I lost my Grandmother a few days ago, on Thursday earlier this week. While I understand that the death of our loved ones is a part of life, I’ve been extremely fortunate enough to have experienced it closely only about three other times, in more pleasant ways than many others have.
I think I’d like to just take a chance to describe her a bit, to describe her history and my connection to her. I’d like to just mourn without tears for as long as I can, so I’ll let my fingers do the work for now, leaving in errors, typos, and all.
As a kind of sort of adult who freshly turned 27, this death that I’m experiencing is a roller coaster of emotions that I’m still trying to figure out. My first immediate relative who died, my maternal grandfather (this grandmother’s ex husband actually), passed when I was a senior in high school. It’s been nearly a decade. At that point, my instincts were still raw and I reacted the way any child would. He died, unexpectedly and of unnatural causes (damages sustained from a car accident). I was sad. I cried. And I cried a few more times over the years.
This time, I’m facing this moment with more life experience. This death is different than the first. Instead of being so “close” to it, I was on the other side of the country living my life, doing my own thing. Grandma had been in the hospital countless times in the past, and yet, every single time she went in, she came back just fine, if not stronger. This pattern of fortune made us less and less worried. I guess you could say her repetitive trips to the ICU and back numbed us.
The last time I saw her was on the 4th of July, albeit for a few moments. My mother did a video call via Facebook and I got to see most our tiny, tiny family at the usual spot during this time of year: in Maine, with my mother, grandmother, and the rest of the family during this time of year. All 7 of them. The next day, a FaceBook status showed that my grandmother was admitted to the hospital. “Damn, again? Okay.” was my only thought. No concern, no worries.
I didn’t think to call or anything, it was business as usual. The last two or three times she was admitted was advertised through Facebook and she made out just fine. Roughly twelve hours after this status about her admittance was made, there was another from my mother announcing her death. With pictures (what the fuck?). To make it clear, announcing family news over Facebook without informing the immediate people it concerns first is pretty
fucking stupid dumb, almost outright disrespectful (I’m trying to be nice at this part, cut me some slack).
I didn’t find out until I was browsing my FB feed taking my routine morning poop on the toilet as I was getting ready for work. A post from my mom. After getting the details in a frantic phone call, I still couldn’t believe it. She passed in her sleep; the details are still unclear. I didn’t cry right away. I didn’t “feel” her anymore. She wasn’t a part of my everyday life, and my thoughts of her were few and far in between. It’s still like that for now. I always talk to Tiff about how I want to do something nice for her once we get a better handle on our time and finances.
The thing that’s different now in the 10 or so years between my grandparents’ death are the experiences I’ve had in life. Since grandpa died, I’ve become this young adult who almost obsesses over his fear of death, who is actively trying to be awesome at everything and experience life for everything it is and can be. For the family and friends who wonder how I can be this selfless, ambitious, yet seemingly never satisfied person who is viciously impatient & irrational and can go to from 0 to 100 over the tiniest things, my fear of death is largely the answer.
With that said, the difference of this experience is probably apparent. My grandmother’s death doesn’t go directly to my head and bring tears the way her ex husband’s did. Instead, it seeps through my brain over layers of life experience that literally spans my entire adulthood thus far.
I couldn’t sit there on the crapper and just cry. I had to get ready and drive to work, man! I had to figure out how the hell I was going to use pretty much 0 accrued time off to handle all this from a job I started literally 7 days ago. I had to play my part as a member of a small team that this global, multi-thousand personnel company calls “rockstars”.
So I had my moment. A 4-5 minute long ugly cry. Then I composed myself, went to work and did my thing. I came home and went on a routine walk with my fur child. I ended up getting pizza with Tiff who had called off work to be with me. Life has been okay so far and I’ve been productive. I’m trying to be as responsible as I can until I see get to see my grandmother for the final time later this week.
If there’s one thing that I learned from this, it’s that tears don’t necessarily represent depth of emotion as much as I thought it did or should. Consider anyone at 3 years old who is bawling their eyes out for lollipops.
She was certainly a strong woman. One of the strongest I’ve ever met. She was also very weird, amazingly smart, unimaginably cute, extremely clever, and relentlessly loving. Different is probably the best and yet most underrated word to describe her, the few people who have spent time with her know exactly what I mean. I really wish she was appreciated by more people.
