“No one should be this happy.”
On February 19th, 2016, those were the words I kept repeating to Andrew. It was a beautiful and unseasonably warm day in Knoxville, and we had just found out we would be moving to Denver. We opened the windows and spent most of the day dreaming about our new life, so thrilled that we were going to have a new adventure in the beautiful state of Colorado!
We spoke with our families who, for the most part, shared our excitement. When I called my Babci’s (Polish for grandmother) house, my uncle told me she was at the hospital getting a stress test. I didn’t think much about it, and I was able to tell her the good news later in the day. I believe her exact words, peppered with disappointment, were, “Denver? That’s so far. I’m just so worried about everyone moving so far away.” (My cousin Angela would be moving to South Carolina in the coming weeks, and the way my Babci saw it, there was just no need for that). I had learned to deal with her disappointment in my living “too far from home,” so I wasn’t surprised at her response, but I was a bit sad knowing that I wouldn’t be able to visit with her as often as I had in the past.
During our time in Knoxville, Andrew and I had developed a close friendship with Kerry, one of the women in my cohort. She had also matched for her internship in Denver, and this was truly the cherry on top of our already huge ice cream sundae. That evening, we all celebrated with our Knoxville family. Even looking back, it is so difficult to put into words my feelings that weekend. We were over the moon and so giddy with excitement.
The next few days are a bit of blur. But at some point, I found out my Babci would need to have surgery to have stents put in her heart. I wasn’t terribly worried, I figured it would be a routine procedure, no big deal. Then on Tuesday, my mom let me know she was being transferred to Pittsburgh and would be having bypass surgery the following day. Not sure what to do or how to approach the situation, I spoke with my Aunt Ginna who happens to be a cardiology nurse. “I don’t know if you should come home or not, but this is very serious.” Although when I talked to my Babci, she acted as if everything was fine, putting on her all too familiar brave face and telling me I did not need to make the trip home.
This struggle of deciding whether or not to go home had been a familiar one over the past few years. I had lost one of my grandfathers in 2013 and the other in 2014. I can still remember so vividly the struggle of deciding whether or not to drop everything and go home or wait and see. As it turns out, I was surrounded by immensely supportive people who knew how much I valued my family and encouraged me to go home to see my grandfathers in their final days. I will hold onto my gratitude for these individuals for a long time, as having the opportunity to be present when my grandfathers took their last breathes will always be some of my most treasured moments. These moments were filled with so much love and peacefulness that ultimately made my grieving easier. I felt content knowing that I had learned a lot from my grandfathers and that although they were no longer alive, the lessons they taught me would always be part of me.
After much debate, I decided I would drive home as I would have the opportunity to see my Babci in person prior to her surgery because it wasn’t scheduled until Wednesday afternoon. On Wednesday morning, I drove to Pittsburgh with my parents and my Aunt Theresa and stood in my Babci’s ICU room. We laughed and joked that day as if nothing was different. She occasionally made comments about things we would need to know if she didn’t make it through the surgery. Trying to keep things light-hearten, I asked if she had any big family secrets she needed to tell us. Prior to being taken into surgery, she insisted on calling all of my cousins and my aunts and uncles that weren’t able to be there that day. She said “I love you” to each and every one of us. As I hugged her for the last time, I wanted to tell her how much of an influence she had been on me, but I couldn’t get the words out.
The surgery went well and we were all hopeful that evening. On Thursday when I got to the hospital, she was still connected to the breathing machine and couldn’t talk. However, it was clear that she knew I was there and she was even able to squeeze my hands. My uncle came a couple hours later and she kept motioning to us by trying to put her hands together, but neither of us could figure out what she wanted. She continued to try to get us to understand and finally I understood– she wanted us to pray! Upon my realization, I said, “Of course, how could I have been so stupid?” And she gave me a look that could only have meant, “Seriously, I could have knocked you in the head.” We spent the next hour praying together. This was our last real interaction. She was present and alert, and even though she couldn’t talk she was there with me, just as much as I had been there with her.
As a child I was pretty emotional. I cried a lot and pretty much everyone in my family was annoyed by my relentless feelings. Not my Babci though. She would talk to me whenever I needed her. She was so present for me throughout my entire life. She genuinely cared about what I thought and how I felt. My favorite place in the world was sitting in her living room talking about life. As a child she babysat me while my parents were at work, and my favorite summer memories include time spent at her house with my cousins. When I was old enough to drive, my dad required me to pay $3 in gas money every time I wanted to visit her, something we both thought was ridiculous, but it just gave us another way to bond. Andrew and I spent many Friday nights in high school sitting at her house building puzzles and talking with her and my Dziadzi. I would sometimes joke that she was my soulmate. I don’t actually believe in soulmates, but I certainly believe that she understood me in a way no one else in this world ever will. Trying to capture her role in my life and the importance of our relationship is hard, sometimes feelings can’t be put into words.
On Thursday night, the doctors found a blood clot in her leg and did another surgery. A big chunk of my family was at the hospital on Friday, and unfortunately we didn’t get to spend as much time with her. By Friday night, I was pretty tired so I decided that on Saturday I would sleep in and go for a run before going to the hospital again. I drove to my Aunt Ginna’s house Saturday morning because the two of us would be driving up together. When I walked in time stopped for a moment, as my Aunt Ginna told me my Babci had died.
