In memory of Jane
An ode to Jane
Content warning: death, descriptions of self-harm, suicide
It wasn’t the heart attack that killed her; it was the stress put on her already fragile aorta that caused her to slip away. Her heart had ripped, and it was far too damaged to be put back together. The stitches wouldn’t even hold. The doctors assured us that they had done everything they possibly could, but everything still wasn’t enough. She died. She dies all over again in my mind whenever I think back on this time. All those feelings and memories are still sharp and vivid like stained glass shrapnel. In the first week after her death everything happened at breakneck speed. After the initial scramble of a changed life subsided, grief became more methodical. Grief chose when to attack rather than being a constant companion to everyday actions.
I just can’t wrap my head around her being gone. I thought I understood death. I thought I would handle my first family death well. I was wrong.
November 13, 2015:
We let the phone ring. And ring. It was family movie night: a rare luxury in our family. There was no issue, at least no one expected one. Jurassic World played on.
When the movie was over, we turned on CBC news, like the standup informed Canadian citizens that we are. Paris, the city my uncle and his wife were staying in, had been victim to a terrorist attack.
We checked the phone messages, my uncle had called to say that he was alright, and my grandfather Skipper had called to tell us that Grandma Jane had had a heart attack. She was scheduled for surgery later that night, with a full recovery predicted. I was terrified, extremely terrified. I went to sleep scared, and despite the circumstances, optimistic. I would go with my mom to Ottawa the next day to help my grandmother in her recovery. She was going to survive.
She was going to survive; she had to. I wasn’t ready for her not to.
I understand that she died, but I don’t yet understand that I will never see her again, hear her again, hug her again. To me - that seems impossible, but I need to get used to it because it’s the reality of the situation.
November 14, 2015:
In the morning, I woke up with my lights still on. In my haste to forget the previous evening, turning them off had slipped my mind.
No one told me that she had died: I knew. I knew because I heard my mom making plans for someone to take care of our cats for awhile. That meant that the whole family was going away, which meant...
Tentatively, I entered my mom’s room. I saw her face, and then I knew for sure. No words needed to be spoken. She was visibly broken, and that said it all. Her mom was gone. I didn’t have any words either. I crawled into her bed like a kid escaping a nightmare, because that’s exactly what I was.
I emailed my teachers, I called my work, I made every pain polished and formal. This only alienated my reality more; it was all so official. and that denied the rawness of my pain.
My mom, my dad, my brother, and I climbed into our last-minute rental to make our way to Ottawa. It was time to pick up the pieces of our family.
My dad drove, my brother slept, I wrote, and my mother made the calls. My grandmother’s best friend, and my mom’s godmother, screamed when we called her. Loud, deafening and filled with anguish; it was unforgettable. She threw the phone away from herself too, but we could still hear her weeping through the speakers.
“Hi, it’s Wendy, Jane’s daughter…no everything is not alright; my mother had a heart attack… they tried everything, but it wasn’t enough to save her.” It would never be enough. Over and over again these calls were made. Same tone, same cold prickly sensation dripping in every somber syllable, same ending to the same story. Our story, our reality, no matter how desperately I wished it wasn’t.
I wrote a poem in that car ride which I later read at her funeral. I needed to constantly remind myself of reality, if not, I feared that I’d slip away. Writing was an effective and calming way to reassure myself of these events, another way was to take pictures. It sounds horribly narcissistic, but I took selfies on that car ride, and yes, they did help.
I cannot stress enough how nothing felt real. With a selfie, you can easily identify your own face, it grounds you. I know the angles of my eyebrows, the bump of my nose, the slope of my eyelids, the dimple in my left cheek that is so much like the one my grandmother had. In that moment I knew what my face looked like, even if my emotional context was scary and surreal. Seeing my very recognizable face in a very unrecognizable situation helped me process the heart-breaking reality of it all. Those selfies let me realize where I was, and what had happened; they facilitated a (still) continuous and completely shattering realization. So, I kept one as a reminder and as a relic.
We got to Ottawa around 6pm that night. My grandfather was absolutely broken. Skipper had always managed to put up a front of a picture-perfect, manly man who drank whisky, hunted, had fought in wars, etc. Now, he sat crumpled in the centre of the house that he and his dearly loved wife raised their kids in. Both he and the house looked so ghoulish and empty without Grandma Jane. He couldn’t stop crying.
