I thought I wanted to sit down and write about sadness and loss and pain. Not my own, of course. I just thought I would talk a bit about those experiences in theory, maybe consider my own situation briefly but move right along. I thought it would be a good idea to keep the darkness at arm’s-length–to just not even open the door that leads to my true heart. So, I began to write. And you know what happened when I wrote that? Garbage. Garbage happened. Seriously, it was the worst thing I’ve ever written. It was so dumb and shallow that it was actually laughable. I realized that the truth of the matter was stored up on the other side of that door, living in the dark part of my heart that I want to pretend doesn’t exist. So, I went in.
When I opened that door, I didn’t find what I was expecting. I’ve suffered the most catastrophic loss in my life and here, in the deepest, darkest part of my heart, I am just not seeing what I thought I would. I feared that experiencing the depth of my emotion would send me into a spiral. I thought I would drown in it; I figured I’d go under and just never come up again. But, here I am, standing on my own two feet in the soft, vulnerable, broken part of my heart and all I can think is, “I’m gonna be ok.”
In the early hours of the morning, I knelt at my grandmother’s bedside with my hand on her back, feeling the shallow rise and fall of her failing breaths. A few hours earlier, I had leaned down and spoken words that I didn’t believe into her ear. Our hospice nurse had told me that sometimes people need permission from their loved ones to let go so I gathered up all my courage and told my little that it was ok for her to let go–that it was ok for her to leave me on my own. I didn’t believe the words when I said them and I didn’t believe them as I sat there, watching the life leave her body. How could I have meant them? She wasn’t supposed to die yet. She was supposed to go to dinner with me, like usual, and order the tilapia and be disappointed when it came out with sauce on it. She was supposed to take my phone call every day at 11 AM, she was supposed to tell me again that she was just having some coffee and getting around and then ask me when I’d be home from work. She was supposed to help me pick out a wedding dress and see me get married and have children. She was supposed to see me climb mountains, run races, and break a couple more bones while having the time of my life. So… no. I didn’t believe that it was ok for her to let go. I didn’t believe that it was ok for her to leave me on my own.
But I said it anyways. And when she died, it felt as though my very soul had been torn from my body and every light had been extinguished. My world crumbled. This was my person. She believed in me, encouraged me, and challenged me. She was my namesake and my hero and the reason that I’m fair-skinned, blonde-haired, and blue-eyed while my family is exactly not. This was my favorite person in the world. I asked my mom if she was sure that Non was gone. “I’m sure,” she said. And right then, everything changed. I knew, for sure, that I was a goner.
Fast forward to today, to me standing in front of the door in my heart that surely leads to my demise, the one that houses my honest feelings and the true weight of my devastation. As I mentioned before, what I found in that dark place was not what I expected. I found a version of myself that was ok. A version of myself that was broken, devastated, and without Nonna but… was ok. There was the light of good grief, shed on the darkness of painful loss. The loss felt no less empty, the pain was no less severe. But the light shed on my struggle revealed unto me that the emptiness caused by her loss was room made for new life. And that new life starts now. My pain, when illuminated, looks less like an irreparably broken person and more like a woman who is primed for growth and rebuilding. And recognizing this person as myself is the exact type of fresh air I never expected to find here, deep in my heart.
What I expected was to spiral, to rage against the world, God, my family, and myself. Why is that not happening? Why am I not getting a dramatic haircut, a neck tat, or thinking about dating some one who is truly, apparently, obviously incredibly terrible for me? How am I still sane? How am I already sure that I’m going to be ok?
Allow me to go ahead and answer my own question. A few months ago, on Father’s Day, I was having a sprinkler problem and I called my dad. Instead of coming and fixing it himself, he talked me through the solution. I identified that as a loving act because, yet again, my dad was giving me a new skill that would render his useless. I put my finger on that moment and said, “That is what love is. Fearlessly allowing some one else to no longer need you but trusting them to want you, anyways.” And thinking about that moment with my dad has got me thinking back on the countless moments I’ve experienced, just like it, with my Nonna. For the last 26 years, this woman has been teaching me how to make it without her. And I didn’t realize that until just now.
She probably didn’t realize that was what she was doing, either. But that’s the thing about the pure-hearted—their love is transformative without them even trying. She has been pouring into me since I was just a small child. She gave of herself and influenced in me this sustainable, joy-filled human with the capacity to love and thrive with or without her. For the past several years, I’ve chosen her over so much. And I thought that I would find myself regretting that when it came her time to die. I thought I would miss out on my life because I was so busy living hers. I could not have possibly been more wrong.
Because, you see, the life I lived with her gave me the tools and laid the foundation for the life I’ll live without her. My heart aches when I think about all of the big things she’ll miss in my life. But, maybe she’ll miss the big moments because I couldn’t have had them while still having such a beautiful life with her. How was I supposed to fall in love with a handsome fella when I was so busy listening to her talk about how she fell in love with one in the 1940’s? How was I supposed to live in Peru when I lived with her in Clovis? How was I supposed to chase my dreams when I was already living one with my favorite person on the planet? I’m 26 years old and my entire life is about to change.
And it’s going to be amazing.
Not a day will go by that I don’t miss her; I’m probably going to absent-mindedly try and call her a few times before it finally sinks in that she’s gone. There are some really, really hard days ahead. But those days will be faced as this new version of myself. The version who fills the emptiness with a new, incredible life using the tools that my grandmother gave me. The version who combats loneliness with friendliness, sadness with joyfulness, and the loss with the realization of just how truly blessed I was to have her.
When I sat there, telling her that I would be ok, that she could leave me on my own, I didn’t believe it. But that new version of me did, the person, deep down in my heart, the one who Nonna built without even trying, the one who says, “I’m gonna be ok.”
For 26 years, I’ve lived a most incredible life. And tomorrow, when my eyes open and I realize that everything has changed, I’ll look upon a new life with zeal and excitement.
I’ll say, “I’m gonna be ok.”
Then, I’m going to take my good grief and I’m going to live.
And my new life will be as beautiful as the old.