Six months have transpired since the death of my maternal grandmother: Brigid, my Gran. A woman who was as stubborn as the day is long, usually very difficult to read and set in her ways. And with that, a very generous, loving and gentle soul who held dear to her Irish-ness throughout her life, despite having left her home in County Cavan at the young age of just 15.
She moved to England and worked in hotels and pubs and was well-known wherever she went. She was a true lady, her hair was always done, her clothes immaculate and her lips graced with fuchsia or deep red lipstick with a smile and a nod for everyone.
I didn’t always understand or agree with some of her motives for things, or how she approached things head on; and being difficult to read, it was hard to see her true feelings for things. But one thing I never doubted was her love for her friends and those close to her. She travelled unceasingly back to her beloved Ireland to visit her remaining siblings (she was the middle child of nine), or down to London, up to Inverness or over to the Isle of Skye. She kept very active and full of energy and life. Looking at her, you just thought she’d just keep going and going. She was constantly going somewhere, even if it was out for her early morning walk which she took religiously, rain or shine. The snow wouldn’t stop her either, in fact, winter was her favourite season most of all. Having served in the army decades ago, she still had her regimented walk with her head held high.
In her life she’d moved around quite a bit. When I was 10, she moved to Australia to live with her new husband, Burgess. He was a remarkable, amazing, gentle soul and I only wished I could have known him better in life. He was the type of man you could see his soul through his eyes. They’d met and married in London and went to live near Sydney a little while later. A few years later when I was 15, they moved back to Scotland living up north, and I got to get to know him a little more, not just through the notes and letters we would exchange.
He had been shot in the head with a pellet gun by a bully when he was eight, it had consequently damaged an optic nerve and he lost his sight in his left eye; but he never let that slow him down, he was a big rig truck driver for years and was an amazing carpenter.
He gave me my love for honey and hearty homemade soup. He was a very spiritual man and it showed in his actions and words. He was laid back, but in the kind of way that he let things just roll off his back. I regard myself one of the luckiest people in the world that I got to know him. His hugs were brimming with love, his smile endearing and his laugh infectious. I still love that man. In August 2000, I had been in California nine months the day my Mum phoned me. There was an intonation in her voice in the few words she spoke in salutation.
“Who died?” I asked, hoping I’d imagined her tone.
“How did you know?” she sobbed. And then the words I had dreaded, “it’s Burge.”
My heart sank and I grieved that man for a very long time. He had been plagued with illness throughout his later years and it had finally taken him — with stomach and prostate cancer.
If there was any chance, I would pray and hope for a husband just like him: Someone who would love and cherish me implicitly; someone tender, who I could connect with on every level and someone who oozed with the love of life. It took some time, but I found my Burge.
They moved back to Australia in 1990 and for the ensuing ten years, I got to know them as I had before, through letters and cards. My gran was a prolific letter-writer. She kept in touch with an armful of people, constantly writing to someone. She loved it and it showed. Her address book was filled with people (I even found my last letter to her in the front – what a tender moment) and she had all of their birthdays marked down in her calendar and never forgot one. She’d even send your card a month early, just to be sure you’d get it. When the end of October rolled around, you could always be sure of a red envelope from her. It was your Christmas card. My Gran loved Christmas and the music, sending cards, parcels and calendars to everyone.
I am grateful she took the time to write to me as a teenager – a constant that helped buoy and shape me. I thanked her for it as she lay on her hospital bed. Her humble response was, “it was just a small thing”. “Yes, but it’s the small things that matter”, I responded gently. She nodded and smiled.
It was both cathartic and painful to stay at my Gran’s place in March, it was a perfect monument to her, frozen in time in October 2007, organised and quiet still. There were tributes of her everywhere, perfect tokens to who she was and what she loved: she had decorative plates of birds, pictures of penguins, flowers, and Irish and Scottish mementos — even her framed and hung Australian citizenship certificate. Each room was filled with her favourite spring colours: lilac, pale yellow, pale green and delft blue.
Whilst I was staying at my Gran’s place, I clung on to a hope — it may have been false hope, but it got me through a very difficult task. I wanted to do something for her, for the home. I wanted to clear out what I knew she didn’t need: old bills and papers. They were everywhere: In baskets in the kitchen, in drawers, in mugs on the mug tree at the sink, all around her living room, in her bedrooms. But not in the bathroom. I must have got rid of about a dozen carrier/plastic bags full of them. As long as I kept repeating, ‘I’m doing this for Gran’, I was able to get through it.
