Cleaning with My Sister at the End of a Life

Last Monday my grandfather passed away, and I’ve been struggling with writing about it ever since.  In some way, a lot of ways, I’d prefer not to write about it–not because I want to pretend it didn’t happen or because the experience would be too emotional but because I’m not sure what to say.  Everything seems…too.  Too big.  Too small.  Too trite.  There are no right words for me, in times like this.  Either you make the person seem like a giant among lessers or you don’t go far enough, and suddenly them seem insignificant, which he certainly was not.  However, he’s the first grandparent I’ve lost, and to not write about him and this seems wrong, as well.  And so, bear with me, as I try to write, not about my grandfather, but about the experience of closing up a life.

We drove out on Wednesday, my youngest sister, Erica, and I.  I don’t make it back “west” that often, usually only once or twice a year, and driving through the Flint Hills and then slowly winding down from I-70 into the familiar yet now remote towns and farms always makes me a bit nostalgic.  Really, melancholy is a better word, but it seems a bit dramatic, even for me.  We didn’t hurry, both wanting to be there and also wanting to draw out the “getting there” of it all–the journey being a kind of buffer between the reality of home and the reality of what was waiting.

Most of the arrangements had already been made and almost all of the wheels had been set in motion.  Erica and I were emotional support (I hope), trying to help my dad as he helped my grandmother.  We were also, more concretely*, given the task of helping my grandmother clean her house, something that had been a bit neglected as she helped care for my grandfather during his year plus decline.  Of course, being my grandmother, she left us very little to do.  Upon hearing we would be coming over to help tidy up, she promptly cleaned the bathrooms and did some general straightening–because of course she did.**

Armed with dusters and vacuums, we started in the basement, dusting all 30 of my grandfather’s golfing trophies, vacuuming the striped ’70s carpet, and folding the same blankets we’d been wrapping up in since we were children.  It all seemed so small.  Not small as in pointless or small as in inadequate, but without my grandpa there to talk about this plaque or that knick-knack, everything seemed to shrink, to deflate somehow.  The basement ceiling literally seemed lower, as if I had somehow fallen into a retro, mid-century Wonderland–a dusty, sweaty Alice, too big for her surroundings.***

I was grateful, so grateful, that Erica was there.  We were (I think, she can correct me if I’m wrong) not just leaning on, but in some ways hiding behind each other.  Not hiding from the reality of death, but hiding from this new chapter in adulthood.  Watching the actual, real adults in your life hurt and not knowing how to help, aware that all the dusting, sweeping, and dish-washing in the world isn’t going to make things any better.  Straightening picture frames and smoothing comforters and trying like mad not to zoom 25 or 30 thirty years into the future when we will be the ones doling out menial escape-tasks to well-meaning younger relatives while we struggle with the most final decisions possible.  Because time is a bitch, and eventually…

I don’t know how to close this out.  I honestly can’t remember the last time I took this long to write a post–not because I’m trying to say too much but because I’m just staring at the screen, willing words that will not come.  Death is too complicated.  Love is too complicated.  I cannot articulate feelings of which I’m not even sure myself.  Maybe I’ll just end as I should have begun.  My grandpa died on Monday.  I loved him, and I’m sorry he’s gone.  I’m sorry for the hole he’s left in the lives of other people I love.  The end.


This is the last picture I, personally, have of my grandpa.  I think he'd like it--taken in Memorial Stadium, with some of his family, surrounded by Jayhawks.

This is the last picture I, personally, have of my grandpa. I think he’d like it–taken in Memorial Stadium, with some of his family, surrounded by Jayhawks.

*This was good because while I did try my best, being emotional support is, well, very undefined, and I was never sure if I was doing the right thing or not.  Too cheerful, not cheerful enough.  I don’t know.  Cleaning, though?  That’s obviously helpful, and I was more than happy to do it.

**I get this–I do.  In my head, my youngest sister is still basically 11 because that’s the age she was when I left home, so my grandma must have been trying very hard to even let two grade-school-age children do the dusting and vacuuming.  I assume that’s about the age we still are in her head.

***This feeling was not lessened when I went upstairs and found myself the tallest person in a room full of four other women.  And I’m 5’5″…