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.