Thirty Years


Thirty years ago today, life as I knew it ended. The last night of my childhood was frosty and silent. A deep cold that settled into bones.

Today I sat down and read grandma’s final diary: October 9 – November 28, 1983. It’s the same as all of her diaries, an accounting of comings and goings and meals and TV shows. But this one is the end of the story, which is hard to read.

Grandma hadn’t been able to breathe properly for months. She got short of breath, then panicky, which made it worse. Her doctor sent her for all the tests and eventually put it down to her “general state” (body destroyed by cancer, chemotherapy, and radiation). She got an oxygen tank and a prescription for Librium.

I don’t remember doing it, but in grandma’s final diary she mentions me giving her oxygen on several occasions. I was still technically living with my grandparents, but I spent less and less time there. I didn’t like seeing grandma sick and weak and miserable, so I stayed at my mom’s apartment until it was nearly time for bed most days. A couple of weeks before her death, grandma writes that “Kitty doesn’t care if she sees me at all.” Of course I cared. It was just too hard.

She writes that I “did everything” for myself in the morning on several occasions. I think this means I toasted a pop tart and brushed my own hair. She hated not being able to do things for me. On October 20, she writes,”Got up this morning — couldn’t breathe — panicked — couldn’t finish getting dressed — Kitty did everything for herself — told her I loved her — she got up + hugged me.”

On October 29, she opens her diary entry with the closest thing to a prayer I’ve ever heard from her: “I wish I could stop feeling so horrible — help me to get through this. Please.”

She didn’t think she was dying — that’s clear from reading her final diary. She was scared and miserable, but she believed there was a future. She was going to Spokane to get her lavender chemo injections, which she was tolerating well. Her blood counts were good. She just couldn’t breathe. Or sleep. Or eat.

November 28 is the last entry. Her last sentence is a bit mysterious: “I have to stop. Something to do with nerves — I suppose.” The following page is dated “Tues. Nov. 29, 1983” and the day’s astrological squiggles are drawn into the top margin as usual, but the page is blank.

On November 30, 1983 I went home to grandma’s toward bedtime as usual. She was sitting at the kitchen table in her chair where she did her late night reading and writing. She hadn’t been out of bed much, so it was rare to see her sitting. My uncle had made custard, and I helped her eat a small serving. She couldn’t really eat more than a few bites of anything.

I got up to go to bed, and she said, “give grandma a kiss.” This wasn’t a typical request, but I kissed her soft cheek. Even as sick as she was, she smelled of face powder and jasmine. I don’t remember whether I told her I loved her that night.

She woke up in the middle of the night and couldn’t breathe. Grandpa Frank was there, trying to help her, but her heart gave up.

And now it has been 30 years. Grandma has come back into my life this year, in the form of diaries. It’s weird, her writing in 1983 is not very different from 1942. At 16 she was longing for her love, and in 1983 she was longing for her life. In both cases there was a strong sense of why me? Indeed, why?

There was a lot of unhappiness in her life from the very beginning. But there was still joy. There was the summer of Zip, and the elation of first love. There were her camera and her watercolors, and the peace she found creating art. There were holidays and grandkids. Her rituals of Christmas decor and present wrapping. There were the Sunday drives and the meals in diners. Even when she was sick and dying that October she stopped to note “a pretty blue and gold October day.”

I’ll never really get over the shock of that morning 30 years ago when she was just… gone. But her words survive, and I’m glad that I can still get to know her a little better.

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