proud of you. She’s beaming!” I didn’t even have to wonder who it was the voice was talking about. I just knew.

In his encyclical On Christian Hope – Spe Salvi – Pope Benedict XVI writes:

“The belief that love can reach into the afterlife, that reciprocal giving and receiving is possible, in which our affection for one another continues beyond the limits of death – this has been a fundamental conviction of Christianity throughout the ages and it remains a source of comfort today.”

Of course, I don’t know for sure that she’s in Heaven. I pray for her soul often (would you pray with me?) Still, I hope. Oh how I hope! Hope is often the only thing that keeps me going most days. Because of course, she’s not the only one I grieve. There have been many, many others. There are many, many more to come. Hope has been and will be my constant companion, holding me while the snot and the tears and the unspeakable pain cascade from my body.

And she will dry my eyes.


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