My mom only knows military time. Because she grew up in Sweden, even though she’s lived in the US now longer than she ever lived there, she still gets her 12 ams and 12 pms confused. Our flight to Sweden, to attend her dad’s funeral, was scheduled for 12 am. I called her at 9 pm asking her if she’d left yet, and she asked me, Left for where?
“Grief-induced forgetfulness” is the word for this phenomenon. In moments of extreme grief, the brain stops being able to process even the most simple tasks, entirely focused on the healing of emotional trauma. In trying to make sense of the senseless, the brain essentially short-circuits, unable to process new information while it tries to tackle the old. Car keys left in the fridge instead of on the hook by the door, rushing to get ready for your 9-5 when it’s actually a Saturday, re-reading the same sentence in a paragraph several times over because you’ve forgotten you already read it, or simply can’t absorb it. In learning the language of grief, one finds it easy to forget their mother tongue.
My grandpa – my morfar – was old, and his age combined with his stubbornness led to him insisting on doing everything himself. It was this bullheadedness that eventually led to him falling off the roof while reshingling, resulting in quite a few broken bones. He also had COPD, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, which led to him sometimes having chest pains and shortness of breath. It therefore wasn’t all that uncommon for him to be in the hospital, and so it wasn’t necessarily all that concerning to get a text from my mom informing me that he’d landed himself in the hospital again that Thursday morning. What was concerning, though, was stepping away from my phone for a half hour and coming back to nine missed calls.
At work, I excused myself and stepped into the stairwell and walked all the way to the top before I called her back. Her line was busy. I sat at the top step by the fire escape, so cold I felt like I was on fire. My whole body was shaking so violently that I was practically vibrating. I wondered if I might have been having a seizure, or was experiencing my first earthquake.
I’d previously thought losing a grandparent wouldn’t be all that hard. I thought I’d be protected by the degrees of separation. He wasn’t my parent, after all, and we’d never lived in the same city, state, country, or even continent, only seeing each other over summer vacation every year. Worse than thinking that losing him wouldn’t be hard, I actually thought it would be quite easy. I worried that when he were to die, I’d feel so little, and my mom would be in so much pain, that I wouldn’t even be able to identify with her. Before his death was even a remote possibility, I was worrying that my guilt would weigh more than my grief, which only caused even more guilt.
My mom finally called back, saying she’d been on the phone with my dad, something that struck me as odd considering that they’d divorced five years earlier and still couldn’t bear to look at each other. Her voice broke, and I knew without her even having to explicitly say it. I understood that her years of fighting and lawyers and court dates with my dad meant nothing in that moment. What she wanted, what she needed, was to speak to someone that had known her dad.
When should I come? I’ll come now. I’ll leave work. Suddenly everything else felt so stupid. Why was I at work, selling shoes to people who didn’t even know my first name, when somewhere on the other side of the world my grandma had lost her husband of over 55 years? I felt sick with the reality that every day, for more than twice the number of years that I’d been alive, my grandparents woke up together, spent their days together, and went to sleep together, only to have it abruptly end like this. I hated the world for its allowance of such anguish.
Sitting on the top step, I cried hysterical, gasping sobs while hoping no one would walk in on me. Finally, when I’d cried myself out, I checked my face in my phone camera to make sure my eyes weren’t red, my face unswollen, and suddenly I couldn’t remember what my own face looked like. It’s not just that what I saw in the camera in that moment didn’t match my memory; I didn’t even have a memory of what I was supposed to look like. I guess that this, too, was an instance of grief-induced forgetfulness.
This brings up a question: was it also grief-induced forgetfulness that in the moments leading up to my grandpa’s death, he kept saying, I want to go home, even though he was, in fact, laying on his own couch?
I flew to Sweden one week later. Arriving at my grandma’s house, a small town in Southern Sweden about a three hour drive from Stockholm, I don’t know what I expected, but it wasn’t what I found. Looking back, I guess I expected darkness, heaviness. I expected my grandma to be inconsolable. I expected to be swallowed whole by her grief.
Instead, things felt nearly normal. Everything felt the same, just with one less person in the house. During the days, it snowed, endlessly, blanketing the town in a fine layer of white powder, and we stayed busy. We baked bread in the mornings to eat with swiss cheese and honey, we walked into the town center to buy the day’s groceries, we baked my favorite Swedish cinnamon buns. At night, I’d cook dinner for everyone – my grandma, mom, and two siblings – and would quietly delight as they’d compliment my cooking. One night I made a new pasta dish and my grandma said to me, in Swedish, Your grandpa would have liked this. Again, I felt robbed. What God denies a grandpa the right to watch his grandchild grow up? What God denies a granddaughter a chance to make her ancestors proud?
Though the days were tolerable, with us able to fill the hours to distract our minds, the nights were hard. At night I’d find myself unable to sleep, though I’d always been a sound sleeper. At night, around 2 am, my mom would come into the room and sit on the twin-sized bed with me, also unable to sleep.
