I got the call on a Sunday night. My gran was in the hospital, and the doctor had advised the family that it was time. Time to call everybody home.
I arrived bleary eyed at the Whitehorse airport the next day. My mom and Aunt Nora were both there to meet me and my cousin Robert and his girlfriend. They looked so tired and worried the skeleton was showing behind their faces, their eyes red rimmed and puffy.
They took us directly to the hospital, our suitcases stowed away in the trunk of the car.
I knew my gran wasn’t going to look good, and I thought I had steeled myself for the worst. Still, my heart stopped and dropped when I laid my eyes on the tiny shape of her, the outline of her hips and legs barely visible under the green sheets and blanket. Impossibly frail and little. Almost gone already, it seemed.
I had promised myself I would be strong for my mom, that I wasn’t going to cry. So much for that.
“Talk to her,” my Uncle Dave waved two fingers at Robert and I. “The nurses say she can still hear us.”
And so we did. All afternoon we sat and talked. To her, to each other. Remember her bad cooking? Baloney roast? Boiled hamburger? Lemon hard cake, cousin Dan had dubbed her attempt at meringue. How she loved us all, no matter who we were, no matter what we did.
I volunteered for night shift, and sat next to the laboured breathing shape of her with my two uncles, whispering stories through the dark to each other, into her ear, slipping our warm hands under the covers to grasp her limp, cold ones.
By early the next afternoon all of us were there. Five of her children, eight grandchildren, plus partners.
I began to worry that we were pissing the nursing staff off a little, them trying to work around us, asking us to leave the room so they could change her sheets. Ten or 15 of us at a time, filing like exhausted soldiers out into the hallway to stand around, teary eyed and sometimes bickering.
I asked one of the nurses if we were driving anyone nuts yet, wasn’t it hard trying to do her job with the whole lot of us underfoot? She shook her head and said no, that the First Nations people had taught the nursing staff what an extended family could really look like, and that is often easier when the family is there to help keep an eye on a patient.
She said that what was really hard was when someone was dying without anyone there at all. This choked me up a little, and she shoved a no-name box of Kleenex across the counter at me with a latex gloved hand.
She had said it out loud. The doctor was kind, and had talked around it. Don’t get your hopes up, she had said. We are keeping her comfortable, the doctor said. The doctor didn’t lie, but it was the nurse who actually said the words. My grandmother was dying.
Florence Amelia Mary Lawless Daws passed away a little after 11 am on May 13, surrounded by 17 members of her family. Our hands made a circle, all touching her tiny body as her chest rose and fell, and then stopped.
I hesitate to say her death was beautiful, because it means I have to miss her now, but it was.
My family asked me to write and read her eulogy. Blessing from the family, the Catholics now call it. I call it what it is.
Of course I said yes, I would be honoured, and I was.
I wrote about the values the tiny little Cockney/Irish/Roma woman had lived and died by, and raised us all up to believe in. Love your family, work hard, save your money, have faith, and be grateful for what you have.
I worked really hard on the eulogy. I wanted to do justice to her memory, to honour everything she was. There were over four hundred people at the service, and not a dry eye among them when I was finished.
Up at the graveyard, after the internment, I hugged strangers and shook hands. Suddenly I found myself surrounded by Catholic priests.
They were being uncommonly nice to me, the queer granddaughter in the shirt and tie. Maybe they make special allowances in the case of a death in the family, I thought. Or maybe they were still hoping to save my soul.
The bishop hugged me, and then held both of my hands in his too-soft ones.
“Excellent job, young man. Your grandmother would have been very proud of you today, son. Strong work, young fellow.”
My mother heard him too. I saw her freeze. Waiting.
“Thank you, father,” I said. That was why he seemed to like me so much. He didn’t know who I really was.
The bishop caught up with me again at the reception, back at the funeral home. We were both leaned over the cheese platters when he addressed me a second time.
“Once again, I must say, you are a gifted orator. A natural, even. Have you ever considered the priesthood?”
This time it was my Aunt Nora within direct earshot and she stopped in mid-bite, half a baby carrot removed from her mouth and dropped on a mini-paper plate. Her eyes met mine, and she tried not to wince.
I took a deep breath. Thought about my beloved gran, about how much she loved the church, and respected the bishop. He seemed like a nice enough guy.
I’m not going to lie and say that a hundred wise-ass quips didn’t run through my head, and gather on my tongue. They did. But what counts is what I actually said.
“No father, I have to admit, I have never considered the priesthood. But thank you again for the compliment.”
The bishop nodded, everyone around us relaxed and resumed eating and talking.
I like to think my gran would have been real proud of me.