The women who have come before me in our family tree have always had a strong attidude when it comes to death. But for someone who has inherited my emotional side from my dad, this has at times been a hard act to follow.
On the day my Grandad passed away, I sat on my bed as a twelve year old girl and heard my Nan’s footsteps ascending the stairs on the way to my room. She came in, held me tight and told me not to cry. She told me that my Grandad wouldn’t have wanted me to cry when he had led such a beautiful life. My Grandparents lived with us in the family home and that night, I listened to my nan crying in her bedroom below my own. She was broken hearted, but she would never let me see her tears. She never wanted me to see death in a bad way and consequently, my Grandad had a lovely funeral filled with smiles, laughter and sunburn (it turned out that his funeral was held on the hottest day of that year).
On the day Evalyn died and the weeks that followed, my mum showed me the same strength. As a funeral celebrant she deals with death and grieving families every day, but suddenly it was her own that she found herself providing comfort for. She delivered Evalyn’s funeral service. She arranged it all with her colleagues at the funeral home and although I told her that she didn’t have to be the one to deliver it, she looked at me and told me, “no one is delivering my Granddaughter’s service but me. She’s our little girl and I’m going to make it perfect for her.”
And she did. On the 24th November 2016, she stood in front of all of our family and friends and delivered a beautiful service. Before we entered the crematorium, she walked over to me and Nick where we stood, Evalyn’s little wicker casket nestled gently in Nick’s arms and she squeezed my arm, looked me in the eyes and told me, “Be strong, darling.”
I watched her walk back inside and told myself that if she could show such strength on a day when I felt my world was ending, then I could too.
I never cried at Evalyn’s funeral. Not for the entire day. My mum never cried either. I still don’t know whether I really was strong or just numb. My mum and nan exhibit strength so well in any situation. They always have. But for myself it has very much been a learning process shaped by grief. . . .
Now Evalyn’s gone. And it’s my turn to try and be strong like the generations before have taught me to be. But they have also taught me that you can only try to be strong if you have also been broken and weak. . . .
The day we came home from the hospital, we went around to my parents house to tell Ieuan that his sister had died. Afterwards, I walked around to my Nan’s annex where she was sitting in an armchair in her overheated room. She looked at me, reached for my hand and begun to cry.
“Oh, Lyndsey,” she sobbed, “I am so sorry.”
It was like being back in my bedroom all those years ago, except this time, I was comforting her. Because I didn’t cry. I told her that I was alright. I told her that I was still in shock and trying to get my head around what had happened, but that I had to be strong for Evalyn. Evalyn would want me to be strong.
“She would,” my Nan replied, “I’m just so sorry you’ve had to go through this too.”
My Nan and I have always had a close relationship. She’s lived in our family home with us for twenty-four years and is as much a part of my daily life as the furniture itself. But in that moment, our eyes locked and I have never felt as connected to her as I did in that fleeting second. Because, like myself, she knows the heartbreak of losing a baby girl at birth.
“It was different back then,” she had told me, “You had the baby and that baby was taken from you straight away. There isn’t time for Goodbye. I don’t really know what happened to my baby. I had her and I went home without her. But nobody talked about it back then. I have a cup with her name and date of birth printed onto it and I have my memories but that’s all I have. But you and Evalyn had some time and that’s a good thing.”
My Nan has always had a strong, stubborn and undefeated attidude towards life. Maybe all those years ago in the hospital ward was where it all began? Maybe that’s when she learnt to be strong? I always wanted to be strong like her. I never thought for one moment that life would test us both in the same way and throw the same obstacles in our paths.
“I wish it would’ve been me,” she told me as I left, “I wish life had taken me. I’ve lived my life. Evalyn hasn’t. I wish it would’ve been me.”
In the months since Evalyn passed away, we have spoken alot about our babies. At 96 and with the onset of dementia settling in day by day, I have often had to listen to her story-telling on repeat. But that’s OK. I feel that, perhaps living in an era when baby loss was often ignored, losing Evalyn gave her a chance to finally remember and open up about her own daughter. I would have to explain to her over and over again that the doctor’s don’t really know why Evalyn died but her growth could’ve been a factor. She would explain over and over that it is so different now to how it was in her day. We would play “deja-vu” with our conversations, but they would always come back to the same starting point – we missed our girls. . . . .
I wasn’t expecting the phone call, to be honest. I know that my Nan hasn’t been overly well recently. Old age will do that to you. But I have always taken pride in not only how strong she was mentally, but also how strong she was physically. Even in her eighties, she was a dinner lady at a nursery school and would walk the half hour journey there and back each day. It’s been a repeat occurence that the past few Winters she’s spent in hospital with pneumonia and the doctor’s have told us each time to say our Goodbyes. But a few days later she’s been awake and moaning about the patients in the beds around her making too much noise and how bad the hospital food was.
But she always comes home.
The day before my mum phoned me, I sat in the conservatory with my Nan. The weather was beautiful and the sun was beating through the glass. We didn’t have a long conversation, but I remember walking away from it feeling content as for the first time in a while, our conversation hadn’t been a repeat of the one before. For five minutes, she had appeared dementia-free as she had remembered and asked me about my trip to the Isle of Wight the previous day and then gone on to tell me about how she had often holidayed over there when she was younger. She had painted a beautiful picture of a memory before I left.
“Your Nan’s had a stroke,” came my mum’s voice down the phone the following morning, “It doesn’t look good. We’re just waiting for the doctor’s to scan her and confirm everything.”
It turned out the stroke was a severe one. Not only did it take away what physical strength she had left, but it took away the ability for her mind to work properly and erased her voice. There would be no more stories from her box of memories or talking about our girls again. . . .
I went to visit her in the hospital. By then we were strangers. She didn’t know who I was and I barely recognised the woman lying in the bed motionless. I sat watching her, willing for life to let her go. And on the 7th September, life heard my plea.
“She’s gone,” my mum told me down the phone,“But she’ll be happy now.”
Once again, grief has come knocking at my door.
The second time in ten, short months. But this time is different. This time, I get to grieve a life that has been lived and a life that has been lived well. I get to grieve a woman who has inspired me and whose strength I will carry forward and try to live by in my own life.
“You can’t be sad when somebody’s had a good life,” she told me all those years ago in my bedroom, “You need to dry those tears because the people who leave us wouldn’t want to see us so sad.”
And she’s right. I will miss her. I will grieve. But I will smile because she would want me to. And I will comfort myself with the thought that she is finally back with the girls . . . .
And my Evalyn.