Flowers and Thorns
In April of last year, for the Celebration of Teaching and Learning at MSJ, Professor Barkley had invited students to read a poem they had found or one they had wrote themselves. You could get extra credit for both writing a poem yourself and reading it on stage, so I decided to do both. What I remember from that day was being nervous, like many people, I have anxiety around public speaking. When I was called up to the podium to read my poem, I made my way up there and started saying it aloud.
The poem was about someone close to my heart, my grandma. She had passed away a week or two ago before the poetry reading, so I was trying to stifle down any sudden emotional outburst from left field while speaking. After I finished reading, a wave of relief washed over me. That was until I realized I had forgotten to say my name and college year before starting (cue the blazing red, embarrassed face).
Looking back on it now, I recognize that I didn’t do the poetry reading just for the extra credit. I did it because I felt an obligation to my grandma, to commemorate her life and impact she had on mine in a meaningful way. But I found that doing it in a poem wasn’t good enough. How can you truly encapsulate and remember the life and death of someone you loved dearly? Writing about it on a deeper level is a start.
My maternal grandma was Rosemary Florence Haas. I think her name is gorgeous, but I’m probably a little biased being her granddaughter. She had many idiosyncrasies that made her special. If there was one thing about my grandma that was undeniable it was that she loved to eat sweets and snacks. There was a drawer in the dresser in her room at Bayley Place filled with chocolate, snack cakes, Oreos, peanuts, and Cheetos puffs. She also liked peppermints and Werther’s caramels and kept a bag of Dum-Dums suckers for my sister and me. Although she wasn’t the healthiest eater, she was still skinny as a bird.
Her hair was blonde and short, and she went to hair appointments to keep away the gray. Her blue eyes shone brightly and whenever she laughed, she flashed a gleeful smile. She always wore a polo shirt, black or tan pants, and pink lipstick. For most of her life, she wasn’t a reader, but she got into romance novels, especially Debbie Macomber ones. Her favorite holidays were Halloween and Christmas. When she was younger, she enjoyed being able to pass out candy to kids that would stop by her house on Ivyhill Drive. At Christmas, she would be showered with gifts, and I’d help her open them and she’d marvel at how wonderful everything was that she received. She loved the twinkling lights on the brightly lit Christmas tree and the cute festive decorations. But, most of all, she loved her family. This was her greatest quality, her caring heart.
My grandma has always been my most treasured relative, besides my aunt, and this is because she was my only living grandparent for most of my life. My paternal grandparents both passed away before I was born, so I never got a chance to know them personally. However, my maternal grandpa, I did get to know for some time. Arthur Haas, whom my grandma affectionately called “art” or “artie” was her beloved husband.
There’s a photograph of me as a little kid and in the picture my grandpa is an attentive teacher, showing me flashcards with colorful images and words on them. He was an intelligent man that was an avid writer, provider for his family, and he cared deeply about nature. At one point, he even had a koi pond in his backyard at the house on Ivyhill. If it wasn’t for the stroke that he had suffered a year or so before he passed in 2011, I guarantee he would have lived longer. I wish he could have seen me grow into the person I am today, but I know he would have been proud of me. His love of learning and natural curiosity rubbed off on me.
My grandma also enjoyed nature and being outside. She used to get excited when we would get her out of her room at Bayley Place and take her down to Fernbank Park. When she was still healthy, we would help her into her wheelchair and push her along the trail around the park. We would sit across from the river on one of the red benches and watch as boats or barges would go by, and we would talk. It was so simple, these trips to the park, but they meant so much to her, as they let her get to see something other than her room. They meant a lot to me too, a break from the constant pull and tug of my busy schedule. I often wonder what she was thinking as she looked out towards the water, I’m hoping it was a sense of peace and calm.
When my grandma was still alive, I would usually visit her with my mom every weekend, on Saturdays or Sundays, sometimes both days. If there was a weekday that I didn’t have anything going on, I would visit her myself. When I got there, I would say hi and she would greet me with a big smile. I’d sit on the bed across from her in her leather chair, and she’d ask me how I was doing and what was going on in my life. I would tell her about how my grades were and if I had done well in a cross country or track meet and she would do this cute thing where she would clap her hands in applause and give me a little cheer.
I’d ask her how she was doing too, and she would tell me about the things she saw from outside her room, her nurses, and if she did anything interesting that day. I would ask how her romance novel was coming along if she was reading one at the time. There were other times when we didn’t speak and we just watched TV together, usually a show on the Food Network or a Bengals or Reds game, but it was never awkward. Our time spent together was always carefree and light, and it gave me a respite from the constant demands of my schedule.
