Eulogies always leave me feeling vaguely depressed. When Steve Jobs passed away, newspapers, magazines, television, and the internet had nothing but wall-to-wall praise for the man. How much nicer it would have been, I thought, if he were still alive to read it. Why do we wait until someone dies before talking about all the good they’ve done in life?
Regret. That was the first emotion I felt after hearing the news that my grandmother had died (a week ago today.) My mom told me two days before that her parents had just celebrated their 69th wedding anniversary. “Why don’t you give your Mema a call tomorrow and wish her a happy Mother’s Day?” I could have. I should have. All the time zones between Australia and North Carolina aren’t excuse enough for why I didn’t.
In my sadness, I think no one could possibly understand how I feel, but that’s not exactly true, is it? Probably most of you have felt the same sense of regret, of sadness, of loss. If only I’d visited one last time. If only I’d told her I loved her when last we spoke. If only she were still here.
This pain feels so personal, so unique to my situation, but in reality, most everyone can relate to losing a grandparent. I’m luckier than most. I knew six of my eight great-grandparents (though their faces and personalities have faded from memory since childhood) and I almost made it to forty years of age before losing my first grandparent. Not many can say that.
My grandmother was one of my favorite people in the whole world and I daresay I was one of hers, too. Her love for all her grandchildren was unconditional, but I believe there was a special place in her heart for me, if only because I was her first. I was the one to give her the name “Mema.” If not for my trouble with pronunciation, we might be referring to her today as “grandma” or “granny” or, who knows? Maybe even “Mama Jean.”
Mema didn’t have a college degree, nor did she ever have a career outside the home. In fact, she often bragged about earning only $25 her entire life, which she received after selling two of her paintings. Nevertheless, I learned many valuable life lessons from her, because, like most of our grandparents, she was full of wisdom.
I’ll always remember a talk we had about pre-marital sex. (It’s not what you’re thinking – it wasn’t a lecture!) Mema was against pre-marital sex… but not for any of the reasons you’d expect. It wasn’t about living in sin, contraception, teenage pregnancy or deadbeat dads – all the things we’re bombarded with from school, from church, and from our peers. No. Mema’s argument had to do with love.
“Imagine you have sex out of wedlock with a girl you really love,” she said. “And despite all your precautions, she ends up pregnant.”
It was an uncomfortable sort of talk (with me being an awkward, nerdy teenager and all), but then uncomfortable talks with Mema weren’t all that uncommon…
“Now imagine that you want to ask her to marry you,” she continued. “Not because she’s pregnant, but because you actually love her. No matter what you say to her, no matter how true your love, she will always wonder if you proposed out of a sense of obligation.”
That conversation affected me deeply. Not that I was in any danger of getting a teenager pregnant, mind you… It was just that Mema had given me a revelation about the dangers of pre-marital sex – about the nature of relationships in general – that seemed so right. And she did it without resorting to all that scare-tactic bullshit we’re used to, too.
I’m sure there are other examples of wisdom she passed on to me, but as I sit here fighting my grief, I can’t think of a single one. That’s okay. We should all be so lucky to have grandparents who give us even one insight that changes our entire whole world view.
(If you were wondering, the best piece of wisdom granddad ever gave me was, “Don’t lend money to friends or family; if you can afford to, just give it to them when they ask. If they think it’s a loan and pay it back, that’s all well and good, but it’s not worth putting the relationship in jeopardy when they can’t – or won’t – return your money! “)
Almost two years ago, Mema caught pneumonia and had a heart attack while she was in the hospital. We almost lost her then and, for awhile, it seemed like she would never make a full recovery. My wife and I took three months out of our vacation to help care for her. I doubt I’ve ever spent that much uninterrupted time with my grandparents and it was by turns stressful, embarrassing, and wonderful. Seeing Mema in that condition was terribly difficult, but if I had it all to do over again, I wouldn’t trade that time for anything.
When Oksana and I left on our year-long, round-the-world trip, I was very much aware of the possibility that I would never see Mema again. I told my mother that if the worst were to happen, I would probably not be able to make it back. But after we left, Mema’s health improved beyond anyone’s expectations. She was removed from Hospice care. I began to tell myself that we could live a year in Australia and she would still be waiting for us in Hertford, or perhaps in Nags Head, when we eventually came home.
If not for Skype, I would be inconsolable right now. I can’t tell you how much my wife and I enjoyed watching her health improve during our periodic video conferences from around the world. Despite her shouting into the microphone until it distorted, and even if, in every call – every single call! – she tried to passive-aggressively badger us into giving her some great-grandkids already, we enjoyed every minute we saw her on screen.
And I know that the last time we talked, I told her that I loved her. At least there’s that. Even if I’d somehow forgotten, however, there would be no regrets on that point. She knew I loved her. She always knew.
I’m sad today, but not for Mema. Some years ago, she came back from a near-death experience and ever since has had no fear of what lies beyond. She had more time than any of us expected and she died at home with her husband of 69 years. The sadness I have isn’t for her. It’s for granddad, who remains behind. It’s for Oksana and me, who can’t make it back for the memorial service. It’s for my mom, who won’t be able to Skype with her every morning. It’s for all of us, who now have an emptiness in our lives that can never be refilled.
When I was little, Mema taught me to look up at the moon. “No matter where you are,” she said, “You can look up at the moon it will remind you of your Mema. And wherever I am, I can look up at the same moon and I’ll think of you.” It’s been years since I’ve looked up at the moon and thought of it being anything other than just the moon, but when it rises tonight, I know who I’ll see there.
You’re my moon, Mema. I love you.