Funny how seemingly small, inconsequential events can lead to our unpacking of deeper issues. A comment I made to Junwen about our friend’s kid who bawled his head off when his grandparents left started me down a meandering path that led to my own waterworks…The child’s tears that surprised me found their way to my own cheeks.
“I’m still thinking about how Jimmy* was crying so hard when he had to say goodbye to his grandparents the other night. I mean, I grew up partly raised by my grandparents, too, but I don’t ever remember crying when we had to say goodbye…Did you?” I don’t know why it was so curious to me, but I was interested to hear Junwen’s memories.
“Well, I cried when we moved out of Ah Ma‘s house.”
“Oh. What were the reasons for your tears?” I wondered if he cried because he moved from a big house to a small apartment, or if it was because he missed Ah Ma.
“I cried because I missed her. I grew up in her house. But, I would still go and have sleepovers after we moved. You had sleepovers at your grandparents’ house too, right?”
“Yes! They were so much fun. We’d sleep on cots down in the basement. Grandpa slept down there, too, and he snored so loudly…”
“I can still remember so clearly what Ah Ma would cook for us…Did your grandma do most of the cooking?”
“Yeah, I guess…but…I mostly remember going out to eat with her and grandpa to special restaurants.”
This conversation flooded my mind with memories of going over to Grandpa and Grandma’s. I dawdled there for awhile, but as so often, such thoughts also reminded me of Grandma’s passing from lymphoma when I was around 12-13 years old. I’ve always carried some guilt with me for not being with her more during her sickness. It was bothering me, as we sat over the dinner table last night, that I couldn’t remember much about her illness at all. I got up from the table to fetch my diaries to see if I had written anything down to record my feelings and experiences.
I came back to the table and started paging through the puppy and kitty covered journal. I laughed at some of the passages—so much angst in a 12 year old’s life! Oh, here’s an entry about Grandma…Hmm, it’s just about her buying me contacts…but the date seems like it must be close…I was disappointed to page through the entire year of her illness and not find anything at all…It was mostly junior high drama, family drama, what I was doing in school…I looked up at Junwen. “You know, the only thing I clearly remember about Grandma’s illness is one visit to the hospital…I remember the whole family was in there, but she was in a lot of pain and was crying out. I couldn’t bear it so I ran outside of the room to cry. I remember my Auntie Anne followed me out and hugged me, sharing in my tears. She said something to me, I can’t remember, maybe about it being so hard.”
I did find one entry on December 29, 1998, that read as follows:
Grandma Gabes is really tired. The doctors are treating her for lymphoma, and she’s recovering from a fall that broke her backbone. She’s really tiring out [my aunt], but she’s lonely, I think. I’m going to her house sometime this week to “write her tax sheets out.” She is unable to write, but I think it’s just an excuse to get one of her granddaughters over. We’re praying. =)
I never did go do her taxes…In fact I don’t know that I actually went over at all after that. I felt so guilty, and still do, although realizing that I was only 12 at the time makes me feel like I should give myself a little bit of slack.
It was months after her passing that I finally recorded something about it. I found the entry and read it aloud to Junwen, surprising myself with the tears that started to fall.
I haven’t written for a long time, so I have to tell you now. My Grandma Gabes died April 27, 1999. The only thing that keeps me from dying inside is that I will see her again in Heaven. As long as I keep thinking it’s more like she’s waiting for me to come home, it’s okay. I haven’t gone to her house since. It’s going to seem so lonely and different without her. We used to go out to Randall’s all of the time. She’d take me shopping at my birthday. She’s the reason I was able to play softball. I was her slugger. I wouldn’t have changed anything, except that I would have spent a little more time with her while she was still able to hear and speak with me. The night I found out she only had a little while, I cried really hard. Dad took me out on one of the jetties [similar to piers that jut out into Lake Michigan]. He told me how Grandma had a full life and stuff like that, but it was only salt in a wound. Grandma died around 3:00pm the night of the school music festival. My parents didn’t tell us until afterwards so we could still play and have fun. It was hard when I saw Grandma’s body at Ballhorn’s Funeral Home. I kissed her now hard, cold forehead, which was baby soft til the day she went to the Lord. I had read all these books about how people felt the coldness of the deceased, so I thought I prepared myself because I knew she would be cold. I was wrong. I just didn’t expect her to be so hard and cold, like a frozen bowling ball. I burst into tears then and Dad hugged me. Auntie Anne was real caring too, because she has a soft heart and also (of course) was Grandma’s daughter. It was sunny the day of her funeral, and we all took flowers and set it on her casket. Her children all took cherubs off of the casket. We also took roses for ourselves, and I dried mine.
