My grandmother died about two months before I turned 18. She was my last surviving grandparent.
I should have gone to visit her on the day she died. Just a few days before, she had been taken by ambulance to the hospital, complaining of chest pain. I had a piano lesson just down the street and could have stopped by. Instead, I drove right past the hospital and went home. “I have homework to do,” I remember saying to myself. “I’ll go next week”. And though I did have a test the next day, it was likely cowardice that stopped me. At the age of 18, I was still very uncomfortable around illness and death.
To be fair, none of us thought she was dying. My mother had visited her just the day before and said she was looking better. I think we all believed that this little incident was just a slight setback. That she would continue to live for many more years. For almost a decade, we had marvelled at her strength as she dressed, fed, and generally took care of my grandfather, day in, day out, as he struggled to recover from a series of strokes. The only health problem she had was high blood pressure.
But after my grandfather died, she seemed suddenly weak and lost. Her strength evaporated. Without him as her anchor, she began to fade, drifting slowly out to sea. When she was brought into the hospital with chest pain, it was just two months after his death. She died less than a week later, her heart literally breaking into pieces.
For years afterwards, I beat myself up over my failure to visit her. I could have been the last to see her. I could have reassured her when she was frightened. I could have been the recipient of her last words. Instead, she died alone while I went home and prepared for my test. I don’t even remember if I did well on it.
After my grandmother’s death, my mother began to have these weird, vivid dreams about her. In these dreams, my grandmother would come to visit, and they would converse. They would talk about how my brothers and I were doing, and what my mother planned to do that day. “These conversations seem so real,” my mother would say, “like she’s really there.” At the time, none of us believed in ghosts or spirits, but the very vividness of my mother’s dreams made us wonder. Maybe my grandmother really was there, watching over us from beyond the grave. It was a reassuring thought.
After Julia died, I remembered my mother’s experience all those years ago, and fully expected Julia to visit me in my dreams too. I wondered if she might have something to say to me, some message from beyond the grave. I began to wonder what she might say. And then, I grew scared.
Julia and I had been friends for many years, but things began to change as she declined. Her mind became increasingly cloudy, and her judgment withered. Even so, she would never admit to it. As far as she was concerned, she was still the smartest person in the room, and that made her very hard to live with. Little insults that used to be bundled up a bit more carefully, were said more bluntly and then repeated over and over again. I’ve always considered myself a patient person, but I lost my temper with her on more than one occasion. She was really pressing my buttons, and I had a lot of difficulty coping with the situation.
Now that she was dead, I wondered what Julia would make of it all. What would she remember? If she could speak to me again, what would she say? Would she visit me in anger? Would she plague me with nightmares? Would she assault me with insults, over and over again, as she had done in life? There were some nights when I went to bed apprehensive, not sure what I might meet with in my sleep.
When Julia finally did arrive in my dreams, it was almost disappointing. I dreamt we were working together in the kitchen, and Julia was talking as she wiped dishes with a towel. I suppose I was doing the washing, although that wasn’t clear to me. As she worked, Julia would glance at me from time to time, but mostly she was talking to someone else. A blurry third person was in the room, and it was to her that Julia directed the bulk of her attention.
In this dream, Julia seemed happy. She was her usual talkative self. I felt no particular venom being directed my way. She behaved in death very much as she had in life, and I awoke feeling immense relief. I don’t know how these death dreams work, but if Julia is haunting anyone’s dreams, it is not mine. If she is visiting wrath upon anyone, it is not me. I can rest easy, for now at least.
This past year, I’ve been making a determined effort to show myself more kindness and compassion. To forgive myself for not being a perfect person. It hasn’t been easy, but I’ve been really working at it. This includes my behaviour towards Julia, my failures with my own grandmother, as well as any number of other things in my life that I could have done better. Daily, I remind myself that I did the best that I could with the resources that were available to me at the time. I can’t ask any more of myself than that.
During one of my last visits with Julia at her nursing home, I kept trying to get her to sit down and talk with me. But she wouldn’t sit. She never would. Thinking she was still at work, she would putter off, wandering the halls, checking doors and turning off lights. She would wander around and around the floor, much to the annoyance of the nursing staff, no doubt. On that particular day, after failing once again to corral her, she said something in Mandarin to the nurse beside her, and the nurse laughed.
I thought perhaps it was an insult. Julia was famous for her insults and she’d been spreading them around pretty generously by the end. But the nurse turned to me and said, “Julia says you are good,” and she laughed again. “You like your daughter-in-law?” she said to Julia. “You think she is good?” “Yes, good,” Julia repeated, and then she continued on with her walk, wandering off around the corner.
I sighed with relief that day, pleased that, after everything we had been though over the years, she still thought of me as a good person. In her very clouded mind, the feeling that stuck was a positive one.
I expect Julia will visit me again some night in my dreams. It may be sooner, or later, but I believe she will come. When she does, I hope it will be a good visit. A friendly visit. A death dream that heals.
About the author: Rebecca Wong has an honours degree in English Literature from the University of Waterloo, and has been working in the herbal business since 2000. She has received her training in acupuncture and herbalism from respected authorities Paul Des Rosiers and Vu Le at the Ontario College of Traditional Chinese Medicine in Toronto, and Michael Tierra at the East West Herb School in California.