It came at the close of our second day trekking into the Ethiopian wilderness. Covered in a second skin of dust, blisters rubbing between my toes in the wide box of too-new hiking boots, sweat – everywhere. We are lodged on rickety benches of stretched animal skins that shifted right and left as we shifted off of sore legs and backs, overlooking a wide panorama of cliff edge in the Ethiopian highlands: rolling hills, a jagged spectrum of browns and greens and reds like the painted backdrop of a Western.
There’s a message from my cousin, the red notification leaping up as I moved my phone out of power-saving airplane mode and it connects to EthioTelecom.
Leanne, have you heard. Grandma passed away this morning.
The first moment is disorientation, counting back eleven hours, realising that “this morning” is still “this morning” in California, despite it being “this evening” in Ethiopia, the sunset subsiding into an inky blackness falling around us on our clifftop.
I’ve been abroad on and off in stints since 19, and always, lurking in the back of my head, was this fear: that being abroad, I would miss something truly memorable, truly important, in pursuit of what is (at its most disparaging) my “wandering” or (at its most respectful) my pursuit of a career and life outside of the usual bounds. A birth, a dozen weddings, and, this year, two deaths: first, my mother’s sister from cancer, and now, my father’s stepmother, Grandma Elaine, at 87.
Grief, at this distance, is sharpened by geography and that creeping guilt that I should have been there at the end. It doesn’t help that I knew it was coming, that at some point, my “abroad luck” would run dry and I would be 6000 miles and a $3000 flight away from jubilation or tragedy. There’s no comfort in the knowledge that it was inevitable, to be away and unable to return home, to be a part of the funeral, to hug my cousins and aunts and uncles, to sit next to my brother instead of crying to him over WhatsApp. It was impossible, in that moment, to walk back to my friends, laughing over cool beers, and share the news.
Even a week later, grief in this form – far away – is a funny thing: when it hits, what it does, what I do. What sets me off: sitting in a conference meeting as my colleagues talk, opening a link to an obituary, seeing condolences from thirty, forty years of her acquaintance added to the bottom. It’s strange how death – and distance – illuminate in those moments, somehow rattling me and making me proud of the woman I knew.
My grandmother, the second wife of my father’s father, and more a part of my formative years than my biological grandmother, who passed too early and left me a few pieces of art and a perhaps a few creative bones, was named Elaine. We called her Grandma Elaine, or sometimes just her first name, and she lived in Riverside, part of the San Bernardino valley, a desert that will forever bring nostalgia at the sight of the R carved into the Box Springs Mountains or the rolling, dusty brownness – perhaps not so different from my perch in these African highlands.
She was Scandinavian, and proud, with a careful, platinum bob. She drank refrigerated Franzia with ice cubes, a habit very separate from my family’s conservatism. Her fingers carried a collection of rings, big, bold gold pieces and diamonds, collected from her lifetime. She retired when I was a child and managed to travel swaths of the world – often on cruises. She once told me a story of her cruise boat being held up by some sort of pirates and she put her rings in her mouth to keep them from being stolen.
But, as I realised only recently, she was my role model: a strong woman who survived the deaths of two husbands and a son, who raised four boys, who beat cancer and lived with unapologetic vivacity. I remember one of my last conversations with her, her too far away to speak and me doing all the talking, at the start of the summer only a few days after I’d arrived home following ten months in Rwanda, holding her hand and telling her how she had been so influential to me – even from a distance, from her home in Riverside to my ordinary (and now past) life in Northern California.
She was a teacher. I am a teacher. She travelled the world – I’m working on that one. She was brash, brave, ballsy – I’m working on those, too. But she was a woman of great depth, great compassion, great understanding. She knew what to tell me when it was something I needed to hear – to tell me I was strong, I was capable, that I wasn’t those other things that people would say about me. That I could do something different, that I was enough.
A few days after hearing that she had passed, deep into Saturday night as I was in another hotel, sitting with friends and looking out not over a cliff face but the lights of Addis Ababa, my phone blipped again with another text, this time from my brother, telling me that my grandmother’s best friend told him that Elaine relived her life through me.
I guess this is the job of a eulogy: to allow you to organise your thoughts, find a direction in your grief, to remember. C.S. Lewis found solace following the death of his wife in this task, “by writing it all down ... I believe I get a little outside of it” (p. 10). And so this is a eulogy to my grandmother: to put into words both grief and thankfulness, for what she imparted to me, even from a distance. It isn’t bad luck, to experience loss and grief while far away, it’s life: a thing better lived than fretted over.
Lewis, C.S. (1961) A Grief Observed. Harper: San Francisco.