After finishing the reading, I quickly returned to some of the other entries that had made me laugh in order to share them with Junwen and to lighten the mood. We had some good belly laughs, especially over some of the entries I had written around the second grade. Junwen went to practice piano, and I cleaned up the dishes. I then decided to take a selfie wearing the new Packers beanie hat that I bought with my Grandma’s Christmas money (my other grandma), so that I could send her a picture to show her what I got with her gift.
Working Through the Tears
This action seemed to contribute to my malaise, however, such that when Junwen emerged again I was feeling pretty awful. After he sat down in the rocking chair, I crawled up to him and, sitting between his feet, decided I would try to put my feelings into words in order to free myself from the heartsickness I was experiencing.
“Junwen…I don’t want my sadness to affect you and make you feel sad…but do you mind if I try sharing my feelings?”
I don’t know if he had any idea what I was talking about at that point, but kindly he answered in the affirmative.
I continued to bumble through my thoughts and feelings as the tears which, while trapped inside had made me feel heartsick, started escaping, fulfilling their purpose in carrying out the toxic feels. “I don’t know…I can’t explain it…but I guess the reminiscing unearthed some feelings that are normally hidden…Like, I thought that this year I had made progress with moving on and accepting that this is my life and that I can’t base it on other people…But I’m feeling very sad…Not regretful…and I know the sadness is illogical, because my brain knows that had my life not unfolded this way, we wouldn’t be together…But the part of me that just feels is right now wondering was all this worth it? I moved away from home over a decade ago…That’s a decade I could have spent taking my grandma [Van Der Puy] out to eat…I could have been visiting my grandpa…It’s just like my dream that I shared…”
In a recurring dream, I find out that my Grandma Gabes had been alive all of these years—her death had been faked—and I felt so mad and upset that I lost almost two decades with her. I had shared this with Junwen earlier when I finally understood its meaning…It could be easily translated to mean that I felt I had lost a decade with my living grandparents because I moved away. “All these years” that I could have spent with them, but lost, because I was gone. It’s not only a recurring dream, but a recurring conversation. I remember having it with my mom in Florida when I was considering grad schools, and the fact that life was taking me away from my small home city in Wisconsin. I shared with her that I wanted my grandpa to hold his granddaughter before he passed. Mom shared with me then that I couldn’t make my life decisions based on other people…I had to follow my own path.
Junwen had a similar response to me that night. After I kept saying, “I don’t know why I’m crying so much, I thought I had moved past this stage in grief…it’s been so many years…”, he kindly replied, “I don’t think the grief ever goes completely away. The sadness changes, but we will always miss the people who were so important to us. It’s not like they went on a ten-year vacation and are coming back…They’re gone, and we miss them. But I see that as a good thing…Just imagine if we didn’t feel sad—I think about people who had horrible childhoods and never want to think back on those times. I think it’s good that we look back every now and then and remember, and it’s good to let yourself feel those things…Those sad feelings just mean we had a lot of love in our life. That’s the thing about love…The more you have of it, the more painful it is. But we still need it.
“And you have to trust that God is taking care of your family in other ways…Your grandma still has joy in her life without you, that joy just comes from other people, her love for Jesus, her family…”
“Yes, you’re right,” I replied, “And I see how actually my feelings of guilt and sadness—although they appear to be focused on others—is actually quite self-centered. They’re based on the idea that I am the source of their joy and that I am causing them unhappiness…”
“Correct…You do, of course, bring them joy, but they have other sources of joy as well.”
“It’s also putting them ahead of God, in a way…It’s putting their happiness and what I perceive to be their wishes ahead of what I feel God is leading me to do. If I really do believe this is where I’m called to be, then to question it is to put myself or others before Him.” The tears had slowed down by this point.
Junwen continued, “You’re also dealing with grieving the death of identity…You shared with me how you never imagined yourself moving out of Wisconsin—at most, moving to Michigan—and how you were always a homebody who did stuff more with her family than friends. You’re grieving the loss of who you thought you were…I viewed myself the same way. I was always more family-oriented…”
“Interesting how we both ended up out here,” I laughed through my tears. “We’re so similar, and here we are both worlds away from our families.”
“Yes…but I believe God brought us together. Sometimes I also struggle being so far away from my family and being unable to help them…But I also have to trust that I am not their savior, and that God is taking care of them as well.”
We sat there for awhile quietly mulling over our thoughts. I couldn’t help but chuckle at how I had questioned Jimmy’s passionate grief over his grandparents’ departure for the evening, when here I was basically doing the same thing and feeling the same emotions. The well of tears may never dry, but perhaps that is not a bad thing.
I’ll end with a post my mom shared just today, which unbeknownst to her fell right in line with what I was going through just the previous night and what Junwen shared with me. “Grief never ends…but it changes. It’s a passage, not a place to stay. Grief is not a sign of weakness, nor a lack of faith…It is the price of love.”