Space

When I walk into the room where I last visited my grandma, the room where I sat with her a few days before she died, I am washed over. 

The room feels holy and sweet, like it did when my grandma was there, but it looks completely different. My mom decorated in a Hawaiian theme—only she could pull off with class—as a tribute to my grandma, who loved to visit my mom there and did right up until her 94th year, the year before she died. On the new bed, there's a green and white motif bedspread with plush yellow and white decorative pillows, matching white bedside tables, a salt rock lamp sitting in a pile of salmon pink sea shells, freshly painted light gray walls. My mom makes beautiful spaces. My grandma was a beautiful space. They are both here—together, a combined energy, a merging, a story, lineage.

When my grandma stayed there during her hospice care, it was the undecorated, previously unimportant guest room. There was a hospital bed, her oxygen machine, amber medicine bottles lined up on top of the dresser where her few belongings were folded neatly in drawers: her soft, fancy pajamas with faint leopard print, hospital underwear, oversized cotton nightgowns and some shirts she could get on easily without agitating her suddenly so frail, cancer-riddled body. 


I flew to my mom's house a few days after she told me the time was coming. “I think you better come, honey,” she said on the phone, and I knew in my bones she was right.

2007

I spent my childhood seeing my grandma every day, she was as much a part of my daily life as my parents, my brother, my best friends. She was my kindred—an artist’s heart, a lover of words, a Woman—but of a different time, a different generation. She didn’t understand homosexuality and often made horrific racial slurs, to which I would respond, “GRAND-MA!” and she would laugh, and then ask me an honest question about what I thought of “them.” She had inherited beliefs, she was baptized in war, she believed in a punishing God, and she worshiped wealth and tall people, especially if they were men, especially if they were doctors or lawyers.

I don’t know how she would have felt about this election. I'm guessing she could have found beauty or disgust in both candidates, surface level and deep. "So wonderful, Laura." "So ugly, Laura." I can hear her saying both in her thick Italian accent. I wish I could ask her, if only to hear a response I could absorb regardless of my own position because I loved her so easily, even when I did not like her. I wish I could hear her so I could remember more easily how to relate with softness.


The last book I saw her read was Dante’s Inferno, printed in Italian. I’m not sure if she was actually reading it or just holding it in her hands to feel closer to her native language, her country, her beginnings. The print was impossibly small and the pages were yellowed—where did she get it? Even if she never read a word, I love that one of the last things she clutched and held in her lap and slept with was a book, written in her native tongue. She told me she learned English mostly by reading English books and watching American TV. She strung together meaning until it made sense, but she never stopped dreaming in Italian.

She was the first one of my front line to die. Ten years earlier my grandpa, her husband, had passed, and I’ve had outer circle friends and relatives die, but never someone as close to me as her. I flew from Boston grateful to be sober, eager to see and touch her, even as I was a bit afraid of the unknown. 


When I arrived she was sleeping in the hospital bed. I’d seen her just a few months before and she was thinning, but still there; now her body took up less space both physically and energetically—I could feel its lightness, the air quality of it. I sat on the edge of the bed and put my hand on her bony hip and kissed her temple, which felt like tissue paper. “I’m here, grandma,” I said, and she stirred and made a gravely animal noise in the shape of my name: Laura. Her eyes smiled.

During my stay, I did things with and for my grandma I did not know I knew how to do. I cleaned her legs and vagina and butt when her diaper failed. I learned how to shuffle her to and from the bathroom by letting her hold onto my waist while I took on as much of her bodyweight as I could by lifting her from the underarms. We often stopped after a few steps so she could rest her head in my chest like a child. Sometimes we'd be in front of the bathroom mirror and the image would make us both smile and cry. I watched her go in and out of consciousness—a joke one minute, when her brain would remember a line in Italian, Que Brutto! (how ugly) or Madonna mia (my Madonna)—replete with one of her signature hand gestures, and then the next her eyes would go distant and black from the morphine and she’d be gone. I gave her medication and echoed her whimpers to let her know I understood the pain, that I wished I could absorb it, and I sat quiet for long stretches on the couch, in her room, while she slept, the horrible machine-lung sound of the oxygen machine whirring endlessly.


On the last day, I closed the door to her room quietly behind me and sat on the edge of her bed. I wanted to lay with her, so I did, as gently as I could. She was in a heavy sleep, unmoving, and suddenly her body jutted and she bellowed, "Space, Laura (La-uhd-dah)," with more force than I thought she had. Even though it sounded as though her mouth was full of marbles, I understood clearly.

Space.

Space.

In her fugue state, even as she loved me beyond measure, even as she had called me “her first love” and “the apple of her eye” all my life, she needed space to let the thing that was happening happen. She needed space for her body to die. She didn't want me to leave, but she needed space.

I got up and walked to the side of the bed. I crossed my legs and sat facing her, quiet, lifting my heart open and up. I did not cry. I did not feel sad. I did not feel even an ounce of longing to be elsewhere or for her to be better. I was still so raw in my new sobriety; even months later my body shook for no apparent reason—a residual tremor, or the result of feeling Life move so boldly through my bones without a buffer. I shook, but I was steady. I knew how to do this. I knew in every part of me how to be there, with her, in that very moment. My body knew from the moment I got on the plane in Boston—it knew how to be with my grandma who was dying and how to hold her lineage and her spirit and her life as it was transitioning. Even as I touched her too hard and it hurt her, or when I misinterpreted what she needed and her face crumpled in pain or frustration, we knew how to do this.

For someone who hadn’t trusted herself in a long time, I knew exactly how to do this. I had always known. All women do; it is our superpower, our divine inheritance, our magical third eye of Knowing.

I remembered this Knowing could carry me all the way through that moment, and every one after, if I let it.


My grandma died three days after I left. When I got the news from my mom, I walked out of my house and straight to the ocean. I ran until my heart beat in my ears and I could hear only my breath, and when I was done I cried cold fresh tears that mixed with my sweat. I was happy for her. I was happy for me.


I keep thinking about this word: space.

Space.

I keep thinking I have no answers right now, but I can give space. Space to myself and space for others. Space to be. Space to transition. Space to change. Space to live through this season, fast and slow. Space to like and dislike and be confused and angry until that slows down into a grand curiosity and a clear idea about the next step. Space to feel cruel things and speak unkind words to ears who can hear them—and, like I could with my grandma—not question, for a single moment, our inherent goodness. Space to feel shadow. Space to feel light.


Ceremony.

Ceremony.

At the end of my visit this week, I closed the door to her room quietly behind me, and I sat down in the same spot where I sat with her before she died. I lit a candle and I burned some sage and I closed my eyes with no agenda but to be with her where she once was, where she still is, everywhere. I started to see every woman who has led me show up in the room and look me in the eyes for permission to enter. I nodded each one in—women I know, women I don't; women who are alive, and many long dead. My grandma was there in the center, in the Hawaiian bed, with her beautiful pajamas and her tissue paper skin and she was smiling in perfect grace, with a hint of mischievous pride, because she always knew she was worth remembering in a grand way. We sat there together, hundreds of souls whose bodies would never fit in the actual room, and there was so...much...space. 

Laura McKowen

Laura McKowen, PO Box 315 , Swampscott, MA, 01907