How do you mourn someone from half a world away?
In the U.S., mourning rituals tend to center around being with your family, or the family of the bereaved. In my experience, there’s often some generic cold cut trays and veggie platters. People are somber and sad, or feel like they should be, even though in very big families it might be the first time you’ve seen your cousins in months, if not longer, and it’s hard to resist the joy of just being together. People share memories of their loved one, or maybe look at old pictures together. But what do you do when you can’t be there?
Before we moved here, Micah and I talked about what situations would justify a flight back to the States. We are unfortunately missing some big events while we are here- a graduation, a wedding, and a new nephew’s birth- but a funeral felt different. We had agreed that a funeral would be important enough to make the 30-hour trip back. At least for one of us. The cost would make it difficult for us both to go. But one of us would go. Probably. I imagine every expat has thought about these questions and made decisions in advance about what circumstances would require a trip home. It’s not easy. And it’s difficult when they are merely hypothetical questions and you don’t have the context to make the decision properly.
And then, it was suddenly a real question rather than a hypothetical for me. My grandmother passed away on 25 November, in Massachusetts. She had lived in a nursing home the last several years, and the several years before that she was living with one of my aunts. She had dementia and I think she thought was a teenager staying in a hotel, on vacation with her parents. (Though I wouldn’t choose living with dementia for anyone’s grandmother, reliving happy years might not be a bad way to spend your last months.) She had been in declining health, and I knew it was likely she would pass away while we were here, but it still somehow snuck up on me.
We visited her last summer before moving to Malaysia. She was holding a small nun doll, it looked like the nun from the Madeline children’s books. She held it up to Micah and I and said, “How do you like my lady?” Of course we recognized it as a nun, but since she introduced it to us as “her lady” we felt we should continue calling it that. Micah said, “I like your lady. Tell me about her, where did you get her?” And, in typical Grandma fashion, she said, “Well, she’s a nun! But of course you wouldn’t recognize that because you aren’t Catholic.”
Grandma grew up in Boston. She firmly believed that Irish Catholics (Boston Irish Catholics in particular) are morally superior to everyone else, and didn’t have a problem making her opinion known. Even with her devout faith, none of her children or grandchildren shared her religious fervor. (Perhaps that should read because of her devout faith…?) My family decided on a small, graveside memorial service, with no mass. As difficult as it has been to figure out how to mourn Grandma from half a world away, I am truly thankful to not have to rush back for a week’s worth of formal mourning. This really helped make my decision about whether to return or not.
Thanks to the horrendous winter the Northeast experienced, my family wasn’t able to hold a memorial service until this week. In November, I was set to fly back. I even had a list of what clothes I needed to pack and what clothes I would need to borrow or acquire once I got to Massachusetts. But now that I’ve had some time to process and mourn on my own, I decided not to go. For one reason, it doesn’t feel quite so urgent to go back as it did several months ago. For another, our circumstances have changed quite dramatically and it’s much more complicated for me to fly back now.
I will admit that I feel a little guilty about not being there, but I know it’s the best choice for me, personally. So while my family gets together this week and no doubt shares their favorite Grandma memories, here is one of mine.
She loved the Celtics and the Red Sox, though I remember her following the Red Sox more. She told me about going to the ballpark when she was little to see Ted Williams- the Greatest Hitter Who Ever Lived. (And his teammates, of course, but she always only talked about Ted.) I inherited my own love of the Red Sox through my grandmothers on both sides of my family. She had retired to Florida while I was still a kid, and as an adult I had thought about taking her to Spring Training at some point. In 2003, at my college graduation, I told her the outline of my plan:
Me: Grandma, I’m thinking about going to Spring Training next year to see the Sox.
Grandma: And I suppose you want to stay at MY house? (Typical Grandma!)
Me: No, I thought you and I could go together. We’ll stay at a hotel close to where their games are and go to a couple of them.
Grandma: Oh, I would like that!
My mother: I want to go, too!
We both turned to look at her and said simultaneously, “But you don’t even like baseball.” My mom said, “I’ll pay for the hotel and buy the tickets!” So my mom, who didn’t even like baseball, was invited on the trip with us. And she did pay for the hotel and buy the tickets! (To my mom’s credit, she did follow the team that year, the year they won the 2004 World Series, reversing The Curse of the Bambino.)
That trip was the first time I had ever had true “adult” time with my grandmother, and it was really nice. My mom was battling cancer and her energy levels ebbed and flowed. We were having dinner at some generic chain restaurant after an afternoon at the ballpark, I think it was a Bennigan’s, and my mom’s energy hit the floor. We had already ordered, and she didn’t want us to have to skip dinner, so she went out to the car to nap. I had ordered a beer, and their happy hour promotion was “buy one get one free.” I assumed my second beer would come after I finished the first one, but the waitress brought both of them at once! So here I am with two beers, eating dinner with my grandmother, who, as far as I could remember, didn’t drink. I don’t even remember her having wine with dinner. Ever. I felt really sheepish.
Then Grandma told me about a trip she and my grandfather had taken to the Jack Daniel’s distillery and how she really enjoyed their Lynchburg Lemonade! And she had two of them while my grandfather was chatting with someone, and he didn’t know why she liked them so much! I couldn’t believe it! This was a side of Grandma I had never seen. After we had paid the check, I asked if she was ready to go. She said, “Did you finish both of those beers already?” Again I felt sheepish and mumbled, “Yes.” “That’s my girl! OK, let’s go then.” I remember thinking What just happened??
So there you have it. A “typical Grandma” memory, about her jab for my inability to insist on a Catholic upbringing as a small child, and my favorite memory, about going to Spring Training with her and my mom.
A traditional Irish prayer for “times of sorrow”:
May you see God’s light on the path ahead
When the road you walk is dark.
May you always hear,
Even in your hour of sorrow,
The gentle singing of the lark.
When times are hard may hardness
Never turn your heart to stone,
May you always remember
When the shadows fall—
You do not walk alone.