To describe my grandma as a force of nature is an understatement. She loved fiercely and never took herself too seriously. She was a walking paradox – she was rebellious at her core, and yet other’s opinions could stop her in her tracks.
She was Jodi to anyone she ever met, Joanne if you wanted her to listen to you. To me, she was Plum – and I was the only one who used that endearment for her. As a little girl, she’d sing “You are my plum. Plum, plum, plum, my sugarplum,” and we’d argue who loved each other more. “I love you mostest” still rings in my ears.
She was my saving grace. For many years, she was the only one who would let me be just who I was – not striving for greatness or success. Everyone had a vision of what I could or should be. Her response? “Why do you want to grow up so fast? Just be the brilliant, charming girl you are – that’s enough,” she’d say. I could sit with her and feel safe and secure, no matter what whirled around us while growing up in Tornado Alley.
Plum passed away last week, and her death whipped up the frail edges of my understanding of the thin veil that exists between our world and Heaven.
To know my Plum is to witness a strong, defiant spirit who was equal parts loving and brutally honest. She unabashedly did things her way, always asking for forgiveness afterward but never permission, She spoiled her family with love and gifts in one moment, and then spoke truth in the snarky off-handed comments that made you feel seen. She always craved a celebration (her birthday pool parties were legendary).
Her face wrinkled from years of sunbathing and laughing too much, her mouth with thin lines from decades of smoking the Marlboro’s that I used to hide from her so she wouldn’t light one. “Lizard,” she’d say, reckoning the nickname my grandfather gave me years earlier. “You know you should never keep a woman from her coffee or her cigarettes. Now come with me to the porch.” I’d shrug and she’d chuckle, her smirk lifting the edge of her lip just so that I’d know she was amused, not upset.
Once the initial shock of her death wore off last week, I took a flashlight throughout the inner folds of my brain, striving to remember Jodi in all her glory. It has been almost four years since I’ve seen her in person, and our FaceTime conversations grew further apart as dementia and macular degeneration set in, making it harder for her to know how to use a phone.
We planned to be in Wichita this summer to celebrate her 90th birthday. My three year-old hadn’t met her yet, and if there was anyone I wanted him to meet, it was her. The woman who took me to my first movie. The one who would pick me up without question if I made a secret call when I needed to get out of a tense house during my parents’ divorce – and then made it seem like it was her idea. The one who, with one look into her loving eyes, cued you to be free, empowered and a little bit rebellious. Her perfectly permed hair bouncing as she greeted you with a hand on her hip and flailing, waving hands when you drove up her driveway (and insisted you roll down your window to say goodbye as you left).
In March, our family placed her in an assisted living facility. Once the Coronavirus started to spread throughout the U.S., her in-person 90th birthday celebration fell off the calendar, dashing the hopes of seeing her wrinkled, soft face for the foreseeable future. Her strong bear hugs, with a lingering fragrance of her musky perfume that stayed in your mind long after you let go. As the pandemic took hold, my hopes were completely dashed because I knew deep down, there was a chance she wouldn’t make it until I could see her again. COVID was spreading through nursing homes, but she also was becoming frailer. She was remembering less, able to see less, eating less, moving a little less.
I got the call from my mother last week that Plum fell in the middle of the night, likely walking to the bathroom. She passed quickly. As I grieved, I started recalling my middle of the night conversation with Brendan when he woke full of panic. It was near midnight and, as I was downstairs, I heard him screaming in his bed on the other end of the house. My husband tried to calm him down, but he kept calling for me. As I went in, it took him a few minutes to realize it was me, with the glassy-eyed scowl that signaled he wasn’t sure who he was looking at.
He took a deep breath and coldly looked at me and said “oh no, Plum. Oh no.” I thought he was asking me to sing the sugarplum song, her favorite song to sing to me, so I did. As he drifted off to sleep, he said “It’s ok, Plum.”
Realizing this stopped me in my tracks. I couldn’t breathe. I’ve always been open to the mysteries of how the living world and the beyond intertwine, but this seemed a bit out of my depth. When I asked Brendan what he remembered later that day, he didn’t remember much.
Surely this wasn’t possible – surely he didn’t dream about Plum.
Throughout the rest of the week, I rode the waves of grief alongside a pandemic Thanksgiving. At one point, it became so much that I snuck away to what my family knows as my “meditation spot” – a small patch of carpet in our guest bedroom that’s as far away and hidden as possible. I broke down – I couldn’t be strong anymore and needed to release all of the emotions in my own way. Brendan came up and snuggled next to me.
“Why are you sad, mama?” He asked.
“Well, I’m sad because my grandma died. She’s no longer living in this world,” I said.
He raised his eyebrow and cocked his head to the side, looking down. He understood and didn’t get all at the same time.
“You remember the woman we call Plum, right?” I asked.
“Yeah! She just went swimming mama. She was just trying to go swimming.” He explained. To Brendan, we often talk about the tub as a place we go swimming to get around the fact that saying the word “bath” freaks out our beloved husky.
“How do you know that, hun?” I peered at him with wide eyes.
“She told me.” His matter of fact statement reverberated through the room. He grabbed my head in his hands, just like she used to. Closing his eyes, he mumbled “It’s okay to be sad, mama. She’s okay.”
With all that Coronavirus has taken from us, from restrictions with our way of life to underscoring the frailty of life, it has given us more time to be curious and explore things we may have never considered. I wasn’t expecting to be comforted by chilling, mysterious signs of the unknown, but if it’s any way for my Plum and me to connect before I get to Heaven, I’ll take it.