My grandmother passed away this week. She was ninety-five. It was not a shock. A few weeks ago she was hospitalised for what was believed to be kidney failure. It all went south from there: infections, rehabilitation, a fall from a hospital bed, refusal to eat, collapsed veins, delirium. These things happen. Her name was Roma. She was my paternal grandma. She had three children. Until she birthed her first, she thought babies came out of your belly button. She liked tinned peaches with ice cream. Last week, lying in her palliative bed, she said, ‘There’s not enough hours in a day. Or we’re greedy – I’m not sure which.’ She was ready to go. I was ready for her to go, too. I only wish it didn’t have to be so graceless.
When Roma went into hospital, we knew what was coming. It was a time of weird suspension.
The grief started before she’d gone. If that sounds crass, I’m sorry. In the days before she passed I felt as if there were tiny signs everywhere. On the train one morning I finished a Marguerite Duras novel. On the last page the man says, I wish you were dead, and the woman says, I am. That was one sign. The tragedy of the disappeared MH370, lost somewhere at sea, was another. Alain Resnais melting into night and fog. A dead cat on the footpath on Punt Road, outside the Alfred, which I saw three days in a row.
Gardenias were Roma’s favourite flower. She had them in her wedding bouquet. My parents have a few gardenia plants in their front yard. They flowered late this year. We kept taking cuttings to the hospital. In the last picture I took of Roma, she is lucid, smiling. She is holding a bloom in one hand and a mobile phone in the other, on the line to my dad.
On Wednesday, my mother said, ‘I know it’s dumb, but I reckon she’ll go when the gardenias are finished. There’s one more left on the plant.’ That was in the morning; Roma was gone by the afternoon. The gardenias are finished for the year. That was another sign.
I come from a family of pragmatists. I don’t know if I believe in signs and signals, but sometimes it helps to make constellations of them. That was a tip I made up just now. This stumbling through grief is new to me.
A week before Roma died, my mother and I sat on the couch together, weepy-eyed with exhaustion. She said, ‘She’s the first person who’s died who I’ve actually cared about. I’m going to miss her.’ We held each other. She went on: ‘I remember when I told her I was pregnant. She said: Aren’t you clever! – and I felt like I was.’
These pre-emptive elegies. We were like bowerbirds in our mourning, collecting those exquisite memories, and she wasn’t even gone yet.
The first story I ever had published was, in part, about a man waiting for his elderly mother to pass. I wrote: it was a clumsy vigil of grief and boredom. Now I know that is exactly what it’s like. I wonder how I knew the words for it before. It makes me think we must intuit some things or have some imaginative capacity for bereavement.
I read books about death; I see films; I look at art. I’ve been to enough funerals: parents of friends, friends of parents. I know, intellectually, how it works.
But this is all new. I’ve been getting hung up on the small, fresh things. I didn’t know that being treated palliatively would mean Roma would stop receiving fluids. It seems so barbaric. I didn’t know what it would be like to see her tiny bird-heart thumping obstinately beneath the skin of her chest. I hadn’t anticipated the awful waterlogged noises her breath would make. I didn’t know how much I would laugh at her delirium.
So it’s like feeling my way down a dark corridor in a weird house, maybe one built by Gaudí. I’ve got a rough idea where I am going, but things are stranger than usual.
There are different species of grief. I’m trying to draw comparisons here. I’m trying to make links between Roma in her hospital bed, hands folded beneath a starched sheet, smooth cheeks, and other strains of sorrow.
My friend moved back to Melbourne, left her fella in Berlin. We’re unemotional, her and I. We sink pints, we go out to dance to dirty rock’n’roll, we make jokes of things.
I’m thinking of us standing in her narrow kitchen, each drinking a glass of water. Her by the pantry, me by the sash window, performing a relevé with bare feet.
We were talking, but I was thinking about the image of women standing opposite each other in a kitchen, the unavoidable domesticity of the scene. I set my glass in the sink. I stopped by broken tiles at the back door. I said, ‘I’m going to go and change my tampon. I can’t work out if you’re really depressed …’
She paused, then shook her head.
‘No, I’m not really depressed. I just have to get it together.’
The stare hung between us. I stepped over the tile, in a million pieces. I went out the back to the dunny. There was nothing else I could say to make her feel better. The light was just leaving the air. The warmth was just dropping out of it. There is heartsickness, like that.
There is existential grief. I’m thinking about my friend and me sitting opposite each other at her dining table to do our work. She said in a tired, dry way, ‘They’re not getting any tenders. They don’t even have to fire me. My contract will just expire, and that’ll be that.’ I was flicking between an editing job and a manuscript report, not doing much of either. We were looking at our computers more than each other. I’d gotten so sad. She said, ‘When you’re really done, I’ll help you. We’ll go out and get some good heroin. We can steal shit. Then you can do it, and I’ll go and live somewhere in South-East Asia where they can’t find me. But I just don’t think you’re there yet.’ Her face was bluish in the light of her computer screen. I thought that maybe it wasn’t up to her, but I didn’t say that.
I’m thinking about my sister and me sitting topless on her bed, giving each other massages. Her little spider knuckles.
She said, ‘What do you think the last day of the world will be like?’
‘That won’t happen in our lifetime,’ I said.
‘But there has to be one last person in the world. Even if it’s just for a millisecond,’ she said, and we were cold and taking it in turns to work the knots out of each other and my face was to the wall and it was cold, too. Things reeled on. It didn’t last forever. That sort of astral bleakness has to have an expiration date. Which doesn’t make it any easier but at least you know.
There is that bizarre shared grief, that collective response to devastation. An Iranian man is killed in a detention centre and we light candles for him in our helpless frustration and guilt. A woman’s body is found in a field and suddenly blokes I don’t know are warning me to take care when I leave the pub late at night. News of a polio epidemic in Syria on the television in the doctor’s waiting room; we exchange grim glances.
That is another kind.
Now we are talking about the funeral, what we want to say and so on. I’m afraid I’ll neglect an important part of her, that I’ll tell the stories in the wrong way. After she died she looked younger than she had in years. I understood the meaning of the phrase at peace. I wonder what I’ll remember of this strange fortnight in a year. In ten years. I think I’ll remember my mama saying, ‘You look beautiful, Roma,’ when she was lying there, nasal cannula on, struggling for air, pale green eyes, jugular vein throbbing.
In the end it happened very slowly and quietly. The evening that she passed, I left the hospital and drove down to Cape Schanck. The dusk was long and excruciatingly beautiful.
I have a copy of Kahlil Gibran’s The Prophet given to me by Roma some years ago, when I was still in school.
She has underlined in pencil: ‘The noontide is upon us and our half waking has turned to fuller day, and we must part. And if our hands should meet in another dream we shall build another tower in the sky.’
She has underlined: ‘And ever has it been that love knows not its own depth until the hour of separation.’
These are new lessons I am learning. There are no rules for modern suburban grief. I wish it didn’t have to be so graceless.
I think that’s all I want to say about it, now or ever.
Overland is a not-for-profit magazine with a proud history of supporting writers, and publishing ideas and voices often excluded from other places.
Subscribe | Renew | Donate November 9–16 to support progressive literary culture for another year – and for the chance to win magnificent prizes!