Today would have been my Grandma’s 85th birthday. Her death just over four years ago was the heaviest grief I had ever encountered until that point in my life.
I knew it was coming. She had been unexplainably sick for quite some time, and though she was the strongest woman I knew, she was fading fast. She was serving Meals on Wheels, donating time and money to every cause that came her way, all while champion cheering for her entire family of six children all with multiple children.
Her life was a beautiful mess, and even after I moved six hundred miles away, she answered the phone every time I called to catch up, filled up my soul’s bucket with phrases like “You’re such a mess” and “For cryin’ out loud” and always ended with an “I love you, my doll face.” If I got her laughing good and long, she would say “You are a peach.”
I lived for her words, and they soothed me when I was so homesick and feeling far away. Every thunderstorm I was home, I would sit on my porch and call if I could. She gave me a love for all things in the garden, camping and bare feet, though I cannot tolerate a fraction of the outdoorsy hard work she did. She was tough as nails and made each child feel as though they were her favorite.
I remember the night I was sitting on my couch watching a movie with our whole family. All at once I felt this weight come on me, so strongly and I knew it was about my Gram. I excused myself from the movie and went upstairs to my bedroom, shaking and asking God what was going on. It was so strong and so real, I felt that at any moment I was going to get a call that she was gone, but that just didn’t seem right. I sat there until I could control my voice and called my aunt who had been spending the most time with her. She was very kind, but I could tell by the tone of her voice that things were not looking good. I hung up in disbelief, trying to reconcile this news with my invincible Gram?
It wasn’t a few weeks later that I knew I had to go see her. Tim didn’t even bat an eye lash, kissed me and the kids good bye and let us go on what the kids thought was an early summer vacation.
In many ways, it was.
My parents work so hard to make every moment count when we are together, even if that means having pedal cars and snacks on the driveway as we drink tea on the porch and watch the sunset.
My mom kept my kids at home that day so my sister and I could go visit my Gram, resting at home about 50 minutes away. We sat on the porch just like old times, laughed and caught up, but she was so tired she asked to go for a nap. I had never heard that before and pushed through my frozen fear to fake an obedient smile to make her comfortable. I changed her sheets and helped her upstairs, kissed her good night, scrubbed her fridge while my sister cleaned the yard, and we left in quiet awe.
I went one more day that week, taking my daughter Abby. Gram had gifts waiting for Abby that she still treasures to this day, and we sat and visited until my aunt came to pick her up and bring her to her own home because Gram was just too weak to be left alone. I saw her car pull up the driveway and the tears just sprang out of my eyes. I wasn’t ready to say good bye. Even writing this memory now unlocks more tears at the reliving of this moment. She must have seen the panic in my face and I reached down to hug her good bye, trying to be brave. She pushed me back to look me square in the face. “It’s okay, darlin’. We will see each other again. We will see each other again.”
A week later I was driving my two oldest babies back to NY to plan her funeral.
After the first tidal wave of grief washed over me and I had to begin the next chapter without her, I found a new, huge void in my life as I began our journey in to foster care. I had no one to call to hash my fears out. No one to give practical common sense advice. No one to remind me that I had a secret weapon, my biggest fan. She was gone, and I grieved and limped along some more, reminding myself that I knew “what she would have said,” and that had to be enough.
When our foster buddy came in acting more like a wild animal than a child, I missed her to laugh with me through my tears of unbelief and exhaustion. As the battle raged long and ugly, and we were asked to consider keeping him, she wasn’t there for me to ask how I could live a life like this so hard for so long, and did she think it would ever get better? When they told us his sister would need a permanent home as well so would we consider that, she could not answer the phone to hear me out, let me cry, then tell me to take a deep breath and put my big girl panties on and save the world.
Through those dark moments of grief and loss, I remembered her last words to me. Even as I sobbed until my eyes were swollen. I could still see her face so clearly, so assuring I couldn’t help but believe her.