My mom and I weren’t always close. It’s hard to know how much of our fighting was “normal” and how much of it crossed some sort of invisible line, but I do remember resenting how strict she was and how tight of a leash she kept me on. She’d worry herself sick – truly sick; she was bedridden with migraines quite frequently back in my teen years – over any unconformity on my part, however slight. Sometimes, when we’d fight, she’d accuse me of wanting her to be sick, or worse, to die. I was frustrated by her inability to see reason in those moments, and she was frustrated with me for reasons I still don’t quite understand but were likely, or at least, possibly, reasonable, and over the course of my adolescence, a rift grew. There was a gap between us that I couldn’t imagine ever bridging. I’d look at other daughters and their mothers who seemed so close – who would hug and link arms and looked as if they were best friends – and try to understand how what they had could even be possible.
And now here we were, in the early hours of the morning under the purpled, hazy light of dawn, sharing yet another trauma. Her divorce, my first real heartbreak, and now both of us suffering from the same sadness, eating leftover cinnamon buns at the dining table, taking turns cocooning our heads in each other’s necks, going through the linen closets, and listening to the radio, all while the rest of the house lay asleep. By that point, the news in Sweden had started to detail all of the many ways the pandemic was causing New York to fall to pieces, but we couldn’t worry about that yet. Instead of paying attention to all of the warnings, she took it as an opportunity to teach me more Swedish. Människor strömmar till butikerna… People are flocking to the stores… …och köper ut all konserver i panik… …and buying out all of the canned food in panic. Det finns inget toalettpapper. There is no toilet paper.
In our late night rummaging through the closets, we found that one of the closets was filled with delicate lace doilies, chain stitch-embroidered table settings depicting farmland and wildflowers, and crocheted table runners. One light blue wall hanging was covered in pink embroidered hearts and read: Jag kommer alltid att vara i ditt hjärta. I will always be in your heart.
At times of night before we were ready to give up trying to fall asleep, or after our nighttime escapades and ready to try for sleep again, I would work on writing the eulogy. I’d never written a eulogy before, and I didn’t know what to include. As a jumping off point, I thought about the kind of person he was, of all the things I’d inherited from him.
A list of things I have inherited from my grandpa, in no particular order:
- A laugh like a shock of summer thunder
- An affinity for rum-soaked cake
- An all-consuming love for the FIFA World Cup
- A knack for documenting every little moment, he with a camera, myself with a paper and pen
In the days leading up to the funeral, we combed through the whole house, my mom, my grandma, and I. We went through all of my grandpa’s things to decide what to donate and what to keep. Clearly no adherent to the concept of Swedish Death Cleaning – in which the elderly go through all of their material possessions to throw out everything they don’t need in an effort to create less work for their surviving family after their death – there was a lot to go through. We worked every single day on going through it all.
One of my grandpa’s biggest passions was music, and he’d spent his life amassing an incredible collection of vinyls. He’d built out the den of the house to be somewhat of a listening studio. Top of the line speakers and equipment that I didn’t even understand the purpose of lined the walls of the den, and one entire wall featured a built in bookcase that was filled, end to end, with records. It was in the den that we used to have our movie nights, like the time we watched 21 Jump Street together, and at the end, when Rob Riggle gets his dick shot off, my grandpa laughed so hysterically that we had to get him his inhaler.
Also in the den were his many film cameras and his Super 8, which I inherited from him, and several boxes of negatives. We were able to find a projector and display the negatives on the wall. Some were even film tapes, which we were able to display, too. We watched as my mom, then a toddler, waddled through a field of flowers twice as tall as she was, my grandpa, looking like an Old Hollywood moviestar, keeping a close eye on her.
Suddenly there were my grandparents, sweaters tied around their necks, surrounded by monkeys. Confused, my mom asked her mom if they’d ever been to Africa. Africa? No, I’ve never been to Africa. When would I have gone there? she said. Well, I don’t know. Where else would all those monkeys be? my mom responded defensively. I noticed a tall glass structure in the background and suddenly realized where they were. It was a place I, too, had once been to, nearly two years ago. It was the Berlin Zoo, in Germany, and it was the Zoologsicher Garten metro station in the background.
There is a distinct pride in knowing that you, too, have stood in the same place as those that preceded you. That you liked the same things, had similar interests, and unknowingly inhabited the same spaces. That in another life, had you not been family and maybe been closer in age, you could have even been friends.