The memories of the days between her death and her funeral are a bit blurred around the edges. Everyone was doing their own thing, just going through the motions, or drinking, or cleaning. We all explored the house in an effort to try and get used to it without the warmth of Grandma Jane filling each room, even though it all still smelled like her. Individually, memories of our lives with Grandma Jane flooded over us with each aimless wander.
Some discoveries from that time: her prayer book, every day for close to 20 years there was an entry; a notebook detailing the lives of every person she called regularly, so she would always know what to talk about.
Small ironies. The only car we could rent was black. The closer we got to the house the more it rained. The sunset made everything rose gold. The day after her funeral it rained all day, almost as if the city was washing our grief away.
November 18, 2015:
300 people showed up. My grandmother was a music teacher, and was beloved by all whom she taught and touched. Her true impact on people had never been made clearer.
I don’t ever want to go to church again after that funeral. Partly because it was my grandmotherís funeral, but mainly because the funeral was so surreal and is so cemented in my memory that no future venture into a church would feel right. It was surreal for a few reasons. Firstly, 300 people, most of whom I had never met before, were in attendance. They were all there to celebrate the life of my grandma. All these strangers understood how special she was.
Secondly, seeing as my cousin and I are more like siblings, the two of us developed a wildly inappropriate sense of humour that can only be birthed from a shared tragedy. Whispered jokes about using the ashes as ‘sad confetti’ for the celebration abounded. My mom had to shush our giggles during the sermon, but she did it with a smile, just like her mom would have.
Thirdly, there were puppets. The church’s pastor typically used puppets in his regular services and my grandmother loved them; she often counted the puppets as the highlight of her Sundays. So, there were puppets at her funeral. The story of a caterpillar (life on earth) who enters its cocoon (death), then becomes a flourishing butterfly (life in heaven) was recounted to the guests in oddly cutesy, comforting language. At the end, the beautiful butterfly puppet was gifted to my grandfather. I think he still has it.
Fourthly, someone thought it was a good idea to let my oldest uncle speak without him writing anything down first. There is no official time count, but I would guess that he spoke for around half an hour. In those odd 30 minutes he
After the initial scramble of a changed life subsided, grief became more methodical. Grief chose when to attack rather than being a constant companion to every day actions. In that moment I knew what my face looked like, even if my emotional context was scary and surreal. Seeing my very recognisable face in a very unrecognisable situation helped me process the heart-breaking reality.
included many touching stories about his mom, but those were mainly drowned out by his shameless self-promotion. Most notably for his book on tantric Indian sex practices (if you truly want to honour my grandmother’s memory, never read chapter four).
Finally, I read too. That poem I wrote in the car, I read it for everyone as part of the service. I let my broken heart seep into everyone’s bones.
I remember my reading from an outsider’s point of view. I was deeply affected by this action, yet it doesn’t feel like something I’ve done. I don’t remember walking up to the stand, or my awkward introduction for the piece, but I do remember my walk back. I collapsed into my dad and he wrapped his arms tight around me as the whole church rose to sing hymns. I know that hymns are supposed to be beautiful, but I had never heard a harsher chorus.
When I was ten, my dad took me to see the musical Les Misérables at the local high school. It’s his favourite musical. He knows all the lyrics, and was not afraid to use them. Half-way through the show, I leaned over to him and huffed a now infamous quote among my family: “You know that you’re supposed to sing the words in your head, right?”
So as my dad held me, with tears and sobs completely raking my body, I felt even more desolated and broken and small. Yet, he made me laugh. He stopped singing, leaned down and whispered to me: “I’m sorry. I know I should be singing the words in my head.”
I can accept that my grandmother is dead; I can’t accept that Grandma Jane is.
November 20, 2015:
We left. By then I was left dull and completely wrought by the week. Every action was an echo of myself, prickly numbing attempts at normalcy. We were leaving our bubble of sorrow, where tragedy was allowed to envelop us, for our everyday lives where we were expected to act like we had before. I had to return to a life I was already struggling so deeply to live.
When my grandmother died, I was in the middle of a horrendous and all encroaching depressive episode. My then precarious mental health became intrinsically linked with my narrative of her death - I can’t separate them.
