My grandmother passed away last week, and I took a trip back to Buffalo, NY for the first time in seven years in order to bury her. I’d like to think that I handle death pretty well. I understand that it is a natural part of life, and isn’t the end of a soul’s existence. Not only that, but my grandmother had been sick for quite some time. We all expected her departure from this life to come soon. I am learning that no amount of preparation makes you immune to the pain of burying a loved one.
When I arrived in Buffalo, I went to the house that my grandmother called home since long before I was born. When I stepped into the kitchen, I saw that not a single thing had changed since the last time I was there. Even the very same trash can from my childhood stood in its very same place near the door, undisturbed. There was one thing missing, though: grandma. Grandma had a very loud voice with a country accent so thick that sometimes, you needed someone to translate what she was saying. I’d say that the volume she spoke in could be attributed to hearing loss, but that wouldn’t be the truth. Grandma had the ears of a hawk when I was trying to be sneaky about something. She could hear me creeping into the refrigerator for a slice of sweet potato pie no matter where she was in the house.
That country twang didn’t greet any of us as we arrived over the course of the weekend. The silence that hung in the air in its place was so thick and heavy, it was difficult to breathe in it. While I was prepared to be the strong shoulder to cry on, I failed to realize that I might need a shoulder myself. I was able to deal with the pain of losing a grandparent. What I couldn’t handle was the guilt I would felt for staying away so long. Seven years went by without me visiting grandma in person. She never had the chance to meet my youngest son, and I’ll probably never forgive myself for that. I had only spoken to her on the phone once I moved away. I foolishly thought that would be enough.
I rode with my cousins to the funeral. We both tried to put on a good face. I found that the closer we got to the church, the quieter we all got. At one point, I was ready to get out of the car and start running because I couldn’t stand how slowly the procession was moving. I felt a strong need to get the whole thing over with, yet the event loomed ahead teasingly out of reach. I turned my face to the window so no one inside the car could see the tears that were now streaming down my face. I had to stay strong for everyone else.
Once inside, we took our places up front just feet away from the casket. I can’t tell you what my grandmother wore, because I refused to look. I refused to allow that view to be the last one I had of her. I shut my eyes and remembered her sitting on the sofa, wearing the same clothes that she had likely been enjoying since the 1950’s. I opened my eyes too soon though, and witnessed the closing of the casket. I have always hated that symbolic gesture, which reminded me of closing a book after having finished a great story that I didn’t want to end. I can’t imagine that the gesture helps anyone find any semblance of closure.
Sadly, the sermon that followed left me feeling unbearably empty. Filled with threats of what can happen to your soul when you avoid coming to church, I couldn’t focus on the speech without feeling angry with the pastor for using my grandma’s funeral as a platform to get his message across. There wasn’t a mention of using our time on this Earth wisely or trying to be the best human beings we were capable of being. Instead, I was subjected to a verbal beating over the head with a rolled up newspaper. There were no words of comfort for me, and it had nothing to do with my religious beliefs. I have been to Christian funerals before that gave me a sense of peace. This one did nothing of the sort.
At the cemetery, I looked at my grandma’s white casket covered in pale pink and lavender roses, gladiolas, and dahlias. I grabbed a few off for myself and held them to my nose. The scents were soft and sweet, much like the scent of a little old lady who was dressed up for a special occasion. Looking at the flowers I had in hand, I realized the colors were perfect for the occasion. Grandma always did look prettiest in pastels.