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Grief By The Numbers

I open the cupboard door and stare too long at the plates.

I do the mental math and come up with seven.

Only seven.

It feels wrong. It feels wobbly and off balance, like one of those coffee shop tables that you desperately try to shore up with sugar packets under the short leg.

Precarious. Like it could topple over at any time.

It is our first meal around our family table without Nana.

It’s been three months.

I gather the plates and walk them to the dining room table. I notice long, audible sighs pressing through my pursed lips as if I have been holding my breath and just remembered that breathing is necessary. As if my body needs to release the built up steam I am trying not to notice.

Everything just feels off, and sad, and not right.

How many Sundays have I carried the plates, the flatware, and the glasses to the table in preparation for a birthday or family dinner?

I look at her chair. Her place at the table. But I don’t want to linger there. I momentarily argue with myself whether I should leave it there or remove it. I don’t like either answer. I set down the plates, sigh again and move her chair against the wall. Now there are two chairs where there once were three. It looks strange and unfamiliar. I don’t like vacancy, I like a full house.

Empty chairs at empty tables....Le Miserables kicks up in my heart. (I am a theatre kid, after all.)

I think to myself, my family is shrinking and I don’t like it.

Keep moving, I whisper to myself in my inside voice.

I deliver the plates. I set the flatware. I arrange the glasses.

I carry her amber and gold glass dishes that I have been using as candle-holders for years and set them in the center of the table. These always make me think of you, Nana.

She’s not the first to go, I think. Not our first loss. Not the first to tuck her legs under the table and settle in amidst all the family chatter and tell her son how delicious his pot roast is, laugh at the same family stories retold time and again with such relish and embellishment. Not the first to want to hear all the latest details of her granddaughters’ lives. The number of chairs at the table has been gradually shrinking for years, I know that. It already feels like there are more empty chairs against the wall than around the table. And each one hurts.

I can’t believe our beautiful Nana is gone, my mind blurts. I look up from the flatware to see the framed photo collage we gave her on a long ago Christmas morning that now hangs in our dining room.

Nana, surrounded by her family. Some of the photos taken right here at the table. The table where she will never, ever sit with us again. Where she will never again protest when we ask her for the fifth time that night to pronounce the word, “ “squirrel” in her proper British accent - one she retained all these years after courageously leaving her family and friends as a war bride to follow her yank to America. The table where she could sit and enjoy her family’s pleasure in her. Say it again Nana, say it again. “Sk-wirrell” she would say, trying her best to not laugh at herself but taking such secret delight in ours.

The moments that, if you have any sense of the passing of time at the time, you try desperately not to take for granted and make mental and emotional pictures. Memorizing moments.

Why do we entertain the mad notion that somehow our elders will always be here? She’s strong as a horse! She’ll outlive us all! We don’t really believe she will outlive us all when we say that, but it’s a comfort, isn’t it? We cling to that unspoken security even while we know it is slipping away.

I don’t believe that Nana is gone. But she is gone in the way that we are used to experiencing her here among us and we miss her.

We snap at each other over superficial things.

I cry easily.

The smallest tasks can momentarily undo me.

Like counting plates or moving chairs.

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