This month, my beloved Granny died. It taught me a lot about her, a lot about my family, and a lot about me.
On 6 February 2016, my Granny died. It wasn’t a pleasant death; and my mum and one of her sisters were with her – and my cousin. She was 93, but we all kind of expected her to live on and on, and to be around forever. Well, those of us who weren’t with her all the time, is perhaps more accurate.
I was speaking with a friend about his new adventure in business when I missed a call from my mum. Then two from my sister. Then one from my mum. I knew that it was probably unpleasant news, but at the same time I was nearly done and could call them back.
Trying to ring my mum, I couldn’t get hold of her. I texted my sister in a panic in case it was about Dad. My nanna had also called that morning, another call I’d missed. My sister told me that Granny had had a huge bleed and mum was going into the hospital to be with her.
Mum said that it was pretty awful but that by the time she got there, Granny was sitting up and smiling. She was always smiling. She smiled so much in her life. It was rare to see her without the accessory of a smile. It was even more rare to see her without lipstick.
The afternoon she died, I spent on the phone. To my sister, to my dad, to my mum, to my dad, to my sister. And round and round. Mum answered the phone when she’d just got word from a nurse that her mother had died. She whispered it into the phone and asked me to tell my sister. I rang my sister, then my dad. Then I heard that Granny hadn’t died. Then I heard she had.
I can’t begin to imagine how awful it would have been for mum and her sister.
Then I cried, and cried with my sister over the phone. And with mum. And then instead of spending the week in training in Melbourne as I’d planned, I organised a train and went back to Warrnambool for a week to spend it with mum and family.
It didn’t occur to me that I should do anything else; and in fact, it turned out to be a good thing. Funerals are awful to arrange. In fact, they’re as terrible as weddings. We had no idea there was so much to do. Here’s a snapshot:
- Death notices in the paper
- Tributes in the paper
- Funeral directors (and coffins, and viewings, and related)
- Funeral service
- Decisions about service booklets and related celebrations of life
- Decisions about speakers and eulogies for the service
- Decisions about readings for the service
- Notifying and getting agreement from all the people to read passages, gospel and prayers
- For a Catholic service like this one, also people for the pall, the candle, the flowers
- Organise pall bearers
- Organise music
- Find photos
- Brief the designer for the booklet, scan or photograph all the photos, approve the proofs, etc…
- Organise signing books
- Organise slideshows or presentations
- … and so on.
It goes on and on.
My aunts were surprised when I turned up. I drove mum around, provided an ear and a shoulder. I took notes when we were going through the service, briefed my brother in law (who’s a designer and printer) for the booklet, photographed all the photos, arranged with cousins to read readings, shepherded people on the day.
One thing I made sure I did was go and see Granny at a viewing. I was so glad that I did. I’d seen dead people before, so it wasn’t a shock. But what it did was reaffirm that I wasn’t burying my Granny. She was long gone. Her shell was beautifully dressed. She was holding her mobile phone – she rang everyone constantly to stay in contact. Mum thought she looked like the joker, which she kind of did thanks to flesh all falling back, without any life in it to keep it where it should have been. But at least she had lipstick on.
My Granny always wore lipstick. Her favourite colour was hot pink, and it was the colour of the funeral. The flowers, books, and accessories were all pink.
During the funeral, when the incense was swung, I could hear her in my ear.
‘Oh I hate that stuff,’ she would’ve grumbled. ‘It gives me asthma.’
I learned that my Granny was an astute and educated woman. She knew all about plants and flowers, because her father was a gardener. He was an artist, a man whom my great nanna had tried to turn into a farmer. He owned a florist for years. And they were caretakers of the Port Fairy Gardens before the Gardens was a caravan park.
I learned that my Granny loved the poetry of Omar Khayyam; and in a coincidence I bought a beautiful volume of the Rubaiyyat the day after she died. It’s my second volume.
I learned that Granny read voraciously on all sorts of topics, simply because she loved to learn.
I learned that Granny played in a family band, as a pianist and dancer. That her mother played the mandolin and banjo. That her father was a guitarist and banjo player.
I learned that my Granny had had many suitors as a young woman. That one man who was madly in love with her cried when she told him she’d gotten engaged to someone else. That she was in a relationship with a man who was captured in Singapore during the war and posted a ring to her from the front. That she met my grandfather on a Catholic Rural Association bus trip, a trip that was effectively a blind date, and was engaged to him on her return.
At the train station, she fell backwards over her suitcase as Nanna arrived to pick her up. ‘I’m engaged!’ she blurted.
To which Nanna replied, ‘Hmph! You’re always getting engaged.’
I learned that my Granny’s second husband was abusive, but that she always held him to be her true love, her soul mate.
I learned that in the weeks before her death she rang another of my aunts, proclaiming, ‘Eileen, help me! I’m desperate! Bring me a lipstick! I don’t have a lipstick!’
I learned that my mum, despite the lack of thanks she gets from her own family, and the lack of acknowledgement in her critical role in my Granny’s care (during her second husband’s decline, death, clean up, moving out, advocacy, and care) is actually an angel.
I learned that Shane Howard (remember that famous Aussie rock band, Goanna?) is a mate of my uncle’s, and that he was at the funeral. And that the priest, Father Lawrie O’Toole, went to St Pat’s in Ballarat with my uncle, and that he knew the family from when they were young. And that he knew the nuns at my primary school, and used to visit them.
And in the week that I was home, one of my dad’s good friends also died. It was a tough week. All of us, unsure in our grief, not knowing really how to relate to each other, or what to do next, rubbed each other the wrong way. And upset each other. And then reconciled and learned lessons about communication and life.
And I learned that I live too far away from my family, and that perhaps I don’t prioritise visiting as much as I should. The last time I saw my Granny was the Christmas before last. She was only 90. I didn’t even make it to her 90th birthday.
Suddenly, it seems that maybe all my priorities have always been the wrong way around. And then, yesterday, I turned 36 and realised that I’m closer now to 40 than I am to 30. I still feel like I’m 16; and now I’m grappling with working out what is really important to me.
Life is a fascinating ride. And it’s amazing how much you can learn in just one little week, about yourself and those around you.
Rest in Peace
Eileen Cassidy (McKew), nee Harman
My beautiful Granny
3 March 1923 – 6 February 2016