HELEN ELIZABETH CANNON, (April 20, 1921 – November 15, 2011)
Ninety and a half years old.
She would insist that I include the half year. And so I have.
Recently, I went in search of a book I knew I had. A book my grandmother gave me when I was visiting one summer, when I was fifteen years old. The book is old, with slick yellowed pages of best quality paper, and a blue canvas hard cover, fraying around the corners.
That summer, which seems immediate and distant now, I was standing at the bookshelves in my grandparents’ living room, struggling with my emotions. My beloved grandfather was in his last summer, and, at fifteen, I was trying hard to accept that he would be gone from my life soon.
I reached out and pulled this blue book off the shelf. I’d seen it many, many times, but it had no title. I’d never actually opened it before. When I finally did open it that summer I found page after page of fountain pen writing, very neat and tidy. It was my grandmother’s younger self, speaking from the pages. Every page was filled with thoughts and quotes, a lot of poetry. This was the first time I realized that she loved Edna St. Vincent-Millay. She also quoted Rumi and Dickenson, Shelley and Wilde, Frost and Blake.
My gramma found me there, still standing, reading her handwritten lines. She had started the book when she was young and wrote in it for about twenty years, off and on.
She said, “I don’t know why I’ve kept it all these years, it’s just a bunch of poems I have in so many other books now.”
She gave me the book. And I have kept it always. The lettering in the book is neat and careful. In my mind’s eye, I can easily envision my teenage grandmother’s past self, writing each line and blowing on it to make sure it wouldn’t smear. (I also include candlelight in this imaginary scene, although I know that their house had electricity. The Emotional Brain Imager has it’s own ideas of how to paint a picture, I guess.)
Last night she died. Those are hard, gut-wrenching words to write. But she has passed. Finally and definitely. Out of pain and out of confusion. She always said, for as far back as I can remember, “Don’t let me live too long.” In terms of her health, she passed that point a few years back.
Now that she’s free from her body, my imagination indulges me. I like to think of her as going back to her vital self. The gramma of the 1970s, strong and capable, a writer and an artist, a woman who could do things. She was always trying new things and she worked hard to get good at them, not dropping them the minute they presented a challenge. I learned this from her.
She didn’t necessarily like to cook, but she believed it was a skill a person should have. A person should know how to cook in a real way too: know where things come from, learn to grow food, learn to preserve food, learn to turn raw material into delicious food, with a minimum of fuss. She learned in Europe, Japan, from her relatives and friends. I learned these things from her.
A woman should be more than her face. She should have intellect, wit and substance – because looks will fade. I learned this from her.
A woman should be more than she seems. She should educate herself and pursue her dreams. I learned these things from her.
A person should be curious and expose herself to new things and new cultures. I learned this from her.
Write it all down. This I also learned from her.
I could go on. Really, I could.
The heroes of my life have been my mother and my grandma & grampa Cannon. My grandma and grampa are both gone now, and I like to think of them as together again. Telling each other what to do. Stealing kisses in the kitchen when they think I don’t see.
My mother, her brother & sister, my brother and me – we are left behind. My uncle, aunt and my mother have lost their mom. My brother and I have lost our gramma. I know for a fact that none of us are sad that she’s out of pain and misery. I guarantee that none of us are sad that she’s finally allowed herself to quit fighting. One of the hardest things on earth is to watch someone you love suffering. No. We are so glad that she’s out of pain. We are mourning the loss of her. I know the distinction may seem muddy, but for me it is crystal clear. I am not sad that she’s gone, I’m cut to the quick that she is GONE.
I spent five weeks in Arizona, caring for my gramma, this summer. I would get so angry with whatever was allowing her to be scared and in pain. She would say, “Why am I still here? Why can’t I just go?”
She knew that she had lived too long, by her own definition. While there is a part of me that would forever cling to her living, just to know that she was still of the earth with me, I felt a deep resentment against whatever it was that wouldn’t let her go.
There should be a fucking prize at the end of a life as long and good as hers. Not Alzheimer’s.
I knew when I was leaving that it was the last time I would ever see her. I felt it. It was the hardest goodbye I think I’ve ever said. I suppose it is because I really couldn’t say goodbye. At ninety (and a half), in the advanced stages of Alzheimer’s, goodbyes were confusing and painful for her.
So, the very last time I saw her, at the end of our conversation, I said, “I’ll be back in just a bit, okay?”
I think I could drive myself crazy thinking about all the things I’d rather have told her. How truly important she has been to the formation of who I am. Yes. That’s a good one. How valued she is as a role model. Yes. Another good one. How much I’ll miss her.
Instead, I choose to know that she knows. She does. I take real comfort in the habits of my family, for telling each other how we care for each other and value each other in the moment, instead of waiting for another “more appropriate” time. I know that over the years, I expressed fully to my grandmother, many many times, just what she meant to me.
I learned that from my mother. To say the words now.
I love you, Gramma.
Rest easy, we’ll take it from here.
See you in just a bit.