Lessons from Loss

The other day I listened to the ceremony for the individuals killed at Ft. Hood. After the benediction, the Sergeant Major peformed final roll call. I understand that this is a tradition from the battlefields – that the sergeant in charge would call out the roll call to ascertain who was missing. As he called out each soldier’s name, a young voice, eager and strong, responded as loud as possible: "Here, Sergeant Major!" When he reached the name of one of the fallen, the listener heard only the echo of the sergeant’s voice over the amp system.

Death is like that. The person lives on in echoes: her sweater on the hook by the door, a lipstick smudge on a coffee cup, slippers under the bed. A favorite chair, a beloved pet, a family. My grandmother died early in the morning on Monday, November 9. She was just 82, having married young and her son, my father, followed in her footsteps, marrying my mother young as well. I live a couple of hours away and so weeks had merged into months between visits. I knew she’d been ill and kept thinking of driving down to see her and somehow it didn’t happen. So when my mother called to tell me that she’d taken a turn for the worse, I made arrangements to travel to Baltimore and see her.

Though my father had warned me that she was not responsive, I was shocked to see my grandmother in a bed, asleep with her mouth slack. My grandmother, a statuesque beauty who took great care in her appearance, never went out in public without her ‘eyebrows and lips on’. Her clothing was impeccable, accented with lovely gold jewelry and a always a scarf flowing from her head, draping elegantly about her shoulders.

My stepmother urged me to talk to her, to let her know that I was there. It was hard to speak past the lump in my throat. Though my voice wavered and I felt odd talking when she didn’t appear to know I was there, I cheerfully said hello and sat at her bedside to stroke her leg and hold her hand. My aunt and cousin flew in from Hawaii, arriving in the early afternoon. We left the room to speak with the doctor while the attendants washed my grandmother and changed her bedding. The doctor was a wonderful, earnest young woman who explained with patience the medical answers to our questions. She told us in a kind but no-nonsense manner that my grandmother had only 1- 5 days to live. Though my aunt seemed to take this in stride, I was stunned and had to step away to compose myself.

We returned to the room to find my grandmother awake and a bit agitated from being jostled about. She clutched at my hand and looked directly at me. Though she was unable to speak, she responded with a nod when my aunt asked if my grandmother could see us. Within twenty minutes, she was settled and sleeping one more. I kissed her forehead, as she might have done to me as a child, and left for my train home. She died that night.

I was both humbled and honored when my father and aunt asked that I give the eulogy. Unsure of my ability to write something to do her justice, I worried over it quite a bit. After advice from a friend, I focused not on the mourning but on the celebration and I was grateful for the time spent reflecting on my grandmother’s life and all the aspects of her that her loved ones wanted to remember. The funeral was a simple graveside ceremony on my grandparents summer property out past Gettysburg. The area is beautiful, tucked into the Appalachian Mountains, and peaceful in the quiet way of nature. My grandfather was buried on the same property six years ago. I will miss my beautiful grandmother with the lovely smile and gracious demeanor. And I know she’d be pleased to see that in saying goodbye to her, we were able to pull closer to one another.

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