by Michael King
My early memories of my Grandma King are associated with the kinds of things children tend to connect to grandmothers: Jolly Ranchers on top of the fridge, ice cream sandwiches in the freezer, meals at holidays. Always handed over without a second thought. “Here you go, honey.” It wasn’t until many years later that I recognized this as a hallmark of her heart –– steady, unassuming, unconditional. The kind of love that stays when you’re holding trophies and when your life has fallen to pieces around your feet.
Grandma King lived in the same house throughout my entire life. It was the same house in which she and my Grandpa raised my father and his siblings, three sons and a daughter, all of whom went on to have kids of their own. Growing up, I knew Thanksgiving and Christmas Eve would find the King family crowding into Grandma King’s house. No matter how many kids found their way to our family, no matter how densely we filled her living room and kitchen, Grandma never seemed to feel crowded.
Each year, she made sure there were gifts under the tree for every one of us, a commitment that carried through to every Christmas we shared together. Some years, instead of asking, Grandma guessed at our clothing sizes, which found us swapping with each other on the car ride home. One year, we all opened our gifts to find she had given each of us a towel, as though she’d looked at the myriad options at Kohl’s and taken one of every color. At twelve or so, I didn’t know what to make of the gift except to laugh and say thank you, but now I find my mind returning to the hours we never saw. The times spent in department stores, likely with a handwritten list of names, times spent preparing meals for the incoming crowd.
Not long ago, I went with my parents and siblings to Florida for a beach vacation, and Grandma King came along with us. She liked the sun, enjoyed the time to relax and walk along the sand. One day, perhaps because of rain or a little bit of boredom around the beach house, we packed into our cars and made our way to an outlet mall. We wandered around, trying on sunglasses and bumping into one another throughout the scattering.
We gathered for lunch in a crowded food court, ate together at a long table, and, eventually, we stood to go. When she stood, Grandma King lost her balance, falling back into her chair and then onto the floor. My brother and father helped her to her feet quickly, and she insisted she was okay, but I caught sight of the fear in her eyes before she knew she’d be all right. I walked briskly into the bathroom, locked myself behind a stall and wept. It’s hard to watch the people we love grow older, to be afraid about what their bodies no longer do.
Every time I saw Grandma in the past five years or so, she grabbed both of my arms while she spoke to me, like she wanted to make the absolute most of our time together. She looked me right in the eye while I spoke, whispered that she loved me, hugged me tight during goodbyes. Her spirit was quiet but present, waiting patiently for moments with the people she loved.
This morning, the day after my twenty-ninth birthday, I awoke to a text message from my father letting my family know that Grandma had passed, peacefully, at the hospital. Her heart had tired itself out. I texted my father, let him know that I love him, and felt a million miles away. I rode the train to Central Park, went for a four-mile run, made my way back home, and wept for a moment on the couch. No amount of bracing makes heartbreak simple.
There are things people say at times like this, and perhaps they are things that are right. Perhaps Grandma’s body was tired, her spirit tired, and she woke up today, restored, in a better place. Even so, to the people accustomed to her laugh, to the way she gave without question, to the steady warmth of her spirit, today the world feels a bit colder. We inhale and exhale, and the lump beneath our sternums makes itself known.
I take comfort, today, in remembering the way Grandma loved all of us. She never seemed happier than when her living room was full, and so we filled it, again and again. She must have looked around, at times, and marveled at the worlds that emerged from her own life, her own children become parents, and then grandparents. Every one of us welcome, ushered in, granted whatever space we needed. It’s a love I aspire to embody, a love I will carry with me for all the miles ahead.