My beloved grandmother arose early on the day none of us knew would be her last, March 14, 1975, 40 years ago. It went like this…
My mother picked her up to get her weekly groceries. I usually went with them but would be serving as a room mother on a field trip with the children in my eight-year-old son’s elementary school class, so Mom dropped Grandma off at my house after they shopped and then stopped for something to eat. Grandma would stay with my two youngest children and my husband who’d had a heart attack and been released from the hospital only a day or two earlier.
Grandma brought her groceries in and put them in my refrigerator. Laura was excited to see her and likely got underfoot, pulling on her dress to get her attention, and Grandma said “jus’ a minute, yah, yah, jus’ a minute” in her heavily-accented, cheerful voice as she put on her apron. When Jeff came home from Kindergarten, he and Laura brought her their toys to play with, and she read to them from storybooks they borrowed from the library. Grandma asked Dick how he was feeling and if she could get him anything as he rested on the sofa.
Jeff laughed and giggled when she tickled him, and she brushed Laura’s long hair into a silken ponytail. They climbed in her lap and played at her feet. She tried to watch her television shows, but they didn’t make that easy.
When I returned, Grandma quickly placed her groceries by the door, tied her scarf under her chin, and put on her coat and gloves. I told her the roads were terrible and getting worse. I didn’t want to make her stay if she didn’t want to, and she said she wanted to get home if she could; she told me if I got her as far as I could go with the car, she would walk the rest of the way – but there was no way I’d let her walk one step in this weather, so we said goodbye to the kids and Dick went out to the car – to my everlasting regret.
As I walked out the door with my grandmother, my last words to my husband were, “If I’m not back in an hour, you’d better call the police.” It was meant as a joke, but once the words were out there, they closed in around me like a bad omen. And when I failed to come home, or call, Dick started getting nervous. That’s when the phone rang…
I lose control of the car on the gradual curve at the top of a hill. My Buick LeSabre comes to rest broadside, in the path of an on-coming car increasing its speed to make it up the other side. Mine slides to a sideways stop, its front tires hovering on the edge of a deep ditch. The other car is now on my right – heading right for us. No time. No way to change the outcome. Grandma never wears a seat belt, even in bad weather. Grabbing her left arm with my right, I try to pull her away from the door. If I can just get her away from the door. It’s a dark car, coming fast, sure to smash the passenger-side door. Grandma’s door.
We had visited John Brown’s home but the school bus driver had been called during lunch and told to bring everyone back a soon as we finished eating. We’d have to skip Perkin’s Mansion. Already terrible, the roads were getting worse at an alarming rate and by the time I made it home, six inches of snow covered a thick layer of ice. I told Grandma she could spend the night with us and I’d take her home in the morning, but if she still wanted to leave, I would try to get her home.
Huge snowflakes. Fluffy snowflakes. Snowflakes falling on the dashboard. Blowing across my face. It’s so cold. A large, black shadow, visible through the shattered window, stands next to Grandma’s side of the car. Where am I? What happened? Snowflakes assemble on the shadow’s dark coat. An angry voice assaults my ears.
“Goddammit! I knew this would happen!”
My voice is buried in snow. I can’t dig it out.
“I’ll get help,” the shadow mutters in low tones as it leaves my peripheral vision.
My right shoulder won’t move. Is it broken? My head hurts. My shoulder aches. Something presses against my arm. Grandma. Resting against my shoulder. Her dentures, askew on the upper arm of my blue suede car-coat with snaps down the front, the one Dick bought for my birthday. My favorite coat. Broken eggs. Yolks soaking into its soft blue hide, a pastiche of pale yellow and ethereal white down the front panel and along the double-stitched seam running along the bottom half. Yellow and white on a field of blue. Shell fragments stick to the dashboard. My wool slacks. Boots. Grandma’s groceries by her feet, scattered on the seat, the floor. She’d been shopping with Mom. I’ll collect everything. Put it back in the bag. Buy more eggs.
“Unbuckle your seat belt.”
What? More snow. I’m so cold. What belt? Why?
“Can you unbuckle your seat belt?”
I reach across with my left hand. Try to push on the buckle.
My fingers refuse to work together.
Waking up on a cold, hard table, I vomit. Fill one plastic, kidney-shaped bowl after another. Mumble apologies to the nurse. Sick. Why am I so sick?
“What happened, Linda?”
I open my eyes, looking in the direction of a voice subdued yet edged with anger. My head is all that’s visible in a wealth of starched white sheets. Drops of blood pool in my right ear. Mom’s silhouette stands beside the bed. Filling in the window that forms her backdrop, the snowscape beyond her throws her features into darkness leaving her without a face. Without definition. A dark voice, black on white, floating on a blinding white sea.
Snowflakes melt when I reach for them. I try to hold them in my hand. In my head. They gather in bits and pieces, coming together in a puzzle where nothing fits.
My mother starts to cry.
I don’t remember saying I love you to Grandma that day. I don’t remember telling her how much she meant to me. What she had always meant to me. I can’t recall what, if anything, we said in the two or three miles we’d traveled before we were hit. All I remember was thinking, I’m sorry, Grandma. I’m so sorry. So, so sorry…
My beloved grandmother was buried in Holy Cross Cemetery on March 17th – forty years ago tomorrow. She knew how much I loved her. I’d told her over and over all my life, but she didn’t hear those words I should have said one more time, on her last day. Oh how I wish she had.