Vanna Ouch fled Cambodia from Pol Pot’s regime which is responsible for the Cambodian Genocide. After experiencing the separation and death of many her friends and family and losing almost everything she possessed, she and her family were put though concentration camps and abuse. Like her and many millions of others, misfortune terrorized Vanna and her family. The youngest two of her four children died (my mother is the oldest of the four), and the rest of the family started their journey of escape by walking, sleeping, and hiding through thick, dense forests of dead bodies and land mines (an alarming amount of which are still active today and continue to kill and mortally wound).
Eventually, her family went through Thailand, the Philippines, and so many other places, finally ending up in the State of Maine in the good ol’ US of A. While America brought everyone salvation and a truly new beginning, the traumatization of everything robbed her opportunity to enjoy a full and fulfilling life. It affected her ability to be independent. She was never able to be a mother, a productive member of society, or even have a career.
She never traveled outside of New England her entire life, not even to see her sister who was in Chicago (whom she hasn’t seen or spoken to in decades since they fled Cambodia), and never went back to Cambodia to reconnect with anyone. The only friends she probably ever had in her life that wasn’t her family were the employees in the nursing home that took care of her, and that was in the later years of her life for a short period.
Most of my memory recalls my grandmother spending her days sitting around, just looking around aimlessly in the dark or finding dictionaries, catalogs, and other literature to read. She could converse in written English pretty efficiently. It was her primary means of communication with non-khmer speakers. This includes her whitewashed grandchildren. More often than not she did actually interact with us on paper. Not only that, but she was fluent in French in both written word and orally. Sometimes when she spoke out loud to herself they would be in English, reciting some junk mail she read. Other times it was in French. In her later years, she used khmer to recall darker moments from her life.
Her specialty of American food was home made french fries, and she loved loved loved sweets both American and Cambodian. When I was a lot younger, she used to find whatever loose change she could find around the house and walk to the local supermarket to buy soda. My Grandmother suffered the last 15 years of her life with diabetes, and I affectionately remember her being scolded by her kids every time she would try to sneak watermelon and other sugar filled foods into the cart when we went food shopping. Sometimes she’d get sick of sneaking around at all and nonchalantly pour soda into her cup in front of us. She’d wait until no one was looking to pull it out, of course. Hiding sweet pastries and other delectables became second nature to us, and I can’t help but feel sad that in her last moments she wasn’t able to enjoy a nice bubbly cup of Sunkist. Oh shit! I just remembered that she actually did used to give us the generic grandparent candy: Werther’s Originals Toffee. Oh man.
I had a near and dear coworker/friend try to console me by telling me how proud she probably was of me for growing up to be such an awesome and successful guy - dude, she actually wanted us to drop out of school and start working! What’s the freakin point? In her hey-day, you either worked on the farm for your family or hustled away with a job.
Grandma also had no filter and was very up front about what she did and did not want, and if there was ever any pain or discomfort she felt which she knew she couldn’t have her way with, she hid it as much as she could.
There was a social worker (Cambodian, this is relevant) who visited my grandmother to try and get her to join a day program for the elderly. Fully paid for by the government for her to have some entertainment. “Did you go to school?” she asked the social worker in khmer. “Yes, I actually graduated from blah blah blah.” My grandma’s response? “Yeah, well you look like a person who really doesn’t know a lot.”
When my grandfather (her ex husband) died and my mother informed her of the news + that we had to travel to tend to the funeral services, Grandma Vanna complained that she really didn’t want to deal with the 2.5 hour car ride it would have taken to get there.
At the nursing home she was in for a while, her sneaky self knew all of the codes to open the doors that kept her and everyone else inside by observing the employees punch it in. She routinely walked us out when we visited her. There was another moment where she was admitted to the hospital. People were scared that she would escape because she so desperately asked to come home and be with us (throughout her time in the nursing home and in the hospital). The hospital personnel ordered an ankle monitor placed on her. To circumvent this, my grandmother slowly and stretched it out. Imagine everyone’s surprise when they couldn’t find it; she flushed it down the freakin’ toilet.
Humorous and cute moments aside, she was indeed mentally ill. From her isolated demeanor and dependency, she complained that her physical illnesses came from bugs/insects that crawled under her skin. More interestingly, my grandmother believed that one of my brothers was her mother reincarnated.
