Friday, October 26, 2007

A Silent Casualty -- Published in The Washington Post and The San Diego Union Tribune

My Grand Mother and Me

Links to the story:

My grandmother didn’t make it this time. The stress from the fires incinerating hundreds of thousands of acres in Southern California (power outages, false evacuation orders, fear of losing her home--again) was too much this time. She’d already come close to losing her home twice in the past, the flames literally lapping the deck of her home in Pine Valley, CA during the terrible fire there so many years ago. Then there was the Cedar Fire four years ago (the flames only made it as far as the property line this time.) Lucky? Invulnerable? Immortal, perchance?

I guess I figured she would easily make it through this time. I mean the fire was far enough away from Descanso this time and even though she had suffered a heart attack a month before she seemed to be improving and so I didn’t get the plane ticket for the requisite “last time” visit (even though I have plenty of frequent flyer miles).

At 93, grandma Grace had seen so much. Her childhood was haunted by the First World War, the Spanish Flu and then the Great Depression. Yet, as many of her generation did, she rose to the occasion and reinvented herself from a simple farm girl to the wife of a Marine Corps officer who would hold the rank of major and serve as the provost marshal for the island of Formosa (now Taiwan).

And then a heart attack some 40 odd years ago nearly killed her but as always she pulled through. Her only son, my father, died 12 years ago but grandma exhibited the stoic fortitude of another generation and comforted me more than I did her at Dad’s funeral.

So when grandpa called to tell me it was different this time, I found myself incredulous. “She’ll pull through—like always—she’ll make it. I know she will,” I kept convincing myself as more and more excuses here in Washington, DC kept from making that trip back home.

Then Wednesday evening I got the phone call from grandpa, the one that isn’t just the “how ya doin’” kind of chat. There it was. She was dead. The fires won this time--or so it seemed. She collapsed in my grandpa’s arms, never coming out of a coma, at the home she lived in for decades and was damned and determined to die in, with just she and grandpa. “I’m going first,” she would often kid with him—she wasn’t kidding after all. It was a fitting end to a 70 year love affair. 70 years.

Simple to say, the grief I feel is deep, like the throbbing pain of a terrible headache that won’t let up, but I can’t even begin to know how grandpa must feel. To lose a loved one is never easy, we all know it, those of us who have passed through death’s relentless emotional gauntlet, but to lose a loved one because of a terrible natural disaster (directly or indirectly) triggers emotions I’m not familiar with and hope never to have again--feelings of anger, confusion and hopelessness. I hear myself repeating the words of those I’ve seen express their grief after a loved one was murdered, “This shouldn’t have happened this way.”

My grandmother was recovering. I believe she could have lived another five, seven maybe ten more years. Or was it time to go? I’m certain I will be sorting this out for a long time and may never come to terms with the disaster that enveloped California and brought an end to my grand mother’s life.

Perhaps had she and grandpa opted to live in a retirement community in a safer urban area of San Diego County, and not at the edge of the Cleveland National Forest, she would be alive today, but that wouldn’t have been the woman I’ve came to call “Grandma Grace Under Fire”. Yes, the fires that still rage across Southern California took my grand mother’s life, but it didn’t take her soul. And that soul, her spirit, will live on through her family for many generations to come.

Robert Westover,
Washington, DC

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