My wedding date was initially set for June 23, 2002. In January of 2001, however, as we looked at the cost of a huge wedding and at the long wait to finally be married--after we'd already been together for over five years--we decided to move the date up and just have an intimate, outdoor wedding, inviting only immediate family members. We decided to get married on July 7, 2001.
Added to the reasons to the change of date were the compounding health issues of my maternal grandmother. Grandma Wilcox had congestive heart failure, and though her health had never been great, there had been a steady decline that made me worried. I wanted to make sure that she got to watch me get married. For me, that was biggest reason to get married sooner rather than later.
Putting a wedding together in about six months initially seemed to be a pretty daunting task; however, we planned small and everything seemed to fall into place. Everything, that is, except my grandmother's health. It began to decline steadily, and we began to make preparations in case she was too ill to attend the wedding.
For the most part, I just wanted to make sure she would get to see me in my wedding dress.
My mother, a wonderful seamstress, was making my dress for me. She finished sewing it about a month before the wedding. I drove up for my final fitting, and we took it to my grandparents’ house so Grandma could see me. She was tickled, both at how I looked as a bride and at my mother’s sewing skills, most of which were learned from her.
At the end of June, as we were finalizing wedding details and getting ready for the big day, I received a call that my grandmother was not doing well. Everyone in the family was encouraged to come up and see her, just in case. I knew what “just in case” meant, and my fiancé drove me north the next morning.
I didn’t say good-bye, not out loud. I sat next to her as she rested in the recliner, held her hand, and talked to her. I held her hand and cried for fear of losing her. My wedding wasn’t the only event I didn’t want her to miss. I didn’t want her to miss any part of the rest of my life.
And somehow, through the grace of God, she pulled through. She still wasn’t healthy, but she was alive, and that was enough to give me hope. I wasn’t so naïve as to believe she’d live forever; I just expected her to live longer. She’d been given her “death sentence” so many times before, and she’d always proven the doctors wrong. She would do it again. I returned home and to my wedding planning with renewed hope that she would be there to see it all.
Several days before my wedding, I headed north again. My fiancé was staying behind and would be coming up on the morning of our wedding day. I would spend the next couple of days completing the last minute details, things like decorations and favors.
My grandmother was still quite ill, and I’d accepted the fact that she would probably be too ill to attend the ceremony. Her dress was hanging hopefully on the back of her bedroom door, but we knew it would probably just stay there, that she’d be unable to attend. My fiancé and I, instead, planned to visit her after the reception so she could see us in our wedding finery, admire our matching wedding bands. It wasn’t my ideal, but it was good enough; I just wanted her to be a part of my wedding day. I just wanted her to be around.
I woke up on the fourth of July after having slept in a little later than usual. My mom had already left to go to my grandparents’ house. Skipping breakfast, I hopped in the shower so I could get ready and get more work done on the wedding decorations.
I had just stepped out of the shower and started drying off when my father banged on the bathroom door.
“Nichole?! Get the kids! Grandma just died!”
His panicked and choked voice was already fading as he ran down the hallway. The front door slammed even as I squeaked out the word, “What?”
I dressed quickly, not bothering to put on half of my clothes. My brain couldn’t process what he’d said. I understood it on a logical level, but that was about it. Grandma was dead?
I opened the bathroom door, getting ready to find my brother and sister. I was trying to figure out how to be the one to break the news to them. I didn’t have to. My father’s booming voice had woken them both.
My sister, whose bedroom was adjacent to the bathroom, was sitting on the floor when I pulled the door open. She was mostly dressed but was having trouble pulling on her socks. She couldn’t see through the veil of tears.
I pulled her into a hug, wrapping my arms all the way around her slender body. As she wept in my arms, I remembered that it was my sister’s birthday, and I thought of how this would not be a day to celebrate and that it might now be ruined forever for her.
Releasing her from my arms, we sped down the hall. My brother was emerging from his room, his eyes red. I asked if he were okay, to which he just nodded. Stoic men run in my family.