And I knew exactly what she meant.
She wasn’t speaking about seeing her again at 20 Calais Avenue in Cheektowaga, NY. She was explaining that we would be together again in the next world, and the peace I saw in her face told me it was as true as any promise I’d ever heard. It was my eternal hope that I would see her again.
And I held on to that with everything in me.
Instead of calling Gram on her landline (716-824-8003), I looked up to Heaven with my broken heart and swollen eyes and asked the Lord what it was He wanted, what it was we were supposed to do. I cried and listened and waited and listened some more. Moment by moment, He was faithful to meet me there and answer me. Although I was still grieving and lonely and afraid He filled in the gaps and kept me together when I would have fallen apart.
The book of Hebrews talks about the great cloud of witnesses that are the ones who were faithful to have gone before us, and that they can look down and see and cheer us from Heaven. (Hugely Paraphrased.) But as I sought the Lord to strengthen me and tell me what to do, you’d better believe there were moments I knew that I knew that I knew that I heard my Grandma’s voice, what she would have said and always her cheering me on.
Time went on and God met me in tangible ways too. He brought my tribe together, better and stronger than ever before. A family who rallies around to love and support these kids as their own. A church family that has stepped up and out of their comfort zones to accept my foster children as if they were my own, and miracle after miracle that turned bare survival to a hope and a future that I could dare to believe I could not just live with, but build a legacy with.
Today she would have been 85 years old. I nearly forgot what day it was in the holiday haze and traveling shenanigans and exhaustion of summer juggling of work and kids at home…
“Good morning, M-O-M,” peeped my foster buddy around the bathroom corner where I was getting ready.
I froze and tried to play it cool. “What did you say?” I teased.
“Good morning, M-O-M” he said louder, more clearly.
I could barely scarce to hope today was the day. Seriously, less than 18 hours before, I had hidden myself in that same bathroom to steal an uninterrupted phone call with my mother and chatted about a Disney trip I had shared I wanted to take the kids on. “I just don’t know” I told her, conflicted. “All the money and supposed to be the trip of a lifetime, maybe we’re not ready yet? I can’t bear the thought of going through all of it to be walking down the road to Magic Kingdom and hearing “Tara?” or “Miss Tara?” along with “Mom.” I just don’t think our family is ready yet. Mom sympathized and encouraged and listened and cheered me on. We would discuss it another time when I could think about it better. But the conversation was a raw truth on my broken heart that evening.
Now here stood this glowing, smiling face, still a little sleepy but so nervous and excited, non-matching pajamas and holding his stuffed panda he had “won” at the video arcade with my parents last week.
“I don’t know who you’re talking to,” I teased some more as I chased after him into the kitchen. “Are you talking to me?”
“Yes!” he shouted between giggles! “M-O-M! M-O-M! Mom! Mom! Mom!” he could barely get the words out for his nervous anxiety and happy giggles and wiggles that come with big emotions when you’re six and scared.
I could hardly process the reality of what I was standing in. His little voice didn’t even sound like his own because I had hardly heard him use that word in the twenty-some months he had lived with us. I had held him in my arms since he was 4, and he will not even share our last name until he is well past 7, but here he was, trusting us enough to call himself a member of our family. Today.
My other sleepy kids that were around to hear him cheered and laughed and teased. “Hello, Brother,” my sons all mocked. “Hello, Sister,” they teased back and forth. I exchanged glances with my daughter Abby over and over in those moments. Was this actually happening? Was it just a fleeting moment? Would it end?
Who knew? And who can even promise any one tomorrow?
I’ll take this moment while it lasts, please.
I stepped off the porch to walk to work, four of the kids playing marble works outside on the porch as I said good bye.
A chorus of “Bye!” “Bye, Mom!” and “Love you!” all followed me down the stairs. And then, the smallest voice of all spoke up so clearly: “Bye Mom! Love you, too!”
Happy Birthday, Gram. Love you, too.