For most of 2015, my grade 11 year, I wanted to die. Since I was 12 I’d been having brushes with suicidal thoughts. I was usually able to chase them away with small motivators, like a list of things I would miss and a short list of the people who would miss me. This worked swimmingly until October of 2015. I tried all my usual ways to pull myself out of it, but it wasn’t working this time; it was continuous, and it only got worse. I had an isolating job, a new and demanding course load, and was in the middle of realizing that I had no healthy relationships I could rely on. Everything made me tired. I was motivated, but had lost the physical capability to act on it. I spiralled and was too embarrassed to ask for help. I was the one that helped people; I didn’t want to need someone to help me.
My 16th birthday, October 29, 2015. My friends forgot it was my birthday. I left the school dance early in the taxi my mom had called for me. The person who I’d gone with had ditched me. I was just wandering around the school alone, waiting for the hurt of being ditched to pass so I could try and have some fun on my birthday. It didn’t. Instead, I started to realize that I only had one friend and she didn’t see me as a person, but rather as an asset. I was gentle and caring, and the person who I had assumed was my best friend for the past decade was content to take advantage of that. When I got home, I went straight upstairs and took a long shower. I washed my makeup off with vigour, and scrubbed out the red hairspray I had used as part of my costume until my scalp bled. Then I took the first mildly sharp thing I could find, a comb, and attacked my wrists.
I made a counselling appointment through a suicide hotline within a few days of that low point. At the appointment, I rolled out my problems on the bright red carpet of the office until I lost the energy to speak. The counsellor told me to get more vitamin D and sent me on my way. I felt pathetic, and a little ripped off, but also relieved. Talking felt so good. That appointment taught me the magic of talking: how it makes everything real and thus easier to deal with. I had no one to talk to, so I bought a notebook. I couldn’t continue bottling everything up until my inevitable burst; that way of living was not healthy.
Grandma Jane died just over a week after my appointment.
Time doesn’t stop when you die; other people are left with the mess. After being exposed to said mess, I lost the desire to leave one. I didn’t want to die anymore because that would be too painful of an event for my family, but I didn’t want to be alive because it was proving too painful for me. During the last half of 2015, I was simply lost.
Slowly I bounced back, from everything. I found friends, and a way to be alone without hating myself for it. I discovered how to enjoy the shimmering of the present, instead of wishing for grotesque escapes. I walked out of my abusive friendship with living scars, but still intact. And finally, I fell in with people who I enjoyed listening to and who let me talk.
Even though I still have those days where my bones fill with lead, and a foggy despair washes over my body, I can, and do, enjoy life now.
Finding “joie de vivre” meant I had to reconcile the fact that someone I loved dearly no longer had that pleasure. I couldn’t get caught up in these crushing realizations; life was moving on and I had to follow it. No matter how ugly some of those changes were.
I know that she wouldn’t like the fact that I don’t go to church, that I swear like a sailor, that I hold grudges, or that my mom never made me play piano, and most of all she wouldn’t like that her loss still hurts me. I also know that she didn’t care that much about making sure that I was the perfect granddaughter. She was content to let me explore my capabilities.
She loved that I wore lipstick, that I sang the lullabies she taught me, that I treasured the knickknacks she gave me and the stories she told, and that, to my mother’s dismay, I fold napkins like she taught me. That woman was so full of love and pride; she had infinite admiration for the small things. She would be so proud of me. I spoke to her almost every day. She listened, and in turn I learned how to listen to others. She was never aware of the fact that she taught me how to laugh raucously as well. When we talked I was energetic, and her voice was honey, golden and soft. That absence stings the most. I’m romanticizing her, I know that. She deserves it. She helped me grow into who I am today, both pre and post mortem. I’ll have to keep growing up without her, and that’s okay. She’ll never be gone from me completely, and that’s okay too (I never want her to leave). A year and a half later I’m still healing.
And I still miss her.
I remember your face the first time you tried a pumpkin spice latte. Some of my lipstick transferred from the cup to you and it matched the one you were already wearing. I felt like I was supposed to be your granddaughter.
Time doesn’t stop when you die; other people are left with the mess. After being exposed to said mess, I lost the desire to leave one.