Saying goodbye to the family matriarch

“Sixty-seven years, sixty-seven years.”

My grandfather repeated those words while looking at his beloved friend and partner of nearly seven decades in the intensive-care unit of Modesto’s Sutter Memorial Hospital. It had been only hours since a doctor told him the situation was hopeless; the brain bleed was inoperable because she took a blood thinner.

It was the first time I’d seen my grandmother, Helen the mighty, look vulnerable. She was always so put together, perfectly accessorized. Pink was her color of choice. And she wore it so well. She was nearly unrecognizable in a white patterned hospital gown. A machine behind her beeped, displaying her heart rate, blood pressure, oxygen level. A respirator aided her breathing. Family members took turns holding her hand and stroking her head and telling her we were there and loved her.

Every once in a while life lets you know how fragile it is. This was one of those times.

I felt a knot in my stomach.

The knot actually started as I drove through Lodi on my way to see her in the hospital mid-day Sunday. That’s where I came upon a bad accident. Dozens of people had pulled over to help out. As traffic crawled by, I caught a glimpse of a first responder in the median performing violent chest compressions on a heavyset man. He and another man survived major injuries, but a little girl, a 10-year-old, didn’t make it, I learned a day later in the Lodi News Sentinel newspaper.

My grandmother was stronger than any of us realized. Once the respirator came out early afternoon on Monday, she somehow breathed on her own. But she never awoke.

She passed into the next life on Tuesday morning. None of us was prepared for her departure.

Grandma was the definition of a matriarch. She was wise and opinionated and freely shared how she felt about a lot of things. She might rub someone the wrong way every once in a while, but I know of nobody who could stay mad at her for long. One of the things I loved most about her as an adult is how surprisingly nonjudgmental she was of modern-day life (such as gay marriage and premarital cohabitation). That’s a rarity among folks of her generation. I wish I’d had the foresight the past couple of years to have shared with her how much I appreciated those things.

I should have told her that she taught me so much, including how two people can stay married and actually like and respect each other. I should have told her that each night at home I snuggle up on my couch with my 3-year-old son under one of the blankets she crocheted for me over the years. I should have told her that being half the woman she was in her 88 years would make me a winner in this experiment we call life.