I arrived home last night after a long day at work followed by a long run to find my husband and my sons waiting for me at the door, red-eyed and weeping.
“Grandma Freddie died,” my 11-year-old stuttered as I dropped my laptop bag, my gym bag and my purse in a heap at the threshold.
Nothing wrecks me like seeing my husband cry. I can count on one hand the number of times I’ve seen it in 16 years. It just doesn’t sit right on him. He’s deep and kind, but tremendously stoic. He’s in charge of making sure I don’t spin into the atmosphere on the vapors generated by my internally combusting brain. He’s the hub in the wheel of our lives. And he was just so broken in that moment.
I did what I could. I held him. We cried. What else can you do?
I sometimes suspect that I am the worst person in the world. I am impulsive and self-absorbed and irascible. I try really hard to surround myself with good, smart people who are willing to tell me what I need to hear when I need to hear it. People who love me enough to want me to get my shit together – who love me enough to tell me it is time to pull my head out of my ass.
One reason I married Jim Fortune is that I sometimes suspect he is the best person in the world, and that together we somehow makes sense. Without doing anything but being his loving, earnest self, he makes me want to rein in my worst impulses and be a better person. And I have a way of using my energy to drag him out of his own head, of propelling him forward when he’s inclined to grind to a stop. It sort of evens out.
His mother had everything to do with making Jim the man he is. Freddie was one of the gentlest, strongest people I’ve ever known. When Jim brought me home to meet his family over Thanksgiving in 1996, she was warm and welcoming – but not in a phony or syrupy way. She was candid, funny, sharp. She was tough, and thoroughly Southern. She said the word ‘mirror’ like this: Mirrah. She said ‘I declare’ all the time, and she had this sing-song way of ending conversations with ‘Love yooou.’
Freddie raised four boys in a three-bedroom rental house in Augusta, Ga., while her husband worked swing shifts at DuPont. Her own parents were dead by the time she was in grade school – her mother of an asthma attack and her father in an accident. She was raised by an older sister and grew up idolizing Shirley Temple because the little actress so often played orphans in her movies.
Her family, her boys, meant everything to Freddie. Once the youngest started first grade, she went to work at the school he attended, and ultimately spent 20 years working for the school system, moving over to the middle school when her youngest did the same. She created the family she had dreamed about as a little girl who saw herself in those plucky orphans on the screen.
I remember once she and I were talking about the hectic pace of life with little kids, and I said something about being worn out. She laughed and said, “Oh, but that’s the best thing in life, just going and doing and being together all the time. That’s just the best thing there is.”
My younger son, Ben, doesn’t remember the Grandma Freddie I knew. He is only 7, and her decline has been steep and wrenching over the past five years. But as I tucked him in just a few hours after he learned his grandmother had died, he asked me, “Did Grandma Freddie have a good life?”
I blinked back tears and pulled his small, warm body to me. “She had a great life, and she was a great person,” I told him. “She had the best thing anyone can have. She had sweet sons who loved her and she loved them back with her whole heart.”
I didn’t sleep well last night. I know Jim didn’t, either. I kept startling awake, reaching for him, and then I’d hear him moving around, restless, wakeful.
I don’t have much practice with death. I’m lucky, I guess. But I don’t know what people do, what they should or shouldn’t do, when confronted with this kind of loss. So I did what I always do: I got up this morning, took the kids to school and went to work.
My boss, one of the good, smart people who excel at helping me be less horrible, asked me what I was doing in the office. Why wasn’t I at home with Jim?
“Well, there’s really nothing I can do,” I said. “The services won’t be for a while. There’s nothing to do. I have tons of work I need to get finished. What can I really do at home?”
“You can be with Jim,” she said gently, incredulously. “Just be with him.”
Which is, of course, exactly what I needed to be doing. I bet Freddie would have known to do that. I bet she would have told me to do that, too.
I left work and drove home. Jim was gone. “Where are you?” I asked into my cell phone.
“At the mall. I’m buying clothes for the kids to wear to the funeral.”
“Stay put. I’ll find you.”
I found him sitting on a bench outside a department store, looking so defeated and sad, kind of staring into the middle distance with red-rimmed eyes. He was so happy to see me. He was so sad. His mom died, and I left him all by himself. What was I thinking? Why did I do that?
Here’s the thing about Jim, though – this is one way he is so much his mother’s son. He wasn’t mad at me for leaving. Not at all. He was just really glad I came back.
So we spent the day buying clothes for the kids and making funeral arrangements and I called the newspaper in Augusta and wrote Freddie’s obituary while Jim’s phone rang incessantly and we were just together.
Which, like Freddie always said, is just the best thing there is.