Days before she died, I kept coming across little slips of paper or lengthy scripts. Some were typed, others hand written. They were all in different places, and each were a great find and a comforting solace. I never thought for one moment that she would pass whilst we were there, but unknowingly, these little pieces of paper helped me through a very trying time. Little pieces of treasure. They were essentially, a voice from the dust. My Gran had experienced the death of her close sister and Burge, and had held on to words of encouragement and support. I was grateful that she did.
My Gran’s death 6 months ago is quite easily one of the toughest times I have experienced in my life. It ripped the ground from under me and I felt dazed and confused for what seemed like days, when in fact only a few hours had passed.
Two days later, as I was poring through more papers, I came across something that changed my focus and redirected my thoughts. It was the quintessential hug; the comforting embrace that my heart needed. I share it, hoping it will help someone else who is grieving a loved one.
Burge had written this to my Gran’s sister, Peggy. Peggy had recently lost her husband and he reached out from Australia to Ireland with love and compassion through his written word.
24 July 1996
Peggy on this earth we view death from the perspective of one who strays behind, much as we view a long journey when we are seeing a loved one off on a train, a plane, or a ship and wave our goodbyes, only able to imagine what the trip will be like, or what our loved one will find when he gets where he is going.
If you could glimpse, for even a moment, the glory and excitement that a departed loved one faces when his eyes “close on time” and “open on eternity”, if only we could glimpse this, perhaps there would be more understanding in our sorrow and more joy in our grief. Sorrow, then, must be akin to love; in fact, what is sorrow but the tender side of love. As I said before – to take the sorrow out of death, we would have to take love out of life.
In a beautiful blue lagoon on a clear day, a fine sailing ship spreads its brilliant white canvas in a fresh morning breeze and sails out to the open sea. We watch her glide away magnificently through the deep blue and gradually see her grow smaller and smaller as she nears the horizon. Finally, where the sea and sky meet, she slips silently from sight; and someone near me says, “there, she is gone!”
Gone where? Gone from sight — that is all. She is still as large in mast and hull and sail; still just as able to bear her load. And we can be sure that, just as we say, “there she is gone!” Another says, “there she comes!”
Nothing is so beautiful as a person in a resurrected and glorified condition, there is nothing more lovely than to be in this condition and have our partner (loved one) and our families with us. Life is eternal and love is immortal; and death is only a horizon, and a horizon is nothing, save the limit of our sight.
In the weeks and months that have passed, I have used music to ease and heal my heart. I had found a small square note my Gran had written in her home:
You Raise Me Up
I knew she loved it not only for his beautiful vocals, but for the violins that reminded her so dearly of her Irish music.
There were days I would just wander around listening to it and To Where You Are, soaking in the comfort it gave me and letting go of suppressed pain and grief.
From her bedside, I remember her asking me if I liked music. “Yes Gran, I love music.”
“Oh good. Do you like the Spice Girls?”
I chuckled, glanced at my mother and responded, “No, I prefer music with great vocals, people who sing with their heart…”
She nodded and simply said, “good, you can have any of my CDs that you want–”
“Oh Gran, don’t talk like that!”
“It’s OK, I don’t need them, do I?”
She knew, but never talked much about it. The day after her birthday I had said:
“This isn’t a very nice place to have spent your birthday, is it?”
“No. And I won’t be doing that again!”
She died three days later.
I think I have cried more in this last week than I have cumulatively up until this point. Grief and sorrow can overwhelm us if we allow it to. But with that, grief and sorrow are natural. Like the letter said:
“If we take the sorrow out of death, we have to take the love out of life.”
I take comfort in knowing that she is still around, watching out for me, seeing my children, seeing where I live. She is still with me, there to uphold and support me; still loving me. I have no doubts that the times I feel the sadness creep up on me are the times she is close by. I never feel sad for long, and as quickly as it comes, it passes. I know that I am left to journey through life with her just as a memory, but these memories are ingrained in my soul, showing me a pattern for life. I will always miss her and her letters.
I love you, Gran.
Me, my two brothers and my Mum