After we’d finished going through all of my grandpa’s things, my mom and I loaded it all into the car and drove to a recycling center a few towns over to drop it off. We used my grandpa’s old Volvo, the kind with the seats in the back that face outwards. The car only takes cassettes, not even CDs, that’s how old it is. I picked a cassette at random, not really caring what would be on it, just not wanting to steep in silence. The cassette was full of ABBA, Johnny Cash, Billie Holiday. We were driving through the winding roads, the only car in sight, through a sea of snow-dusted pine trees. They bowed under the weight of the snow, threatening to dump their burden on us, when a song that I’d never heard before played – Tall Trees in Georgia by Eva Cassidy.
Tall trees in Georgia, they grow so high, they shade me so, Cassidy croons, nearly trembling.
Listening to those words, in that moment, everything felt full, everything felt right, even though everything was, without a doubt, all wrong. The song – a song my grandfather had clearly loved so dearly, dearly enough to record it onto a cassette tape – the snow on the pine trees, the Earthy smell of the forest, the light at dusk. I wished in that moment that I could bottle it all to use a balm for later times, for when everything feels awful and impossible, when everything feels hard and I feel so pathetically weak.
I love how my grandpa loved American music. I love how his love of music is what first led to him learning English, a skill that he resolved to strengthen so that he could always communicate with me and my siblings as we struggled to learn Swedish. I love how he loved this song. I pictured him, still alive, driving this same car down this same road at this same time of year at the same time of day, listening to this same song. I found myself overcome by the knowledge that we are never the first to do anything, and I found comfort in that knowledge.
My mom and I stopped by the town she grew up in on the way to the recycling center. Gonäs, population 357. It’s the kind of town that leads to anecdotes such as my mom veering into a potato field when she first learned how to drive, or the fact that my mom has only ever been in one car crash, in which she hit a moose.
Growing up I found myself annoyed at how much love my mom felt for Sweden. Now I only have admiration for how dearly she loves the place she is from. I know firsthand how hard it is to love one’s past.
Once we arrived back at home, we went through my grandma’s clothes and played dress up. My grandma sat on the bed, I sat on the floor at her feet, and my mom went through the closet. They had me put on a royal blue gown with a matching wrap – the gown that my grandma wore to my mom’s wedding to my dad. My mom went looking for some drop earrings for me to wear with the dress, and as she went through my grandma’s jewelry box, she laughed as she realized my grandma didn’t have any matching earrings. They were all singles – one pearl stud, one cascade of rhinestones, one dangling gem, one small gold hoop. We all laughed, and as my grandma quieted down she said, Well, at least the ones I’m wearing right now match, and at that my mom and I burst into hysterics, because no, the earrings she was wearing did not match. She took them out of her ears and stared at them, and then she, too, burst into a fit of laughter.
It was shocking to me, that in moments of such grief, it could be possible to feel anything akin to happiness.
Finally it was the day of the funeral. I wore a black dress with big, flouncy sleeves complete with silver buttons painted with red and green accents and shaped like hearts, a dress I like to imagine he’d have liked.
I had never been to a funeral before, and didn’t know they worked. I still don’t know how they’re supposed to work, or if there is any one way for a funeral to be. All I can speak to is the way his was.
The funeral was structured like this: a few words from the pastor, a song, a psalm, a song, and repeat, for one hour. When it was time for my mom and I to speak, we went up together, and clung to each other desperately as we spoke and cried. At one point, when I found myself crying too hard to continue, I found myself looking up while I collected myself, which surprised me, as I don’t believe in a God, or an afterlife, or heaven. What was it then, that I was looking up to? Or, did I suddenly believe in that moment that someone was looking down on me? It’s impossible to say.
After my speech, I sat back down in the front pew in a slant of colored light coming in from the stained glass windows and blew my nose into the sleeve of my turtleneck, no tissues to be found. At the end, we all had a chance to walk up to the casket, which was mercifully closed, and leave a flower on it while we said a final goodbye. Standing over the casket and knowing he was in there made me want to get it over with as quickly as possible. I left my flower on top and walked away quickly. And that remains my one regret in all of this: that I never said a proper goodbye.
The next day I was scheduled to fly back to New York, and so my aunt and uncle drove me back to Stockholm. None of us are very talkative, and so we mostly sat silently, the two of them in the front and me in the back. At one point he spoke into the rearview mirror and told me he thought I was brave, that he didn’t think he could have given a speech like I had given at the funeral. I looked out the window at the passing fields filled with cows, fat and sunned and lazy, and thought about how I wouldn’t have thought I could give a speech like that either. I guess that just as we don’t know how to swim until we’re thrown into the water, we don’t know how brave we are until we find ourselves in the midst of a storm.
So much of what I know of bravery, of levity, of what it means to live a full life, I learned from him. It gives me comfort, through all this grief, to know that his legacy lives on, and that it does so through me, simply being the way I am.
Arielle McManus is a dual Swedish-American citizen, learning as she goes and writing from a tiny, sunlit room in Brooklyn. She is an assistant editor at Atlas & Alice, and her writing has been published by a variety of literary publications including Passages North, Cabinet of Heed, and Madness Press.