Monday, March 18, 2013

Learning How to Say Goodbye

No matter how far I travel, western New York will always be one of the most beautiful places on Earth.  Even in mid-March, when the landscape is shrouded in snow and grey skys and you know the first whisper of spring won't be until late April if you're lucky.

For me, its beauty goes beyond the rolling hills and dark forests. I love it for the memories it holds.

Particularly the little town of Freedom. My grandmother was born and raised here.  My dad was born and raised here. And this house, every single summer of my childhood was spent here. Every inch is drenched in memories.

I learned how to drive a tractor here. I learned how to make jam from currants here. Almost ten years ago, my siblings and I spent a few days arguing about learning how to paint this barn.

My sister and I spent countless nights lying in this room, telling stories, making plans, sharing a sense of closeness we didn't seem to find anywhere else. 

How lucky I am to still have this beautiful place to go back to. How lucky to have two such amazing grandparents who created this wonderful, safe world where we could grow and learn and explore.  Who fostered this loving supportive environment in which we came to understand and cherish the importance of family roots.

And yet.

How strange it was to visit last weekend. For the first time ever, the house was empty of the one of those influences.  Empty and yet so full. Every nook and cranny brims with Nana's heart and soul. It couldn't be more obvious than if the rooms were wallpapered in photos of her.  I see her in the row of African violets on the front windowsill. I smell her in the faint scent of Estee Lauder dusting powder that lingers in the bathroom.  I hear her in the whistle of the tea kettle.  I feel her in the worn leather arms of the Lazy-Boy.

The strangest feeling of all is that she's not even gone in the literal sense.  Ten long years she's been drifting away slowly to Alzheimer's.  A couple of weeks ago she found a new home in a clean and quiet place called The Pines.  My heart broke to see her room there, the single bed with her afghan folded across the bottom.  To think of her waking up in the morning, looking out strange windows, feeling strange hands get her dressed for the day.  Waiting, wondering, and asking questions only to have her mind let go of the answers moments later.

And then to see her sweet face shine so bright when we walk into the room. We call out to her and our voices are the music of a song she knows she once loved but can't quite place the tune. She frowns, trying to recall a name to the face and when reminded is overcome with joy. "Oh yes, I love my Ellie." It's as if after ten years, I'm only now coming to terms with it.

I sat next to her, rubbed lotion on her hands, braided her hair, and adjusted her robe as if by physical touch I could hold her here, keep her mind from slipping any farther away.  A knot of pain formed in my chest, like a fist closed around the emotion to keep it from welling up and spilling out in tears.

She showed me her hands, wondering at a bruise that had formed. "I just don't remember how it got there." What beautiful hands. I wondered how many loaves of bread they had formed, how many shoes they had tied, how many tears they had wiped away. Now they are hands that struggle to hold a fork, that fold nervously in her lap, that wander aimlessly through her hair.

Oh my dear sweet Nana. How intensely bittersweet it is to hold your hand and talk to you and yet to mourn so deeply for you. How painful to look into your eyes and to see only a lost child there.  How cruel of this disease to take you from me while you are yet living, to know that the worst is still to come. I want so badly to take you home even though I know this is where you need to be.

This picture is hard for me to look at. Even as I write this, I'm crying for who you were.  And yet, I find so much comfort that all the best parts of you are carried on in others. Though all else fades away, the beauty of your soul is preserved, your life sealed by His power. As Papa tucked you in bed, from out in the hallway, I heard him read a chapter to you from the Bible. Looked in to say goodnight, and saw the peace that stole over your face.

It was one of the most difficult weekends of my life, but necessary. I think I'm finally learning how to begin to say goodbye. I'm so thankful for all she taught me and for the memories I will hold so dear.
 I love you, Nana, now and then.


  1. You found the words my heart feels. Thank you for them.

  2. very touching and beautiful - we also had a mother and grandmother that taught us and loved us and I thank them for that. Miss them and love them always.

  3. You have an extraordinary gift with words - I've always known your grandparents as just that - the Carolus' "other" grandparents - but this beautifully written piece gives me a picture of who your grandmother is - and she sounds a lot like some special grandmothers I've known. Sorry that Alzheimers is stealing her away - it's so much harder to see the mind taken because you can't really treat/relieve the symptoms in the way you can attempt to for the body... Hugs to you dear!

  4. Yes, beautiful, thank you too. You've expressed my own heart's feelings from my own journey with my mom. I remember sitting on her bedside when we first took her to the nursing home. An arm around each other, we just sat. In a way it did feel good to be released of the caregiving that took these moments away at I could just come and visit and hold her close w/out worrying that she needed a shower or the house needed picking up etc.
    And don't forget the chocolate chip cookies those beautiful hands stirred up!! Love to you all, you've all been on my mind a lot lately as I think of the changes/transitions of first visits, etc.

  5. This is so touching, Ellie. We did the same over 3 years ago with my grandfather and this very much tells the jumble of feelings I had. Thinking of you as others here, and wishing the best for you all.

  6. This is beautifully written, Ellie. My grandmother had Alzheimer's too and I can relate to so much of this post; it brought tears to my eyes.

  7. Thank you all so much! It means a lot to have your thoughts and kind words. :)

  8. that peace that you describe, when faced with this, isn't that just the most incredible thing?! perfect peace.
    This is such beautiful, soul stirring writing, you really do have a gift with words!
    Thanks so much for the hugs you sent me via this one little life :-) would be so nice to return them in person! ...i'll keep dreaming x

  9. Wow, Ellie.
    You should be a journalist or something! This is simply beautiful, and dear to my heart as I see my own Dad slipping away in the same manner.

  10. How beautifully written this is. You have a very caring heart.

  11. Your grandmother has been a good friend to me since I was 15 years old when she became my sister-in-law. We have loved visiting at your grandparents' home, too. There is an atmosphere there that is unique. They made it that kind of home. I feel safe, comfortable and cared for when I'm there. It is good to read how you've captured the essence of staying in Freedom. Love, Aunt Susie


I love to hear what you're thinking! Thanks for the comment love. :)


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