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There are only so many places an 86-year-old widow can get to in a secured retirement facility. Gran wasn’t in her room when my mom and I arrived that summer afternoon, and we were more than a little surprised.
We had visited the Langley Gardens Retirement Community often in the months since Gran and Grandad had moved in. Relocating to a care facility was not a welcome change for my strong and independent grandparents, but it was a necessary one.
The two of them braved their new territory as they had approached everything else in the previous six decades, together and with one another’s best interests in mind. They adjusted to their new home, and confirmed that grace is a quality that can improve the most difficult of situations.
We found Gran in the residents’ common area for the Happy Hour that takes place at 2 p.m. every Thursday.
“We can leave if you like,” Gran offered in her naturally accommodating manner.
The music had started by then, and was loud enough to make conversation difficult. But we’d seen her tapping her foot and sipping punch as we approached, and while we were eager to chat with her we didn’t want to break the spell of reminiscence that the music clearly offered.
Mom and I brought over some chairs from the nearby dining room and settled in beside Gran to listen.
Between numbers, the musician, who introduced himself as Ron, chatted with the audience about the songs he was playing and some of the musicians he had met along his way.
Ron asked whether anyone remembered Vera Lynn before he played White Cliffs of Dover. Although he didn’t receive a lot of responses to his commentary, it became clear that the residents did remember the songs he played. A chorus of voices from around the room joined in as he sang.
There’ll be bluebirds over/The white cliffs of Dover/Tomorrow, just you wait and see.
I don’t know that I believed in the optimism of those lyrics as I listened. My mom and I had come to attempt the impossible: to try to comfort Gran in a moment of fresh sorrow.
My Grandad had suffered a series of strokes in the previous year, and his most recent had left her a widow after 63 years of marriage.
She had loved my grandfather for nearly twice as long as I had been alive. There were no words for a loss of this magnitude.
I have some authority with which to make this statement as I, too, had recently become a widow. People often say to me that they are sorry that my husband, Mike, and I didn’t have more time together. While we shared far fewer years than my grandparents did, I know that if we had been granted 63 years of marriage, it still wouldn’t have been enough time.
It was a surprise, but by no means a shock, for us to find Gran bravely situated among her peers so soon after Grandad died; after all, she is the strongest woman I know.
She grew up during the Depression, raised a willful family and managed a farm. She also survived cancer and made her marriage work for over a half a century. She knows how to keep on going. Now, in perhaps her greatest feat of strength and character, she is learning how to live without the love of her life by her side.
Ron talked a little about Louis Armstrong before he played What a Wonderful World. The wisdom of that song resonated for me and my Gran. In order to experience the pain of real loss, you have to first have had something wonderful. We surely had. The most beloved men in our lives were gone, but because we were given the gift of loving them at all, the world was still a beautiful place.
I see skies of blue and clouds of white/The bright blessed days, the dark sacred nights/And I think to myself, what a wonderful world.
I suspect this sentiment was shared by the other residents of the Gardens as well. I had seen many of them before in the hallways and at mealtimes, sitting in forlorn silence, but now they were singing. An elderly gentleman, whom I’d presumed to be perpetually asleep, was nodding his head to the beat.
When Ron played Tennessee Waltz, the residents’ voices that were shakily present during previous songs, fairly belted out the lyrics.
I remember the night and the Tennessee Waltz,/Now I know just how much I have lost./Yes I lost my little darling/The night they were playing/The beautiful Tennessee Waltz.
The assembled audience not only knew the words to that song of love and loss, they knew the reality that made them so exquisite.
We had all had our loved ones stolen like the sweetheart in Patti Page’s famous song. The old friend that had pulled them away from us, though, was life.
And so my Gran and Mom and I sat and clutched one another’s hands as tears streamed down our cheeks. We didn’t have anything to say then about the sorrow in our hearts and so instead, we sang.
Maggie Van Emmerik lives in Langley, B.C.