Whenever we left the house, she would be glued to the window to see who was picking us up, where we were walking to. When it got dark, she’d pester someone who was home and ask where the missing sibling was and expressing her concern. Over and over and over again. She would sometimes make desserts for us and clean up after us here and there. We were so such self absorbed kids, I never cared that she wasn’t entertained or treated well. Growing up, our parents whooped our asses often, and daily. It’s extremely embarrassing to admit, but I remember that we expressed our dissatisfaction with her in the same way. I vividly remember that during my childhood, she seldom smiled. It took so much time until I realized how important is was to bring them out as much as I could with hugs and kisses as I got older.
Throughout all this time, her support system was her two kids, me and my siblings, and later, my step grandmother and her two children. I can’t help but feel that we failed her in some way. We made sure that my grandmother was content, but we never really did anything worthwhile to make her happy. On a deeper note, who the hell knows what happiness was to her? She lived a life where she didn’t want anything. She couldn’t spend any money, go anywhere, didn’t go out and have friends… Who knows, maybe I’m wrong. Maybe her happiness was just being at home and having her grandchildren around. She used to smile the most whenever we wrestled and messed with each other. I don’t know. I’m always going to feel bitter about the fact that while we didn’t do anything much to make her happy, we should have tried to enrich it in some way.
As I type this, I’m getting ready to go on a backpacking trip with Tiff and my dog. We planned this months ago and considered cancelling it, but what for? We aren’t flying back home until about two days after we get back. What would we do otherwise? Stay at home and mope? Lay around and be sad? I would like to say that if my Grandma were around and she knew I was making this decision, she would want me to take advantage of her sacrifices and take the opportunity to enjoy life in my position in its entirety. Humorously enough, she would probably get to the top of Half Dome at Yosemite, see the view, and say, “ugh God, let’s go home.” This is after you can coerce her to get out of the house, and after that, somehow manage to get her to the top of Half Dome by teleportation or something (cause she sure as hell isn’t going to hike it bruh). We’ve decided that we’re going to do what we can to enjoy life and continue on.
A large part of what makes this so hard for me is that there was so much in life that she could have experienced. I can look at someone’s life and be sad that he/she is gone. Maybe it’s extra sad for me because death of a person was accidental, violent, painful, or from wrongdoing from another human. No matter what, with anyone that I can think of, there’s at least satisfaction that I can take from their lives knowing that at least at some point they had enjoyed life. There was love, or success, or experiences. That’s fair. I really can’t say that about my Grandmother, and that’s not fair at all.
It’s weird to say this, but I only feel this sadness from stories of animals with abusive owners; the ones who suffered so much that the only solution of solace and peace was for the animal to be put down. I really feel like I will never experience another death like hers, and that few people will go through this. My mind waivers to autistic people or people with down syndrome. A good portion of them have jobs, have support, and are able to actually BE SOMEONE. I can’t say that my Grandma ever got those luxuries.
I never got to know what her childhood was like, and that part of history is gone forever. A part of her that her family never got to know, a part of her that she never got to be or grow into was stolen from everyone. I would like to hope that in her earlier years, before Pol Pot’s time, she got to experience some kind of joy. I would really feel a little better if I knew that she held on to those positive memories during her later years in life. I’d also hate myself a little less if I actually took some time and effort to pay her back for her sacrifice.
Describing someone’s life and affect on me is way more difficult than I thought it would be. I’m not talented enough to use the written word to express my feelings exactly how I want to, I guess this is just one of the ways I’m mourning. My own away of starting to say goodbye.
I knew this day would come and I hate that I wasn’t ready for it. I’m scared as shit of dying, yet I bank on certain details in life to turn out perfectly. Doing right by her and enriching her life before she was gone was one of those details. This moment is a strong reminder of how wrong I am, and while I wouldn’t wish for this to ever happen, I’m thankful for the experience. Being a descendant of such strong, truly amazing survivors who have been part of such a unique moment in this short history of humans is one of the most proudest details about myself. The interactions of my life with my relatives who have passed on and live today will forever give me strength and inspiration. I’d rather be me now than my kids who will most likely grow up only speaking English, eating American food, caring about who has the freshest kicks, worrying about who’s gonna be voted off the island, or stressing about how many followers they have.
Thank you for your many sacrifices, for all of the steps you took with your future in mind. I’m going to remember you and honor you and think about you and miss you and love you for the rest of my life, and I’m so glad to have loved and been loved by you. Rest in peace, Grandma.