About six weeks before my grandma passed, my parents threw a hundredth birthday party for her.

My mom planned the event for two weeks. Every time I called home, she would tell me how difficult it was to find hundredth birthday balloons, how cute the party favors were, how she wanted to make sure she had enough food for everyone. And every time I called home, my dad would tell me how expensive this was turning out to be, but it was worth it to bring everyone together. I would tell my mom how lucky Grandma was to have a daughter-in-law who loved her this much, and my mom would say, “She’s always been so good to us.”

The party was on Saturday, and my brother and I took the four-hour drive to Chicago that morning. The minute we walked through the front door, my mom put us to work. As I hand-lettered labels for the catering, my mom laughingly recounted the tales of her Bible study’s decorating party.

They’d thoroughly coated the house in pink streamers and banners, and my mom hung a gallery of pictures from Grandma’s life: black-and-white pictures of her college years, her wedding, and her years as an elementary teacher. While the rest of the house felt playful and light, this little corner felt almost sacred.

People started arriving a couple hours later. My parents invited about thirty people to my grandma’s one-story ranch, but I didn’t realize how crowded it would seem in such a small space. I caught up with some relatives and old church friends, and I also met my grandma’s caretaker for the first time.

Her caretaker Taylor started in February, and the two of them became joined at the hip. She bought Grandma sweet treats faster than my dad could pay her back, and she painted Grandma’s nails while they watched Forensic Files.

My dad glowed about how Taylor’s loving care was a blessing, but she told my dad that she couldn’t help but grow attached. When some people developed dementia, they grew bitter or rebellious, angry or wild—but Grandma was always sweet. She deferred to whatever would be easier for you and thanked you with every breath. So Taylor was thrilled to visit on her day off.

Taylor floated through the rooms and introduced herself to the relatives, but when it came time for dessert, she stood right behind grandma as my dad carried out the first slice of cake.

Grandma didn’t understand what was happening, looking around bewildered. Her mind had been fading for years, and she could no longer remember what happened two minutes before. We knew that she wouldn’t remember the party, but we were more worried about how lucid she would be with everyone around. But when presented with the cake, when everyone gathered around her and started singing “Happy Birthday” in a key far too high, she knew to blow out the candles. Everyone cheered.

The party wrapped up soon after dessert. My mom spent some good time convincing our ever-polite relatives that it was okay to take leftovers, shoving tupperware into their hands. Then with the last guest gone, my whole family collapsed. My aunt and uncle volunteered to clean up, so we drove home and talked about how that couldn’t possibly have gone any better.

We knew Grandma didn’t have long after her hundredth. We were astounded she’d made it that far. Then the night finally came, and my dad texted, “Grandma just left for heaven tonight.”

In the time after, I find myself remembering her. I keep going back to the day of her hundredth, the last time I saw her out of bed, the last time I heard her say anything beyond “Hello.” It feels like nothing less than a miracle that we got to celebrate her one last time before she passed, and nothing less than a blessing that I knew her. It’s rare to find someone so intrinsically good, and it’s even rarer to be loved by someone like that. She was a fortress of quiet grace through my life, a woman worth celebrating more than anyone else I’ve known.

I don’t know how memory works in the afterlife. I don’t know if you can remember something in heaven that you didn’t remember on earth, but I hope she knows she was celebrated. I hope she knows she was loved.

1 Comment

  1. Hannah Beth Riffell

    I had the same thought when my dad died, wondering how love works now. For what it’s worth, I think heaven is a place where things get restored, where people are healed enough to finally understand the love they couldn’t understand on earth. Your grandmother sounds like an inspiration. I’m so sorry for your loss, but grateful you shared this snapshot with us. Thank you for your writing, Tiffany!

    Reply

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