It is the end of March in western New York. Only a few brave green shoots have poked their heads above ground, but they've been there for weeks and show no sign that they wish to commit themselves further.
Gray branches sway against white sky, and patches of dirty snow lie on the frozen mud. Early winter snow is all snow fairies and magic. It falls softly like a blessing. Months later, the snow is a stubborn thing. Contemptuous of human calendars, it seems to mock all our hopes for spring.
March is New York's ugliest month. Perhaps it is because our expectations are so high. When the snow begins to fly in November or even in October, a person is winter-weary by Christmas. January and February drag on tiresomely, and the spring equinox looks mighty enticing from the middle of a blustery winter day. But the first day of spring comes and goes with more snow, more wind, and more of that damp, biting cold that creeps into your bones and wraps itself around your joints. I dream of sunlight and the green oasis of spring, but in the snow belt, "spring" is a broken promise. Winter is a wasteland, and March is a mirage, not an oasis.
Today was like all the other days this week and last week and the weeks before that. Gray skies, icy wind, aching joints. But today, in the midst of that tedious sameness, seven men and one woman came to our house with an ambulance and took my grandmother away to the hospital. I stood there next to her place at the old oak table and watched them mill about our kitchen and pass in and out of her room. I heard them speaking to her as they lifted her tiny, frail body onto a gurney to carry her out of the house. When she passed, I did not say anything to her, and she did not say anything to me. She was caught up her pain, and, I suppose, so was I. I thought about rushing to her and kissing her as she went out. I thought about telling her I loved her. But I didn't. I just backed up to give the men room and watched her go.
Then the door was closed and I sat down and felt tired. I felt something else too, iciness and bad feeling that made me stay home when my sister, parents, and uncle made their way to the hospital. I should have gone with them. Duty at least should have guided my feet to the door, but I was frozen, and it was hours before I understood what my cold feeling was. It was anger, painful and raw, that made me want to shout at her and curse her for becoming old and frail, for refusing to wear her hearing aids so that we all have to shout at her to be heard, for refusing to learn how to use her walker so she is unbalanced and vulnerable, for refusing to go see doctors, for refusing even to answer my mother's questions when we found her on the floor. I'm angry with her for not understanding what we've had to sacrifice for her because of duty, because of principle. And because of love. Three generations of us have organized our lives around her needs so she could stay in her home. But what else could we do? She is the matriarch. She is the quick-witted, beauty my grandfather fell in love with. She is the irascible, brilliant, sharp-tongued, and eccentric center of our family. She is the grandmother who was too bright, too uncompromising, too dignified to get old. And then she did.
When I finally understood that my cold brooding feeling was anger, I felt ashamed too. I should have gone with my family to see her in the hospital, but I didn't. I couldn't. I'm not sure what's wrong with me. Probably, this time, she'll be okay. She'll come home again, and we'll continue to hover around her as if she were made of glass, and our days will resume their old pattern. For a little while, as routine does its work, I'll feel like time is an indefinite thing without boundaries and conclusions, but she's 96 and I'm not getting any younger either. I know, whether I can face it or not, how my grandmother's story will end. Each day brings the inevitability of her death closer.
When that inevitable day comes, what will it mean? Beyond my mourning for her, it will alter our relationships with each other and with our home. When she is no longer at the center, and there is no more reason for us to gather together to orchestrate her care, will we also be changed? Perhaps it will mean that my uncles and other relatives will no longer come to this house where she reigns as Matriarch. And what of this house? Will it too pass away? Perhaps her final illness and death will mean the end of our multi-generational home where I've raised my children, and played with my pets, and tended my garden. It scares me to think that it is possible that I'll lose not just her, but the home I've shared with her. I always thought that every spring, I would have her roses and her althea and her forget-me-nots to remind me. Is it mean of me to wish this house and these gardens never existed if it means that I can't be here to love them?
As a few of the ambulance crew fussed over my grandmother who lay in the bed in which she was born and which she shared with my grandfather through six decades of marriage, we chatted with one of the men waiting in the kitchen. He graduated from my high school and seemed to know everyone in my graduating class. Or rather, he seemed to know where they had gone to make a life for themselves. I haven't gone anywhere. I'm still in the same village where my ancestors settled two hundred years ago. But my job is two rural counties away and apart from my family, I know few people here in the village. When I speak of my town that I love, it is the town of my parents' and my grandparents' childhoods. The ambulance volunteer could tell me about my generation. The generations I know have already passed. As we travel around the village and town, I tell my children, "Your ancestors founded that church. They attended that one room schoolhouse. They farmed that land. They are buried in that cemetery."
What do we owe the past? In a real sense, as an historian, I've dedicated myself to its preservation. In Grandma's way, she too has been a link to the past, not merely because she has lived almost a hundred years in this village, but because she has taken it upon herself as the mother of the family to keep the records and tell the stories. I have been learning to tell the stories too, but I'm always afraid. I am only a chronicler of her memories. I am not a witness. Fearful of my own future, I take comfort in holding fast to her past. The idea that the continuity of our lives might be disrupted, that I might be uprooted, terrifies me.
I've always known, of course, that one day they will carry her away from me and that she will never come home again, but my heart never believed it. I guess today was the day that my heart finally began to catch on to that awful knowledge. She will die. She must die. This reality cannot be altered. It cannot be prayed, or hoped, or wished away. It cannot be ignored. Things cannot stay the same forever no matter how much we pretend that they can. I'm an historian. I should know by now that change is the partner of time. You can't have one without the other. I should be a grown-up and face it, but I want to stomp my feet and cry instead. I don't want this. I don't want change. Not today. I'd rather stay here frozen in this gray day, sad and worrisome as it is. March may be frozen and bleak. It may feel like an endless extension of a long, hard winter, but it always ends in April. Spring, like change itself, may take its time arriving, but it will come. I don't know what this spring will bring. Yesterday I couldn't wait for it to arrive, but, please God, my grandmother is in her winter and I've been sharing it with her. Let it last a little longer. As dark and cold and bitter as it is, I don't think I'm quite ready for it to be over.