In an ironic twist, I am pushing back my article about how breaking expectations to ourselves can be crippling. No, that’s not what’s happening here. Something more time-sensitive has come to my attention, so I expect that you’ll cut me some slack when I push it back a week. But if you don’t…? That’s on me. :D
This story was written in honour or Death Awareness Week, May 13-19, 2019.
Last summer we celebrated Gran’s one hundredth birthday by having a family reunion at her house in St. Bruno, Quebec. Four generations turned up, the teens even brought dates.
It was chaos.
See, my cousin Charlotte put herself in charge of the whole thing. She sent out invitations and… that was it. “Family Potluck in Bruno July 7 @ noon.” Sweet!
On the day I got the family packed up, threw towels, a lasagne, and the spinach artichoke dip in the back of the hatch, and headed out. After a quick stop for wine, we were headed for the Victoria bridge. The day was stunning, hardly a cloud in the sky. With temperatures forecast to reach the high 20s, I was looking forward to cooling off in the lake.
We got to our family property just after twelve, and there were already forty or more people running around. There were nine spinach and artichoke dips on the picnic table on the back deck. And seven lasagnes. I was beginning to detect a problem.
“Where’s Gran?” I asked Charlotte.
“I dunno. I figured someone would bring her out,” she replied, looking around.
I sent a blast text out to the family to see if my cousin was right. Nope, no one had thought to stop by the retirement home to collect the guest of honour. Fortunately, my brother Jim hadn’t left the city yet. It was going to be cramped in his car, but they’d manage. “Sure," I thought, “that’s exactly how she would have envisioned her last road trip, surrounded by misbehaving kids, the smell of decades-old tobacco smoke leeching from the upholstery into her polyester-wrapped butt.
Meanwhile, back at the homestead, more family members had begun arriving. And more lasagnes. A dozen Caesar salads and seven Crock Pots of meatballs had been added to the, what, mix? Is mix even appropriate in the context of four identical foodstuffs? Did I mention the spinach and artichoke dip? We had enough to spackle-texture every ceiling in the 3500 square foot house. Including the basement!
Crying. Now I hear crying. And not just the fake, Bobby pushed me into a puddle crying of a four year-old. This was wailing. I ran toward the source of the sound and found my third? fourth? maybe second even? cousin Amy, age eight, with blood gushing out of a gash in her forehead. It turned out that the kids, having found nothing better with which to amuse themselves, made a game of Who Can Throw the Rock the Highest? The good news is, Amy’s got a great little arm…
Inside we go to get her cleaned up. Gran was a nurse as is my sister Olivia. I enlisted the younger’s help and she corralled a still-screaming Amy deeper into the house in search of the first aid kit. I turned on my heel to see what other fires needed putting out and immediately stepped into a huge pile of dog s#!t. Perfect! “Who’s watching these animals?!” I screamed internally.
As I was disinfecting my sandal (and foot) in the garage sink, Jim was helping Gran out of his low-slung car. Twenty minutes and a lot of swearing later – I totally get my potty mouth from her! – my sweat-soaked Gran had landed. I went over to her for a hug, stronger than you would ever believe, and asked if her walker was in the back of the car. Jim’s eyes went wide. He left it on the curb outside Gran’s building.
“Chicklet,” my grandmother whispered, addressing me by the pet name she gave me the day I was born, “I’d really like to change out of these smoky clothes. I have a dress in the house.” A day and a half later, I’d gotten her up the seven steps and across the threshold into the living room. “I’ll just have a rest here. Can you look for the dress?” I left her in the chintz-covered chair I’d always known to be hers. I don’t remember anyone else ever sitting in it.
Dress in hand, I returned to the living room. The look on my grandmother’s face was one of disgust. “What the hell is that smell, and what is it doing in my house?” she asked. I sniffed, recognising it instantly. Patchouli. My face likely mirrored Gran’s. In that moment the twentysomething wife of one of my cousins breezed into the room, reeking of the stuff yet rummaging for her bag for another spritz. She pulled out the little brown bottle and, before Gran or I could stop her, had reapplied. She didn’t even pay her respects to the birthday girl before escaping back into the garden.
Dabbing her eyes, Gran said, “I want so badly to leave this room, but I need to sit a bit longer. Be a dear, Chiclet; open the door.” After a second, she added, “And get me a drink.” The only daytime cocktail I’d ever seen Gran drink was a Pimm’s and ginger beer. I went over to the liquor cabinet but couldn’t find any, so I ventured outside. I discovered the cache of wine that had accumulated, but no one thought to bring Pimm’s. Head hung low, I returned to Gran’s side, hoping that a white wine spritzer would do. “My birthday and no Pimm’s?” Her disgust was palpable. She put down the glass. “Maybe I’ll just close my eyes,” she said dismissively and with more than a hint of the passive aggressive.
Outside, things had scarcely gotten more relaxed. There were over twenty kids on the floating dock, diving off of both boards, and nary an adult in sight. Yep. I said nary. This was serious. I looked around for someone who could watch the kids… Julie patchouli! She was in her bathing suit and seemed to be quite sober. And if the essential oils were to wash off in the lake, so much the better. She reluctantly agreed. Me? I had bigger fish to fry…
When I had emerged from the house, I noticed that no one had started eating. I looked around the table on the deck and could find neither plate nor fork, neither knife nor napkin. I jumped into my car and sped off, narrowly missing a yapping spaniel. I made a quick stop at Provigo for disposable dinnerware and another at the SAQ for a bottle of Pimm’s No. 1.
I raced back to the house eager to speak to Charlotte, find out what other gaps there were in the party-planning. It was another three trips into town for me, the last to pick up the birthday cake we ordered two hours before. I sent it in with one of the cousins via the front door so Gran wouldn’t see it and handed the candles to another. “Gather everyone!” I yelled to the group as a whole, before making my way to the living room.
What’s that, Gran?”
“I’ve been sat here three hours, staring out this window, watching them all have a great day at the lake, and not one person came in to sit with me, to talk to me, to bring me food, or to wish me a happy birthday.” That rant was more words than Gran had said in a row since she’d been ninety, and it set off a spate of coughing. “Fv@king ingrates.”
“I thought you were going to close your eyes?” I reminded her.
She rolled her eyes so hard, I’m sure she saw brain. “I tried, but as soon as I closed my eyes, there was the most God-awful racket!” It seemed the only person who had any music with them was my fifteen year-old nephew with the nose ring.
“Happy birthday to you!” rang out from the masses. At least they’d gotten everyone together. The cake was pushed through to the living room on a rolling kitchen cart. Gran blew out the candles reading ‘100’ and the family cheered.
Getting a whiff of the chocolatey cake, she turned to me and asked, “You know I’m allergic to hazelnuts, right?”
OK, that story never happened but it is the story that many of us live through when our loved ones don’t plan ahead. There’s a lot of confusion, a lot of running around, a lot of people on the sidelines not helping at all because they don’t know what to do. Kids and animals will run amok unless entertained in some way. And, invariably, most of the work gets dumped into the lap of a single person. Sadly, the last person anyone is thinking about is the Guest of Honour. It was Gran’s last farewell, and she deserved better.
Please plan ahead, people.
Planning for a peaceful rest of your life starts now.
Christie Morden is a legacy coach serving Calgary and surrounding areas. She helps people of all ages and all levels of health heal their relationships with things that have happened in their lives, with loved ones - living, dead, or estranged - and with their own eventual and inevitable deaths.