Thursday, November 24, 2016

Giving thanks for a beautiful life

I should (maybe, probably) be sleeping. Well, maybe not. If the body and mind are awake, it's for a reason, no? Ha. Tell that to my insomniatic self six years ago, when her life was particularly hard. That Bailey might have punched this current Bailey in the face for being so calm and casual about middle of the night awakeness.

It's 3:08 a.m.

(Maybe, probably) I should be sleeping.

I'm not sure what woke me up, but since I roused from slumber I've checked my phone, scrolled Facebook, snuggled on Max until he gently closed his teeth on my hand to say, "No no. We're done with that for now." I took a pee break and he took a chow break and now he's once again smashed against me, warming my left leg this time, and all is as it should be in the cat realm of life.

I grabbed my computer, intending to make a list of all the packing and chores I need to tackle before getting on a plane in 17 hours, but instead I turned on some peaceful Sarah Jarosz tunes and decided to write about what's been on my mind since Friday at 5 a.m., when my phone rang and my brother was at the other end of the line. The thing that's put me on a plane at the last minute, scrapping my plans to do nothing on Thanksgiving, here in LA, and now has me instead signed up to make sweet potatoes in a kitchen crammed with my siblings and their wives, trying to make sure Mom gets some rest and doesn't cook all the things for us.


A beautiful lady left us this week, and I'm feeling a little hollow.

I was her only granddaughter, and for the last year and some months, she was my only living grandmother.

She spent her last days surrounded by family and friends, who read her Psalms and rubbed her back, teased her about her crooked nose, and sang her hymns as she exited this life for the next. Selfishly I wish I had been there. I'm still dealing with that, and may be dealing for some time. I know not to feel guilty, and will probably be admonished by several not to feel as such, but right now I feel a little sad and weird about not being nearer to her the last four and a half years.

When I first left for college, my grandma told my older brother that she didn't have a hard time when he left for college, but that she was really going to miss me. I think that's kind of funny, of course, and also curious. Why grieve my leaving town? Ever since, when I have moved away from her, for graduate school, and later for this faraway land called Los Angeles, I have felt a twinge of guilt for being away. Now maybe more than ever. I realize now it's too late to feel guilty, inappropriate maybe, and yet.


A friend of mine recently posted on social media how once upon a time, she was so in love with her nuclear family, that she couldn't imagine welcoming another person in her life who she could possibly love so much as them. There wasn't extra room in her heart, she thought. She was proved wrong when she fell in love with her husband, she wrote. Her heart made room for him.

She had similar feelings for ushering a baby into her life -- where would she possibly find room in that oh-so-full heart of hers to love another? Just recently she had a daughter, and she says she's made room.

"The heart adjusts," she says.

I suppose my heart will adjust to these feelings of guilt, and eventually, hopefully, they will go away. Meanwhile, when I'm not feeling guilty, or hollow, I'm trying to focus on all the great things about my sweet Grandma.


My Grams, like all of us, did not lead a life without struggle. She never had a lot of money, worked hard as a farmer's wife, and she was preceded in death by a daughter and a grandson. For a good portion of her life, she suffered several physical ailments, chiefly severe back pain as a result of the most severe case of scoliosis I've ever seen.

Sure, occasionally she dropped the mask and expressed pain, but mostly she just smiled sweetly at us and enjoyed our company. I'm glad she had so many people to love on her, because if anyone deserved it, it was her.

Grandma developed a skill for basketball in her youth, and became so good at it that she was on her high school team. The school, located in rural Kansas, was far enough from her home that, given the snowy winter months, caused her to live with a family in town so that she could play the sport she loved. She told me once how terribly homesick she was during that time, like Amy in Little Women, away from her three older sisters. Of course Grandma wasn't in Europe like Amy was, but when we miss family we might as well be, right? Missing people we love knows no distance on a map.

Grandma's penchant for basketball was not exhausted on the courts of Troy, Kansas, and she went on to make the team at what is arguably the best basketball college in the nation: the University of Kansas. The famed "Phog" Allen was her gym teacher. She held onto her white basketball shorts all these years, and I have dibs on them if my brothers don't get to them first.

Grandma had the good sense, of course, to love a person more than a sport, and married her childhood sweetheart, Ken, leaving college and basketball behind. I wasn't there, but knowing her I'd say she did this willingly, happy to help on the farm and raise a family with the one she loved.

Even though she retired from playing, Grandma never stopped watching basketball, but let's just set the record straight and say that Grams' idea of "watching" basketball meant turning it off as soon as her team fell behind by, oh, two points. She couldn't handle seeing the Jayhawks not at their best, so devoted was she.

(For this reason I will be ever grateful to her for not writing me out of her life when I decided to go to school at her rival school, the University of Missouri. I reminded her that they paid for my education, in other words I was taking their money. She seemed assuaged with this, that smug, precious smile lighting up her eyes.)

