Reflections on attending the funeral of my grandmother

Todd Vanderwerff

Todd Vanderwerff

Her face, which was once scarred and blotted by bruises seems whole again, even newly-formed.

The last I saw of her, she had one large bruise under her eye, as though someone had spilled a bottle of blood and her skin had acted as a blotter, sopping it up, drinking it in.

In the still silence of my childhood church, she rests apart from the universe.

On this perfect and sunny Saturday afternoon, I have gathered with family and friends to commit my grandmother to the ground.

My cousin and I sing old hymns that speak of faith and the love of God, as has become the tradition at family funerals.

The words slide up into my throat, where I choke on them sorrowfully, lost in thought and emotion.

I don’t know how to navigate from this note to that note. Every rest is a minefield.

My grandmother deeply believed in these songs. Every word was committed to her memory. She read her Bible every day and played a couple of hymns, singing along in her aged voice.

The night before, my family gathered around a piano to sing the old hymns my grandmother loved so well to pay homage to her memory.

I could not be there.

I am tired of the prices I have paid for success. I work hard and take too many classes and miss out on so many things. Every thing changes and I stand on the sidelines, reporting on it.

The last time I saw my grandmother, I was with my fiancee. We trudged through the brilliantly white halls of the nursing home, which are perhaps designed to be antiseptic and void of emotion.

On this day, she is seated at a table, floating between consciousness and unconsciousness, hovering in a netherworld in which she has lived too long.

My fiancee, who has always been better with this sort of thing, launches into a merry chat with my grandmother about our wedding, the cherry pie the nursing home serves and playing the old hymns on the organ.

My grandmother insists that she has just spoken with her grandfather. I try to convince her that her grandfather died many years earlier and his house was torn down long ago too.

I cannot convince her that her memories are beginning to trample her reality.

And yet, she is having a good day. She remembers the names of all of her grandchildren and her three great-grandchildren. She talks at length about her great-granddaughter, who is just venturing into the world of walking and talking.

We all smile at a tale of the little girl.

Months later, at the funeral, my grandmother’s sister confuses me every time I see her. It is as though my grandmother has returned in her relative youth and vigor, ready to sit down with me at the organ and play for the hundredth time “Nuttin’ for Christmas.”

For a short time during the service, everything about my grandmother is marvelously specific in my mind. I remember the smell of old National Geographics in the basement and the taste of homemade vanilla ice cream.

I hear her laugh and look out of the corner of my eye, shocked to not find her.

Things change. People grow up. We inherit the mantles our parents inherited from their grandparents and carry them into the indeterminite future, hoping to pass them on yet again.

And yet, I feel as though I have missed too much. As though I am always running to catch up with her.

I fall short. I have been selfish and unloving and not giving of my time.

And yet, this is how she would have wanted it. I and her other grandchildren are all going on to wonderful things, carrying on the name she laid out for us so precisely like one of her delicate afghans.

We wrap that afghan around us, comfort from the cold, and step into the unknown.

Write to Todd VanDerWerff at [email protected].