In March of 1986, I was struggling through my sophomore year of college, was twenty years old, had just become engaged and was living the life of busy person wrapped up in their own world.
I remember March seventeenth very well, but not because it was St. Patty's Day.
At the time, my older sister lived near campus and I would often go to her house in between classes. My niece and nephew were babies and it was a nice break from the day.
My father called. I remember it was warm out because we were sitting outside. Yes, it was warm for March in New England.
I remember my father saying, "Are you sitting down?" When you hear that, you know it isn't good.
"No, but I will. What's up Dad?"
"Your Grammy died."
This is the part of the story that I've always had difficulty with. This is the part of my story where self forgiveness became a huge issue with me. For this is the part of my story where I'd discovered that my Grammy, my sweet ex-Broadway star Grammy, had been dead for three days before ANYONE knew.
"One of her friends called the police after not seeing her for a few days."
I was numb. Three days? I just went on living my life as if everything were fine while my Grandmother lay dead on the floor of her apartment for three days?
Phone contact was all we had. She lived in Connecticut and I still lived at home with my parents. Whenever she called, I'd talk to her. She wanted to know everything that was going on. I told her about my Theatre
classes and my voice and diction class. I told her I was trying to get rid of my Massachusetts accent and she said, "Oh, don't do that." I told her I was engaged and she was happy. She sounded great. I asked her how everything was in her new apartment that I hadn't seen.
Everything WASN'T fine.
She was always a proud woman. After losing her husband when my mother was just seven months old, she worked and sent my mother to the New England Conservatory of Music. She was strong, capable and talented.
She'd also never ask for help. Ever.
I remember our yearly trips to her house near the ocean every summer. A picture of perfection. Everything in her home was perfect. Perfectly neat, clean, organized. Beds always made, no dust anywhere. The furniture she'd had for years was still in the same perfect shape as it was when my mother was a child.
She was the picture of perfection. Always well dressed, well groomed with beautiful hair as white and shiny as newly fallen snow. Her nails were always painted a soft, luminescent color.
She lived alone after my mother went off to college. She didn't have her parents around anymore. She did everything herself, including riding her bike to the local convenient store to get what she needed. That's how she was. Independent.
She sold her lovely white Dutch Colonial with the red trim that her father built and moved into a small, brick-faced apartment building. It was one of those places where the elderly lived.
I never saw it, well, until she was gone.
The trip to Connecticut after she died was horrible. I didn't know what to expect or how to feel. I was consumed with guilt but that wouldn't compare to the guilt I would feel after seeing her apartment.
My parents arrived a day before my sister and I.
We met them at the hotel and they told us to be prepared.
I knew what they meant when we got there. The moment we walked in the stink was so bad I felt I was going to be ill. That was after my parents had the windows open overnight. After it had aired out.
The sink had dishes in it that were there for God knows how long. The apartment she'd lived in for two years was strewn with boxes that still remained unpacked. All of her things were away except for the bare necessities.
This was the same woman who HAD to have everything perfect and who NEVER asked for help.
Oh God, Grammy, why didn't you say anything? I would have been there. Mom would have been there. We all would have been there to help you settle in. I know we were busy, but why didn't you ask?
Why didn't I offer?
There it is. Why didn't I offer? Why didn't I know? Why didn't I call more often and pick up that something wasn't right? Why didn't I drive down to Connecticut on breaks and see her? Why was I so absorbed in my life that I didn't realize she was suffering in silence? How could I have let my Grandmother live that way? How?
She seemed to know exactly what she was doing. Although most of her things were packed away, she left out, as if on purpose, some beautiful jewelry for my mother to find. She left some very important paperwork out for my mother to find. Such obvious places amongst all the clutter. So clearly defined. So easy to see, while everything else looked like a scrambled puzzle of old boxes and furniture.
Why didn't the people who delivered her groceries ever CALL and tell my mother how she was living? Couldn't they see she wasn't using most of the things they brought that she was paying for? Or did they just care about getting their money?
I don't know. I can't look to them. I can't place any responsibility on them even though it would help to relieve my own feelings of it. No, they weren't family.
So, all these years have passed. Fourteen, going on fifteen now.
Have I forgiven myself?
I've reflected a lot. The nightmares went away. I've felt connected to my Grammy spiritually in a very strong way. I feel her presence. I talk to her and have researched her life. I still Love her.
I have learned that I cannot blame myself for being twenty and living like someone who was twenty. I know if the same circumstances existed today, I would be there, I would call, I would make sure everything was okay.
But that can't happen.
Sometimes it's easier to forgive others than it is to forgive ourselves.
Over time, I think I've forgiven myself. I've heard my Grammy say to me, "It wasn't your fault." That doesn't mean I don't have regret. I don't know if that'll ever go away. However, regret isn't a good thing to carry around.
When my Nana (my Dad's mother), took a turn for the worse, I WAS THERE. All the time, trying to feed her, trying to instill in her the will to live that she'd lost. I know that it's in me to be there. It was in me back in 1986, too.
I just didn't know I was needed.
You can't spend your whole life kicking yourself for something you wish you'd done differently. I know that much. That comes with time. I can't change the fact that I was twenty and had a different take on life. I was in acceleration mode and just took for granted that everyone in my family was fine.
Yes, I forgive myself. It wasn't easy to do; and I've grown a lot in the process.
Note: We are often much harder on ourselves than God is. I believe that over time He helped me to treat myself more gently – as He always does.
© Ellen M. DuBois
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