Wednesday, March 19, 2008

in memory of julie carpenter (1932-2008)

I tried but I honestly can’t remember what I did on Christmas Day any of the years prior to the first time I joined Carrie's family in 1994. My only memories of Christmas involve long car rides with the Lullos playing carols on the radio and Grandma scurrying to welcome us into her home, always a hug leftover for Carrie’s little Jewish friend. I had just turned 12 and Carrie and I had become inseparable best friends over the past year. Being the token Jew of the school, she and her parents graciously invited me to join her mom’s side of the family up in Wisconsin on her parents’ farm.
I don't remember much from that first Christmas except a lot people radiating a lot of positive energy, a lot of food and a lot of kids. Carrie’s cousin, Mary, was only a month old and Carrie kept insisting I hold her. Babies have always made me uncomfortable, so I just as insistently refused the responsibility of holding such a tiny human life.

Over the years Carrie’s grandparents became my surrogate grandparents. My first grandpa didn’t even get to see me pass first grade. Both of grandmas missed my high school graduation by less than a year, and my other grandpa passed away three months before I graduated college. Every year they’d give me gifts like I was just another one of their many grandchildren and made me feel like I wasn't just there because I had nowhere else to go but that I was there because I was part of the family.

Grandma declared Christmas '06 the last one she planned to host. I made sure Carrie and I took a picture with her grandparents before we left to document the end of an era.

Eerily soon after, Grandma was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer and spent all of 2007 battling the disease with all her strength and devotion. Carrie's parents hosted Christmas '07. Grandma looked thinner and seemed a little less energetic, but she was nevertheless still her sassy, lovable self.

On February 17 of this year I drove Carrie up to Burlington to visit her Grandma (her grandparents moved to a lake house about 8 years ago), who was lying on a hospital bed in the middle of the living room. I contemplated the word as I entered the space, standing on the floor where I’ve spent so many Christmases. Living Room. Is this one of life’s ironies? I thought.
Carrie motioned for me to hold Grandma’s hand. Unlike so many years before when I refused to hold Mary, afraid of dropping her and ruining my chances of ever returning, this time I knew I had to offer my hand. It was the least I could do. Instead of fearing holding on, I feared letting go. I stroked Grandma’s fingers. Remarkably soft and bony. She could barely open her eyes, but she nodded when someone asked if she recognized me.
I excused myself to use the bathroom and almost started crying. All these memories of Grandma flooded back to me, starting with the time Carrie and I, as pre-teens, had returned from exploring their many acres of land and I went to the bathroom, only to have a tick fall out of my underwear. Subsequently Grandma carefully checked my hair for any more lingering blood-sucking insects.

--Grandma having serious conversations with me about my photography career path, giving me advice to join a newspaper. “They’re the best photographers,” she always reminded me. She was always the artist, though. I have a collection of “reject” paintings that she let Carrie and I keep that I will treasure forever.

--Grandma playing our annual game of Charades and having to act out “The Thong Song.”

--Grandma giving extra love and attention to her autistic granddaughter, Hannah.

--When my own mom was diagnosed with cancer back in the June of 2002, I spent my whole first summer break from college driving her to doctor appointments and spending hours visiting the hospital after she had a lung removed. Grandma Carpenter made it clear that she was looking out for me, and before I went back to school in the fall invited me up to Burlington for a little R&R. Not just me, though. She extended the invitation to my younger sister, Sheri, as well. Sheri and I spent the afternoon with Carrie and Grandma on the lake riding waverunners, enjoying the final days of summer. For those few hours I allowed myself to live in the present and fully appreciate the weather and the company of my best friend, my only sister and my surrogate grandmother.

[me and Carrie on the waverunner, her cousins Erin and Mary on the pier]

[me and Sheri]
When I came out of the bathroom I sat on the floor of what I decided should more appropriately be called the Family Room, a room that lived up to its name. The sounds of the Daytona 500 filled the room and replaced the gunshots of the old Westerns, which had previously been on TV, serving as a distraction for Grandpa.
Across the room Clyde, their chocolate lab, started chewing a paper towel. Grandpa scolded him from his position on the couch. Not wanting to make Grandpa get up, I crawled over to the dog and reached to grab the shredded mess. Clyde responded by biting my hand with three sharp teeth. I didn’t get mad at him, despite the throbbing pain. It was proof of reality. This is happening and this is happening now.
Grandma called for her husband in a stunted whisper, "Neal, Neal..." He dutifully walked over and sat beside his childhood love and took her hand in his. What killed me was then hearing Grandma saying something no one else could hear and Grandpa responding in a normal voice, "You want a hug? Ok." And he stood up and pressed his body against her frail frame.
It was hard to leave because deep down I knew that was probably the last time I'd see her.

On March 2, while waiting for a flight back to Chicago from Kansas City, I received a message from Carrie saying her grandma passed away that morning.

I am so grateful for all your compassion and generosity, Grandma. Thank you for being an unforgettable presence in my life. I'll miss you.

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