I know that I drove us to my grandparents’ house, but I don’t remember any of that ride. The next thing I knew, we were there, walking up the ramp to the front porch.
My parents were out there, my mom weeping in my father’s arms. He was crying, too, struggling to keep his emotions in check so he could take care of my mom. Soon, we were all a mix of arms and tears, all of us embracing, trying to comfort and seek comfort at the same time.
I think that I was the first to pull away. I had to see her. Not to see that it were true; I knew that Grandma was gone. I wanted to make sure that I got to tell her some things before her soul had completely slipped away. I hoped that part of her could linger just long enough for all of us to do that.
It was hard for me to see her like that, see her looking so unlike herself. I stood there for a moment before taking her already cooling hand into mine. I leaned down and whispered to her that it was okay that she was gone, that I understood she couldn’t attend my wedding in person but would be coming as an angel. I promised to make her proud of me. Before I began to cry again, I kissed her soft cheek and told her that I loved her.
Returning to the porch, I found my sister. I could see that she was struggling with going into the house. I told her that I would go with her if she wanted me to. She nodded, and we went in. She burst into tears and turned to find my mother’s waiting arms.
The rest of the family began to arrive, and a familiar scene to ours played out. Hugged consolations on the front porch. Choked good-byes in the living room. Gathered embraces in the kitchen.
I took it all in, feeling helpless and wishing there were more I could do.
I stole glances at my grandfather, sitting so stoically next to my grandmother, ever her protector.
I watched as my Aunt Tanya sat with Grandma, stroking her hand and smiling at her.
I listened as my Aunt Melea sobbed that she hadn’t been there, that she hadn’t been at the house when her mother passed away.
I listened as my Uncle Rusty replayed the morning, telling of catching my grandfather and my mother as they both sank toward their knees in the knowledge of what they had just lost.
The morning wore on. Family arrived as soon as they were able, and we all felt comfort in each other’s presence. My cousin, Tara, was last to arrive, having been on the road and therefore unaware of our grandmother’s death. Her father met her in the driveway to tell her the news, and he held her before bringing her, stunned and upset, inside.
Once everyone had arrived, once everyone had a chance to say a final good-bye, the funeral director arrived. The entire family went outside so that he could attend to our wife, mother, grandmother.
We stood in front of the garage door in a haphazard circle, each of us looking shell-shocked and weary. I don’t remember who made the suggestion, but in minutes, we were all standing in a circle and holding hands while my Uncle Kevin, my grandmother’s oldest child, led us in prayer. As the prayer closed, the hearse drove away, and we all hugged and cried as the dust from the road swirled around our feet.
That night, after we had returned home and completed our nightly farm chores, my family (my parents and siblings and I) returned to my grandparents’ home. Behind their house, about a quarter of a mile up an old farm road, is the family pond and pavilion. We celebrated my sister’s birthday up there, had a picnic and ate cake.
The sun was starting to go down, and we were just sitting, enjoying the serenity and lost in our thoughts. The sun was golden, reflecting and shimmering in the surface of the pond. Occasionally, that reflection would ripple, the water furrowed by a gentle summer breeze. From our hilltop perch, we could see the back of my grandparents’ home, see the lights of the house and the lights of cars as they came and went.
Just as we were thinking that it was time to head home, stopping at the house to see the family once more on the way out, we saw movement from the end of the road that leads to the pond. A head appeared soon transforming into an entire body as someone walked in our direction. That body was joined by another and another; an entire group of people was moving toward us.
As they crested the hill on the near side of the pond, the breeze carried a sound to our ears. It was the voices some of my grandmother’s children and grandchildren singing “Happy Birthday” to my sister. Their voices grew louder as they reached the pavilion and finished their song. We clapped and laughed, even as our eyes filled with tears.
That’s family. That’s my family. That’s the love my grandmother taught to all of us.