It is early morning, and I have just left my bed and entered the bathroom. My phone, which also serves as my alarm clock, is still clutched in my hand. I flip on the light and it begins vibrating in my fist. It’s my mother.

I know why she is calling. I stare at it for a few seconds, but answer before it goes to voicemail. “Hi.” Her quiet voice answers a hello.

“Is she gone, then?” I ask.

“Yes,” she whispers.

When a 95-year-old person dies, that aspect of grief that consists of a sense that one has had time stolen from them is absent. The deceased person has been allotted all the life one can reasonably demand, and perhaps then some. But the part of grief that leaves those behind with a deep sense of loss remains. This is so even though she has not been available to us as the person she was for almost four years now. It doesn’t matter; we were still on the same side of the big divide, and therefore the roots she sank deep into my life did not have to be truly disturbed — until the quiet hours of a frigid January morning.

My grandmother lived in Florida. So what, you say; everyone’s grandparents do. Well, no. My grandmother left Indiana shortly after World War II as a widow with a young child — my mother — and went to join her older brother in south Florida, where things were happening. She lived there for more than half a century with the man she married, my Pop, until she could no longer reasonably live there alone. I spent long stretches of time there with her as a child. I took my first steps there. That place is etched into me, and she etched it. All of the alligator photography, all of the birds, all of the Florida writing — all of those things owe a royalty to the time I spent with her as a child. And not just from a geographic perspective; all the times she showed delight in a thing I had written, made, or said, it was  a coin thrown into my creative fountain. There were more coins than I ever imagined.

About two years ago, I went to Florida in the winter, called there again by my nature, and arrived at a beach. I put my earbuds in and decided, for no particular reason, that I would listen to Clair de Lune. I walked on the sand as those soaring notes offered narration for the tiny sanderlings as they chased the surf, and the squadrons of pelicans skimming the surface of the waves. And so serendipity gave me a transcendent moment.

When I mentioned it online, my aunt wrote to tell me that was one of my grandmother’s favorite pieces. I was surprised. How did I not know that? I thought I knew a great deal about my grandmother, about her regrets, joys, disappointments, loves, and even failures. But I did not know we shared a love for Clair de Lune.

Or did I? Did she play it once on the turntable in the hallway while I was curled up on her living room floor with a book? When I came to the piece as an adult, was I already predisposed by buried memory to love it? I don’t know.

I visited her on Sunday evening. She had pneumonia, and had already slipped into unconsciousness. I had left nothing unsaid during her lifetime, so I was not in the position of offering her my first thanks when she was unable to hear them. So instead I set my phone down on the arm of the chair, and pressed play. As the piano filled the room, her arm twitched a little bit, and her body quivered. I have no idea whether that had anything to do with the music, but she heard Clair de Lune one last time; that much I know.

As the last notes died, I thanked her again for helping to make me who I am. I told her I hoped she could go, that I knew she had not been happy since Pop died. I told her we would miss her, but we would all be all right, and so would she. I asked her to come for me when it was my turn. I touched her crepe-thin skin one last time.

And this morning, I find myself in the very common human position of having roots that begin deep in my heart, and end — now — somewhere I’ve not yet been, across a mysterious divide into the last wilderness I will ever explore.

If I want to feel her now, I will have to find her on the sand, in the palm trees, in the tang of a key lime pie or the notes of Clair de Lune. I’ll have to find her in myself.  That won’t be hard. She is woven all through me.

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20 thoughts on “Claire de Lune

  1. Oh, Jennifer…
    What a beautiful goodbye to a life well-lived and much loved. Thank you for sharing this. The tears are streaming, of course, but there is joy with the sadness because you had this wonderful woman for so very long. And she had you.

  2. I’m so sorry for your loss but I’m so happy that you have so many wonderful memories of your grandmother. Those connections are rare, they play such a part in us becoming the people that we are.
    I’m in the same boat, having lost my grandmother in August.. I was on safari in South Africa, surrounded by the most beautiful scenery and wilderness imaginable and I just felt it. I knew she’d gone. But let’s face it, they never really leave us. They are always somewhere nearby 🙂

  3. Very nice goodbye, I too experienced very similar thoughts and emotions at my grandmother’s passing in 2000 at the age of 96. Though ravaged by stroke, I bent by her ear one last time and talked gently to her. She lay with her eyes closed but mouthed responses to my questions. We ‘talked’ like that for a few minutes. I asked if she wanted me to say Hi to my parents for her, as I was travelling to see them. She nodded her head gently and said ‘yes’. We told each other we loved the other and said our goodbyes.

    Everyone had told me she wouldn’t recognize me, was not oriented to reality. She stared at photographs of her mother and father (my great-grandparents whom I knew up to their deaths in their early 90’s when I was about 10 or 11 years old, mid-1960’s).

    My grandmother was ready to go home to them… Lucy is her name. She filled my life with her love, humour and joy at just being alive.

    1. Oh, wow, thank you for this comment. I love hearing stories like this, because it’s something so many of us have in common. It’s good you were able to be with her at the end.

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