November 1, 2005. For many this is just a date with no meaning behind it, but for me, it’s a date that will always be on my heart. November 1, 2005 was the first time I experienced death and it was also the most painful day of my life to this day. On November 1, 2005 I lost the greatest influence on my life. I lost the person who made my childhood amazing, the person who was always there, who I saw every day. I lost the person who taught me to sew, craft, play solitaire and dominoes, and the person who introduced me (through movies) to my hero John Wayne. I lost the person who always listened to me, who always had a story to tell and good food to serve. I lost the person who took me berry picking and rock collecting, who dropped what she was doing one day just to help us make a kite, simply because we got the sudden notion to fly one. The person I shared my hopes and dreams with, and who supported those dreams and never made me feel like they were pointless or stupid. She believed in me. She was the first person to instill a strong faith in God in me. Kindred spirits come very rare in your life, I lost one that day. She was the embodiment of my childhood. On November 1, 2005, Betty Jane Austin left this world… and me.
For the first 13 years of my life my grandmother was always there. She lived up on the hill, right next door to us, on the same property. We’d see her every day. She’d usually have a snack or some warm soup in a big soup mug waiting for us…. And of course stories. My grandmother was an excellent storyteller. She was an avid reader and loved books, but she certainly didn’t need them for stories because she had a whole lifetime of interesting ones. One thing is for sure, my grandmother lived a full and eventful life. My grandmother was born Betty Jane Peer in Rutland, VT on November 22, 1929. Her birth family gave her up when she was just three days old, from that point until she was thirteen years old, she lived in North Ferrisburgh, Vermont as Betty Jane Bull with her guardian (the man she always called “daddy”) Allie A Bull. When she was thirteen, Allie died, and she had to go back to her birth family. They pretty much used her as free labor and weren’t that great to her. I know through reading her journals and having listened to her stories, that the two best parts of her life were the 13 years she spent growing up on the farm with her guardian and when she married my grandfather on through my father’s childhood. My grandmother had some very rough parts of her life. She had ovarian cancer at a very young age, 17 if I remember correctly, and ended up losing all but one-third of an ovary to it. Miraculously she was able to get pregnant on that one-third and had my father. She has had many health issues, including ulcers, heart problems (resulting in attacks and ultimately a pacemaker), diabetes, etc. But my grandmother lived through it all and just kept going. She had such a toughness about her and a survivor’s soul.
Two traits that I’m very grateful that my grandmother had was 1) her love of writing and journaling and 2) keeping everything! My grandmother kept journals for most of her adult life (I’m not sure if she did as a child) and had actually started writing her memoirs, unfortunately they were never finished before she passed away. I love reading through her old journals because it gives me a deeper and more personal look into her thoughts and feelings about life. They allow me to understand her more and they also keep that connection alive almost 12 years after her death. She’s the one that instilled the love of reading and writing in me, two passions I am most grateful for. The other most famous trait of hers was keeping (some may call it hoarding) everything. From newspaper clippings to family possessions that had been passed down to everyday things that she liked, she had loads of stuff (she also labeled everything, what it was, who it came from, etc). I think the big reason she kept everything was the fact that when she lost her guardian at the age of thirteen, she was forced to go back to her birth family and as a result she wasn’t able to take the majority of her possessions. Imagine being a 13 year old child, you lost the only person who was family to you, you have to move to a different place, and then you can’t take most of your possessions with you….. That had to have been incredibly difficult. Though I’m sad that she had to go through all of that, I’m glad that she kept everything later in life because now her grandchildren (me + sisters) have so much from her. She left so much for us when she passed, but I still feel like it wasn’t close to being enough. There are so many things that were left unsaid, un-talked about.
There are so many questions I want to ask her, some simple and some that are deeper… I want to know what her favorite song was. I want to know what her favorite color was. I want to know more about whom she was and where she came from. I want to know what she would think of this world if she was still alive to see it. I want to know what she would have thought of me now. I want to know what her favorite Bible verse was and how she kept her faith in the hard times. I want to hear more of her stories. I want to ask her about how she felt about so many little things…… I want to ask her if she knew she was dying long before going to the hospital. I want to know how she truly felt about dying. Was she scared? What was it like? Does she, like me, feel that there are so many things that have been left unsaid? I want to know every part of her, her deepest thoughts and secrets. And there are so many things I want to talk to her about. I want to talk about my dreams with her. She always wanted to be a writer, so I think she’d be incredibly supportive of this dream that seems to have taken permanent root in my heart. I want to talk about all the family stuff going on. I want to talk about my baptism last September with her, and ask her what she thought about it. I know she had firm beliefs regarding baptism, so I know that she would have been thrilled, but I would like to know what she thought of the actual ceremony. I want to talk about life… and death.
But probably the most nagging thing I want to talk to her about is the fact that I never actually said goodbye to her. She went into the hospital and 4 days later she passed away. They had told us she had cancer the day after she was admitted. They also told us that there was no hope, it was too advanced to treat. On the Sunday after she was admitted, my parents called a meeting in our living room and told us that we had to say goodbye to our grandmother. What we (us kids) didn’t know at the time was that once she heard about her diagnosis, she had given up completely. She didn’t want to suffer any longer or be a burden to others, so she stopped eating and drinking. So we went to the hospital that day to say goodbye. But how do you say goodbye to someone you love? To someone who has been such a constant and huge influence? The fact that we (my twin sister and I, my kid sister was too young to truly understand what was going on) hadn’t experienced death before this made it harder to comprehend, at least for me, and evidently only me. Ashley walked right into that hospital room and talked to our grandmother and said her goodbyes like a pro. I on the other hand, balked. I had absolutely no idea how to say goodbye and didn’t understand why I had to. Wouldn’t she pull through like all the other times? She’s not really going to leave us, is she? I just could fathom it. So I walked in there (I seem to recall my mom gently pushing me into the room to follow my sister), and stood there while Ashley talked and said her goodbyes. I can’t even remember what I said to her that day, but I know it wasn't goodbye or anything close to it. I know I didn’t say much. I froze. I couldn’t make anything meaningful come out of my mouth. Two days later, my parents called another meeting in our living room, this time to tell us that Gram had passed away. I went through the whole funeral process totally numb, it was like what was happening wasn’t real, maybe a dream. Unfortunately it was very real, and life wouldn’t be the same again, there’d be a grandmother-sized hole in it. What I really want to know is if she felt bad that I didn’t say goodbye, did she understand? I want to tell her I’m sorry that I didn’t, it haunts me to this day. What I really want is another chance to talk about everything I can think of with her…. And not have things left unsaid.