96: Traveling On

96: Traveling On

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: Grieving and Recovery

Traveling On

For death is no more than a turning of us over from time to eternity.

~William Penn

My mother’s mom passed away in early November of 2004. She’d traveled down to Florida to attend the elegant wedding of her great-niece, and it had been the first time in years she’d been able to make the long trip from her Chicago home. Everyone was shocked when a few short days after the wedding my grandmother’s heart stopped beating. Although it had been an abrupt shift from merriment to mourning, we were grateful to have had that final evening of celebration to share with her.

In the thirty days that followed her death, my family and I were delivered another devastating blow. My other grandmother, my father’s mother, became very ill.

I hadn’t been to visit since the death of my other grandmother, partly because it would force me to recognize her own mortality. To atone for my cowardice, I agreed to stay with her that night in the nursing home. She hadn’t wanted to be in a hospital; she’d made it clear that when her time came she’d wanted to go in peace.

The only times I permitted my eyes to close during the night were when I needed to wipe my tears away. Eventually the sun rose behind the December clouds, but I barely noticed.

A young woman from hospice arrived hours later, lifting the depressive atmosphere with her good spirit and jokes. She was the first person to put a smile on my face when she told me stories about the trouble my lively grandmother had brewed up only weeks before. It was when she was applying eye shadow to her closed lids that the woman leaned down and spoke softly into her ear. “What are you waiting for, sweetie? Why are you fighting so hard to hold on? It’s going to be okay.... ”

It was that moment I realized that I still clung to a spark of hope that my grandma would fight her way out of this illness like she had all of the others. My tears became a river.

My mother came later that morning and sent me home to get some sleep, but only a few hours passed before I was up again and heading back to the nursing home. My sister had also come that afternoon and the three of us were alternating between making jokes and experiencing fits of sorrow. A nurse sat quietly in the corner, respectfully not disturbing us.

That evening my grandmother finally gave up her fight. My sister and I each held one of her hands and told her we loved her over and over as she struggled for her last breath. I don’t know what she had been holding on for, and I doubt I ever will.

We held each other and cried as more nurses came in and took her body away. Reality has a tendency to come crashing in at awful times, and before they left they warned us to take anything of sentimental value. The looters would be out when word spread about her death.

Slowly we collected her belongings, allowing ourselves time to feel her lingering presence. Although we doubted anyone would want to steal them, we started to peel away the family pictures that covered the walls. As I moved her bed to get to some hard-to-reach photos, my mother let out a cry that made me jump.

“Oh my gosh! Do you smell that?”

Confused, I took a deep breath. The only thing I could detect was the stale aroma of mothballs and medicine. As I opened my mouth to ask what in the world she was talking about, the invisible cloud enveloped me too, with the most beautiful fragrance a person could imagine. I thought a bottle of perfume might have broken when I’d moved the bed, but we searched and searched. We never found the source.

The fragrance eventually faded for each of us. I was the first to lose it; my mother was next. My sister, who had been closest to my grandmother, told me later that it had lingered with her until we walked down the corridor, leaving the empty room behind us.

That evening I sat alone in my car and cried. When my eyes cleared enough to safely see the road, I turned the key and prepared to head home. The radio was already on, and I heard the beginning melody of Lynyrd Skynyrd’s “Free Bird.” I kept the car parked and cried the tears I didn’t know I had left as the words acquired new meaning. Things wouldn’t have been the same if she’d stayed, and there were things I couldn’t change. It was her time to travel on to the other places she had to see. Before I left the parking lot that night, my grandmother had let me know that now she was as free as a bird.

Skynyrd’s song on the radio may have been a coincidence, if one believes in those. But that beautiful perfume won’t ever be forgotten or explained. There aren’t many things I can say I know for sure, but my grandmother did settle one question for me that night. Death isn’t an ending. It’s a transition, and a new beginning.

~Rebecca Degtjarjov

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