When a family loses a matriarch

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My grandmother died last night. When the phone rang just before 9, I knew. I knew even before I got up and saw "Dad" on the caller ID. I was lying in bed, almost asleep. I was waiting for the ring.

Earlier in the day, I went to her house. I drove fifteen minutes to the small bedroom community where I grew up. Take the main road, pass the church and turn by the high school. Her home is the anchor.

I went inside, hugged my dad and headed back to her bedroom. She was surrounded by her sister, daughter, son-in-law, a friend and the nurse. I slipped off my shoes and crawled up on the bed next to my aunt. I watched my grandmother take those dramatic breaths with long pauses in between. The breaths that let you know the end is near and leave you wondering if your loved one is perhaps, already gone.

The nurse checked her heart rate and noted it was high. "The fight-or-flight response," she said. When another friend came in, I slipped out into the living room. There were too many people, too much chatter. The nurse had indicated my grandmother needed to relax. She needed to let go.

I didn't get to go back in and say goodbye. I wanted to whisper in her ear and tell her that she had done her work. She had lived a wonderful life.  I wanted to say these things for myself. I wanted to put some closure on her life. I wanted to ask her to tell some people hello, when she got where she was going next.

I didn't need to say any of those things. I had taken the kids to see her last Friday, and that's when we really said our goodbyes. Her kidneys were shutting down, but she was awake and alert. She was able, with assistance, to leave her room and move to the couch in the living room. She held Cate and hugged my boys. She embraced me and said, "I want you to know I'm so proud of you."

She was crying. I've seen a lot of loved ones die. I've been there during those final hours. But this was different. This was the first time I had ever seen anyone grieve their own death. Cancer really does suck.

Because even though she was 81, she still drove to the hospital to see Cate when she was born. She still worked out at Curves and "ran the street" with her sister. The diagnosis came as a surprise and took over quickly. And I knew, eventually, I was going to have to talk to my kids. Dillon is 6 now, which feels too young to have to be burdened with the reality of death. But he's old enough to know.

"Dillon we're going to see Gigi. She's really sick. But it's going to be okay," I said. I suppose I meant, We'll be okay, because life has a strange way of going on.

"Is she going to get better?" he asked.

"No, Dillon. She's not going to get better. She'll end up going to heaven."

"So, then, it's not going to be okay."

"Well, no. You're right. But she's going to heaven, and that's good."

"But are you sure? I mean, do really know she's going to heaven?"

I was amazed at how pointed and how wise his questions were. "If anyone is going to heaven, Dillon, it's Gigi. I'm absolutely sure of that."

I remember the first time I realized that I was going to die. I about 5 or 6, and I was lying near a tree in the yard, inspecting a blade of grass. I don't know why or how it suddenly occurred to me that I wouldn't live forever. Would everything go dark? I didn't want to get old. I didn't want to go to this place called heaven. I wanted to stay young. I wanted to stay here. I didn't want anything to ever change.

And I want to protect my son from that. But I can't. He's old enough to watch what happens when a family loses a matriarch. All those aunts and uncles and cousins we saw on Christmas Eve? We were all there, year after year, because of her. He will witness the breakdown of a family tradition. And I know, because I saw her own tears, that my grandmother knew it too. I imagine it's hard to let go when you know you are the glue.

I tell my stories, hoping it opens a door to help you tell yours, too. So please, if you feel compelled to comment, share whatever is on your heart.