The tears came and they wouldn’t stop. I was devastated. One week ago, my life was perfect. I was over the moon. And then in a flash I had lost the most influential woman in my life. Granted I didn’t need her the way I did when I was a child, but I wanted to continue sharing my life with her. I wanted to see the look on her face when I told her I was pregnant. I wanted to hear her tell me I lived too far away. I wanted to sit in her living room together. I wasn’t content and peaceful the way I had been when my grandfathers died. What I was experiencing is something I wasn’t prepared for– intense unrelenting grief.
Being a psychologist in training I had learned about grief. I knew what it looked like and the ways in which it could impact someone, but nothing prepared me for what I was about to experience.
It’s hard to remember the first few days following her death. I do remember feeling so grateful for everyone who reached out to me during that time. Another one of my most vivid memories was saying goodbye to her at the funeral home before driving to her funeral mass. I was clutching her arm so tightly because I didn’t want to let go. As Andrew and I waited in the car for the procession to begin, we prayed the Divine Mercy. As I cried, I tried to embrace the last prayer.
“Eternal God, in whom mercy is endless and the treasury of compassion — inexhaustible, look kindly upon us and increase Your mercy in us, that in difficult moments we might not despair nor become despondent, but with great confidence submit ourselves to Your holy will, which is Love and Mercy itself.”
I was having a difficult moment, but I was struggling with believing my Babci’s death was indeed God’s will. Logically I knew I needed to accept her death, but emotionally, I just couldn’t see past my own sadness.
Andrew and I drove back to Knoxville after the funeral, and I was looking forward to getting back into my routine. But it wasn’t as easy as I had anticipated. I woke up in Knoxville feeling like if I moved forward with my life, I would be forgetting her. It was as if time was slowed down and the entire world had turned grey. And I was so tired all the time. There were days I couldn’t get off of the couch and I couldn’t seem to regulate my emotions. The smallest things would make me inconsolable. I hated the way I felt and I was worried that my sad attitude was going to push everyone around me away.
Determined to find some peace, Andrew and I decided to go for a hike in the Smokies. I was convinced that some cold, March air would surely do the trick. I was certain that I would connect with her and feel like myself again. The hike was beautiful, the air was cold. I felt grey and sad. Not one ounce of joy. I was so frustrated with myself for not being able to find peace and continuing to feel upset. This wasn’t me. It was as if I was outside of my own body just watching myself go through the motions of life.
I was back at school, but everything felt like an immense effort. Walking to my car was exhausting. Doing anything more than the bare minimum was out of the question. Looking back I’m not sure how Andrew was able to handle all the crying that was happening. At some points, he had no choice but to call in reinforcements. To those friends who sat with me in those dark moments, thank you. After about a month, slowly but surely, I started seeing color again. I started feeling happy again. Bit by bit, I was becoming myself once more.
The grief of that first month was heavy, it was ugly, it was selfish. But it also gave me a new found understanding of what it means to experience grief and depression. It was painful and I wanted it to end, but no matter how hard I tried I couldn’t get rid of it. Over time, it was less suffocating and came in waves. The sadness would hit randomly and with every new thing that happened. As we were preparing for the move to Denver, I kept thinking about how I wanted everything to stay just the way it was when my Babci died. Somehow moving and changing my life would mean I was accepting my life without her and that did not feel right.
My mom, aunts, and uncles were cleaning out and selling her house. The home where I had my favorite childhood memories. My safe place. The place where no matter who you were or what you had done in your life, you would be loved. That was tough for me to process, the last little bit of her I felt like I had.
As my birthday approached, I didn’t want to celebrate. I had that same eerie feeling that if I moved forward happily, I would be diminishing her or the importance of who she is to me. As I walked into work, the Tuesday before my birthday, I reached into my pocket and pulled out one of her handkerchiefs. Stitched in bright red lettering were the words “Happy Birthday.” That one hit me hard. A perfect combination of happy and sad tears, but for one of the first times since her death, I felt connected to her again.
Andrew and I made the decision to spend the holidays in Denver. A huge part of me didn’t want to face a holiday without her. I was still trying to find a new normal. A place where I could hold onto her memory and the lessons she taught me, while still moving forward with my own life. I watched home movies, I listened to voicemails she left me. I prayed.
My Babci wasn’t perfect. She had a temper that could catch fire in an instant. She had strong opinions that she always shared, like it or not. She was the strongest woman I have ever met. She often held the weight of our family on her shoulders, but never stopped loving each and every one of us. She was the glue that held our family together, a true matriarch. She was thoughtful and tried to make each of us feel special. She took her love of recycling to the extreme. She never shied away from having meaningful conversations with me. No matter my question, she gave me her genuine answer. She taught me what it meant to be a strong wife and mother. She taught me about life. She is the reason I want to be a grandmother some day.
As we approach the 1 year anniversary of her death, I still find myself hit by waves of grief. I still find myself searching for a way to ensure that I don’t forget her. Time has helped. And deep down I know I will never forget her. But there is still a desire to share my experience as a way to keep her as an important part of my life.