After raising two girls, Donna and Jill, and later welcoming in six grandchildren and three great grandchildren, Grandma finally, in 1999, had to say goodbye to her husband of more than 50 years. She never stopped missing him, I don't think, but being a soldier for pressing on, she found ways to plow forward. After Grandpa's death, Grandma toyed with the idea of going back to college. Her alma maters, KU and a community college, said they would honor her previous credits, and with that Grams was headed to the bookstore, purchasing her first round of textbooks.

For several years, she would sit at her kitchen table and, with her left hand, underline passages in her history books. Though she wasn't a big fan, she begrudgingly used the computer my parents got her to hammer out her papers. Her favorite professor was a kind, quiet man with a ponytail, and one of her favorite students would frequently buy her coffee and place it on her desk before class. She didn't mind looking out of place on the Missouri Western campus; she had a job to do and didn't let anything stop her.

About six credits from the finish line, however, she told us of her academic pursuits, "This is silly." We all chorused in response that she was absolutely going to see this goal to the end, if for no other reason than we needed a reason to hoot and holler at a graduation ceremony, an admitted hobby of the noisy Brewer family. She plodded through those last semesters, only very seldom missing class due to inclement weather, and moments before my 80-year-old grandmother crossed the stage to get her diploma, I told my brother, "I'm so excited I'm going to throw up."

"You need to calm down," he told me.

"Geraldine Benitz," the announcer read her name, and as she took her time walking in her robe to claim her prize, we screamed and rang bells from the stands. It remains to this day my favorite graduation ceremony I've ever attended, and I doubt another will ever surpass it.

After college, we ribbed Grandma about getting a job, but slowly, we watched her slow down instead. She kept her spunk for another 11 years, still watching the Jayhawks shoot hoops and the Royals sling home runs. I believe she took a nap during game seven of the 2015 World Series, but I know she woke up to see her beloved team claim victory.

Last month when I talked to her on the phone, I asked how she felt about the Cubs being in the running this year. Having no sympathy for the underdogs of Chicago, she said, "I wish it were the Royals."

Grandma rekindled a friendship with a man named Franklin, who took her on her first date in her youth. Both widowed, they were grateful to find each other again, and they often talked on the phone at night, commentating on the games on their respective TVs.

She was visited frequently by family and friends in the area, and occasionally by rambunctious great grandchildren (and rambunctious, adult grandchildren) who visited from out of town. She played the piano, listened to big band music, and attended Bible studies. Though it made her sad, she moved out of her home to an apartment, and later to an assisted living facility. My parents set the bar extremely high in their care for her, making her room cozy and adorned with pictures, taking her to doctor's appointments, buying her warm socks and nagging her to use her walker.

Well, we all nagged her about that. Oh, to nag her one more time.

Grandma requested a drone for what would be her last Christmas with us, and she was gifted with one. Sadly, the powers that be at her residence rained on her technological parade, and told her she was not allowed to fly it on campus. She kept it in a box, though, and showed it off proudly when she had guests.

When Donald Trump ran for president, Grandma said she'd move to Cuba if he won. The day following the election, Mom brought her a suitcase with a tag affixed that read "Cuba or bust." Grandma instructed her to put it in the hallway, for all in her Red state to see. Mom of course obliged.


Grams has been gone for two days, and I keep thinking about the big things, like her graduation, but mostly my mind is caught up in the little things.

How she always pushed fudge or some other sweet on us. When I spent a spring break with her in high school, and she taught me to drive in the school parking lot. I remember, for who knows what reason, that Mom and I drove to see her one autumn. I remember I was reading Harry Potter in the car, and when we arrived, we were chatting with her in the kitchen, and Grandma waved fruit flies away from some pears.

It's things like the wave of her hand that I'll miss, simply because I can't see it anymore.

The heart adjusts, my friend says. She was talking about adjustment for more love to enter in, but I suppose that applies to making room for some grief to take up residence in our chests.

Right now I'm in a bit of bewilderment, in disbelief, that I really never get to see that soft, wrinkled hand gesture as Grandma talks. I know that I'm getting on a plane tonight, and I know the reason for my visit home, but my heart is being reluctant to adjust.

My brother posted a video to Facebook today, of Grams playing the piano, her great granddaughter at her side, and a baby James sidling up to press some keys. Grams shoulders jumped up and down in jovial laughter.

I believe that we will see Grams again. I don't know if we'll recognize each other then, but I know it won't matter at that point.

I'm grateful that she's now laughing and maybe playing a piano somewhere for some veterans, like she did this side of glory. I know and trust that my heart will adjust, to holidays without Grandma, to the fact that her number will be saved in my phone but that I won't dial it. 

I am sad that when I get off a plane tonight, there will be no detour from the airport to see a sweet lady.

A sweet lady who would be under an afghan, calling from her bed to "Come in!" A lady who would set aside her crossword and slowly sit up to greet us. Kind and loving, just like always. Setting aside her crossword and her pain, to just welcome us in.

Our hearts will adjust, but I predict it will be a long journey. For she loved us in so many ways, and we must heal and adjust as we miss each one.