We waited so long for her to take her last breath. A full day of uncomfortable hospital chairs and awkward silences. Each time her chest fell we wondered, "was that her last?" before another wave of respiration would take her and we would all resume our own breathing.
Her breaths were mechanical, not intended. Her lungs refused to give up their muscle memory even after her mind and heart had long resigned their watchful posts. I wondered what it was like, to wait for the end. To say a final farewell to your own body. The body that you healed and fed and dressed and cleaned with great care for 90 years. The body that grew your children. That loved your husband. The body that slowly began to fail beyond control in your later years.
The body in the bed was Grandma, but not really. As I held her hands and lingered over the same long fingers (with knobby knuckles that resembled my own) that had taught me how to roll out fruit square dough to a precise and perfect thickness, I felt like I was holding a relic of a person long gone. They felt cold. And when I squeezed them, they did not squeeze back. Not like they did the night before, when I spooned red jello between her chapped lips as she delighted at the taste. She had only accepted two small bites, which stained her lips a healthy and vibrant red. The color looked odd and out of place on her pale and colorless body. It was, perhaps, the last thing she ever ate.
She still occupied her body, but only in the way a ghost occupies a haunted house. Her body seemed hollow. A presence would occasionally pass across her otherwise glassy eyes, like a ghost flitting past a dark, empty window.
Where was she at that moment? What did she see and feel? All the unanswered questions of the afterlife where there with me, with Grandma, in that hospital room. But I had no means to unlock them.
When her chest descended for the last time, the finality was both a relief and a stab in the gut. We went home with puffy faces and red eyes. It was then that it hit me how little time I had spent with her. For years she had been just a phone call or a 45 minute drive away. I rarely took the time for either. Now we were separated by worlds, the physical and the spiritual, the transient and the eternal. Only now that it was impossible, I'd have dropped everything to enjoy one last chat over grapefruit tea and gingersnaps.
In the weeks that followed, we were left to sort through the sea of her possessions. Everything she had acquired and owned. Every earthly object that she treasured or put up with was left in our care. From the mugs in which she drank her coffee, the pressed edelweiss that hung on her wall, the goofy string of moose lights she left up in her kitchen year round, books, VHS tapes, spoons, refrigerator magnets, photo albums.
Us grandchildren were invited to sort through her things and select memorable tokens of Grandmas to take home with us. I scoured the cardboard boxes of her things, desperate to find something of meaning to me. One special object, that's all I wanted. Anything to unlock a memory or shine some light into the void left by Grandma. But, sitting in a room strewn with boxes destined for the local thrift shop, I could find nothing of any meaning.
So, I grasped helplessly to everything. I clasped dessert cups to my heart, dessert cups I had never even seen her use. I wrapped my arms around a pastel colored strainer, a flour sifter, a necklace that I knew nothing about. Did Grandma even wear it? It didn't matter. I was determined to fill my house with Grandma. To acquire possession after possession. As if I could summon her back to earth by merely filling my space with her things. The less meaning each object possessed, the less satisfied I became, the more new stuff I needed to collect from the thrift store boxes.
At long last, I saw the cold, dusty bottom of the very last box. The tempest of old tea cups and fishing hats and religious paraphernalia had subsided. My collection had grown to a ridiculous height of assorted odds and ends. Ordinary objects that I would have passed up in any one of thousands of garage sales. Disappointed, I got up and walked outside for some air, leaving my new treasures behind on Grandma's pergo wood floors.
My thoughts took over and I suddenly found myself strolling through Grandma's garden. She loved her garden. She toiled for many hours in it. A little bit like Grandma herself, the garden was eclectic. I passed a planter box, currently empty, with an odd porcelain rabbit perched on the edge. That led me to a three foot by three foot square area with soft, mossy ground cover. I recalled two decades ago when she had just planted the moss. She described to me, expectation in her voice, how the moss would soon grow to fill the entire ground and create a mossy floor. Her vision had certainly been fulfilled. The moss crept everywhere.
I nearly bypassed her giant bamboo plants without notice when a worm of a memory suddenly crept into my thoughts. I was about eight. Grandma was tending to her bamboo, just small little shoots back then, talking about panda bears as I watered her purple and pink petunias. I didn't know the names of many flowers. But I knew petunias. Grandma had just picked some up at the hardware store that day. She taught me how to gently pull the flowers from their flimsy plastic carriers, to pull and massage the roots, and to plant them in flower boxes so that the soil would hit them at just the right spot. That's the day that I learned to love the smell of topsoil. And to wear the lingering earth-stained creases of my hands like a badge. And to love the rain as water for thirsty plants.
When the spell broke, I finished my stroll around Grandma's garden. Said goodbye to her St. Francis of Assisi statute- she loved him. I took one last look at the swing set which hosted hundreds of hours of play time and walked back into Grandma's house, my steps a little bit lighter. I reassessed my pile of treasures and, one by one, began to put objects back into the boxes.
I didn't need a flour sifter or a porcelain plate to remember Grandma. Her memories were not tied to any objects. They were sewn within me. They could be conjured on command or, even better, could sprout without warning, like surprise buds popping from the ground after a rainfall.
After everything was tucked back into the thrift store-bound boxes, I pulled out the pastel colored strainer. "Perhaps," I thought, "this just might make a nice petunia planter."