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When We Say Goodbye

This past week, I spent some time walking through a nearly-empty house that’s been a part of my life for over thirty years. Across the street from my parents’ house is an extension of my childhood, another safe haven, a place filled with memories of the people we’ve loved and one we’ve lost.

When my family moved to Pennsylvania in August 1987, right before I was about to turn four, my grandparents moved into the house across the street, splitting their time between a New York apartment, month-long sojourns in Hawaii, and holidays here in Lancaster. One could say they were barely here in their Pennsylvania home—and maybe that’s why this attachment I have towards the house isn’t so easily understood—but that’s not the point. All my life, I’ve known it as Grandma and Grandpa’s house, and that’s the only thing that has mattered. Just the very thought of that house, silent as it may have been then, empty as it is now, brought an added sense of comfort to my small but changing world.

It was where I tried skateboarding for the first time down the slight slope of their driveway. It was where I tumbled into the grass after I had the brilliant idea of roller skating while trying to walk my dogs—retrievers with way too much muscle and energy for me to control. I played house on the wrought iron bench on their front porch. I made up stories about the little boy and girl fountain statue in their Japanese-influenced garden. I drew pictures on their driveway with colored chalk when the canvas of my own driveway became too full.

My grandparents’ house was always there across the street, like an annex to my own home.

“Susan, run across the street and get some milk from Grandma…”

“Sue, here. Bring this struffoli to Grandpa.”

“Susie, come on. We’re eating across the street tonight.”

Out my front door I would run—across browned grass in summertime or fresh-fallen snow in winter, up those brick steps to ring the doorbell and listen to the four-chimed song. I would peek through the side window into the foyer, listen for Grandma calling out, “Coming!” and then step back once I saw her appear. “Susan!” she would always exclaim, holding out her arms. It didn’t matter that she already knew I was on my way over. No matter what, she was always excited to see us.

When my grandpa became sick, they made this house their permanent home, selling their apartment in New York and retiring their summers in Hawaii. When I went away for college, I made sure to always stop by for a few minutes when I was home, knowing time with them was growing precious. That was when things changed for me. That was when I began to see my grandparents not just as family, but as people. Individuals. Human beings I loved unconditionally but that I also chose to love.

That was when I knew I was growing up.

I still remember my grandma walking me to the front door after a brief visit. From a certain spot in the foyer, I could see past the open entryway of the living room, through the kitchen, and into the den where my grandpa sat in his green recliner, watching television with the remote in his hand. I can still hear myself calling goodbye to him, telling him I loved him.

I can still hear his gravelly voice, his lungs weakened by illness, calling out those words in return.

It’s been a little over ten years since my grandpa died. This past October, my grandma suffered a fall from a ministroke and went straight from the hospital to a beautiful apartment in an independent-living complex. She’s happy there. She’s made friends, is sociable again, and the apartment suits her, thanks to her former life in New York. But it’s been a hard road to get here, as the transition has been fraught with resistance, confusion, and stress for all involved.

For the past few months, we’ve been slowly going through her things. For the past few weeks, we’ve been busy packing up the house. These past few days, we’ve cleared out the final rooms. Now it’s an empty house where my grandparents used to live, where my family used to gather, where memories are embedded in the walls, in the carpets, in the very fiber of that intangible something that makes a house a home.

There, on the beige carpet in the den, is where we would open up our Easter baskets after running through the house in search of eggs. And there, that spot in the kitchen is where I would wash the floor during my Cinderella before-the-ball phase. The guest bedroom with the sea green carpet and floral bedspread is where I slept for a night because even though my own bedroom was right across the street, there was something special about staying at Grandma’s. I sat on the carpet in the formal living room—shoes off, of course—and played with a tiny tea set. I climbed on top of an old wooden chest and into the crawl space in the basement in search of treasures. I sat at the kitchen table in chairs that rolled across smooth tile and watched my grandpa paint scenic landscapes and wooden tulip petals. This was a wide-eyed epiphany for me: my grandfather was an artist.

I know this is just a house, and it’s not even my own childhood home at that. I know it’s just walls and floors and a roof, just a place across the street where my grandparents used to live, but I—I’m still grieving this loss. I’m grieving my grandpa, I’m grieving who my grandma used to be before the dementia, I’m grieving everything I have or will have to leave behind. I’m thinking about the nevers, knowing that’s the hardest part. I’ll never run across the street and up those brick steps to the black door with the pineapple knocker again. I’ll never hear the four chimes of the doorbell and look through the window eagerly awaiting my grandma. I’ll never roll across the kitchen tile on those ugly vinyl chairs, never be careful about taking off my shoes as I cross through the living room, never open the cabinet door and reach for a glass because I know this house like I know my own. I'll never look through the windows and see my parents' house--a beacon of my childhood--from this angle again. Those moments won’t exist anymore except for in my memory. It’s hard to let that go. Because this house is more than its construction. It’s a part of my childhood, my life. There are moments locked within these walls. Memories full of love and family that have helped to make us who we are—that have helped make me who I am. It’s hard to let that go. Thirty years is a damn long time for love to flow and grow and then to say goodbye.

But it’s time for goodbye. I can’t hold onto this.

So I walked through the rooms this week, seeing all that’s left but remembering all that was. I followed that four year old little girl as she sat down with her tea set, as she cleaned beside Grandma, as she watched Grandpa paint. Down the hall and through each room, I chased her laughter as I shed tears until we reached the foyer. Until I opened the front door. Until I watched her run back across the street, waving goodbye to her grandparents the way she’s done a thousand times before.

Then I turned around, glanced past the living room and the kitchen and into the den that sits empty now. For a second, I swear the house came alive again with the sounds of my family gathering for the holidays. For a moment, I could have sworn I saw it—that dark green recliner sitting in the corner. “I love you,” I whispered.

And all around me I heard the echo of those familiar words, like the house was whispering back the words my grandfather used to say: “I love you, too.”

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