I stood in a New Zealand farm kitchen, stomach full of barbecued lamb, sobbing into my brother’s arms. I closed my eyes, shutting out the blinking Christmas lights surrounding his mother-in-law’s window.
Our grandmother lay dying half a world away, near the end of a battle with Alzheimer’s that left her too exhausted to eat, to drink, to live. My mom had just spent a cold Canadian Christmas Eve with Grandma, curled up with her through the night.
“I don’t think she knew I was there,” Mom said.
“She knew,” I said.
I cried more, still too many miles away. I could imagine my mom sharing a tiny bed with her mom, ever conscious of Grandma’s fragility. In my mind – juxtaposed on top of that image – was a photo of Mom, seated on Grandma’s couch, holding me as a sleeping babe, generations layered through memory.
The next morning, already Boxing Day Down Under, my husband and I left the small community of Kimbolton and drove to Palmerston North. Friends we’d taught with in the Middle East, M and B, greeted us warmly.
“I’m expecting a call,” I told B, walking into the house.
M took us for a drive up the back road of a mountain to see giant windmills whooshing the air. I stood up there, hair blowing in the wind, eyes on the landscape, thoughts in another hemisphere.
When we returned to the house, B met us at the end of the walk. “Your mom called,” she said. “I’m sorry.”
I inhaled, took the phone she placed in my hand, and walked to her bedroom, exhaling purposefully with each step.
I sat on the bed and called.
“Grandma’s gone,” Mom said. “An hour ago. Just after Christmas dinner. Auntie D and I were with her. We knew she was going,” she paused to gather strength. “We held her hands and said the Lord’s Prayer. Aloud. We had just said ‘Amen.’ Then Grandma took her last breath.”
I tried to hold my breath, to be strong for Mom, to keep my sobs at bay. The bedroom door creaked open. B appeared, holding a glass. “It’s a G and T,” she whispered, handing it to me and closing the door behind her.
I cried. For my grandma. For my mom. For the distance of half a world. For the kindness of friends. For the elongated grief of Alzheimer’s.
And for the jarring poetry of death.