When it came to her snacks in her room, she was never stingy, she let me take whatever I wanted. One fond memory I recall was that I was eyeing some Oreos my grandma was eating.
My mom noticed and scolded me for doing so, but my grandma would just tell me to “Go on and take one honey.” and she’d tell my mom dismissively, “Let her have one!” I would just laugh as I watched it unfold and I’d grab one of those Oreos. My grandma would get that mischievous glint in her eye like we were both in on it, and we were, there was no doubt in my mind.
Whenever it was time for me to leave, we’d say goodbye and I’d give her a hug and she’d give me a hug and a kiss back. We had this routine where I’d linger by the door for a few seconds afterwards, just to get a giggle out of her. I’d keep waving back to her and she’d wave and send air kisses my way. I would leave after I saw her smile again and I was confident in the fact that she would be happy for the night. My grandma loved having visitors more than anything else, she was a person that liked having good company and being social.
One of my favorite parts about being an artist is being able to create art and writing that, if I share it with other people, can bring them joy if they are going through a rough time. Or I can influence them to realize new perspectives on things they never considered before. Several years ago, before my grandma had gotten ill, she, my aunt, and I used to visit one of my grandma’s old neighbors, Dorinda, at the nursing home she lived at. Dorinda, I later learned, had dementia and she would often get upset and confused. I wondered what I could do for her in order to help ease her suffering.
One day when we visited, I brought her a colored pencil drawing, and her eyes just lit up with excitement. From that day forward, I kept bringing her art I had made, until she passed away in 2017. I knew that I could never cure Dorinda’s ailments. But what I could do was set aside some time in my schedule in order to make artwork for her that could take her mind off the pain for a little while. I wanted to remind her that someone valued her for who she was.
When my family had to move grandma out of her house and into Bayley Place because she couldn’t take care of herself anymore, the adjustment was challenging for her. I can understand why she was so upset, I can’t imagine having to leave behind a place your life was built upon, where she had lived with her husband, watched her children grow up in, and had celebrated countless holidays and birthdays.
I made my grandma drawings, paintings, and characters out of construction paper to show I cared about her and to help get her mind off the stress she was feeling. Just like Dorinda, her eyes lit up. She’d tell me to hang whatever I brought up on the wall with tape, so she could look at it every day. After my grandma had passed away, I got everything back I had made, and I saw it was a large stack, an accumulation of the countless hours spent. She wouldn’t need these pieces of paper anymore, although I knew that when they were needed, they did a lot of good.
It was in February and March of 2022, in which I started to notice signs that things were changing in my grandma. She had been infected with coronavirus at one point, but she had pulled through. However, the impact of the virus had taken its toll on her, and I could see the cracks forming. Her already fragile body from osteoporosis was weakened, she couldn’t hold her head up straight anymore. Talking to her became difficult because she was more fatigued.
Sometimes she would fall asleep in the middle of a conversation.
Her sweet voice was altered after her bout with the coronavirus and became raspy in tone. What frightened me the most was how she started to drink and eat less. My Mom had to coax her to get down sips of water. Her usual dinner of a baked potato and fish went untouched sometimes, if we were lucky, she would take some small bites. I was witnessing the sudden decline of a person I never thought would die.
Don’t get me wrong, I know that everyone dies eventually. It is a natural process of life; we are born wonderful and full of endless possibilities. Eventually we will all die with the hope that we’ve made the most of everything we were able to. Also, that we had people who loved us, and we loved them in return. When it came to my grandma, I thought she’d live forever, however much in vain this was, I didn’t want to admit it. I wanted her to live forever, so I made it up in my mind that she would, until I was forced to give it up.
I wanted more time; I wanted her to be there to see me graduate college, if I get married someday, she’d be there for that too. That’s the tricky thing, we don’t know how much time we get, and I couldn’t stake claim on a future that didn’t exist yet. I had been given a great gift in the time I had with my grandma and the memories we shared that’s what was real. The future may have been lost, but there is still much to be grateful for.
Around the time that my grandma was nearing the end of her life, I didn’t have time to fully comprehend what was happening. Like any other full time college student, I was busy, and my mom kept telling me to focus on getting my homework done and to not worry about grandma. I couldn’t afford to take a break from my schoolwork, but I couldn’t quell the fear I had that something terrible was around the corner. I was concerned about my mom and my aunt, who endured many sleepless nights and long days by my grandma’s side keeping vigil. I wondered if my grandma would recover or if this was really the end. The end of her story, the end of our story.
I would text my aunt during this time just to check in, and she would send me updates about how she was doing, and how grandma was. In the days before my grandma slipped out of consciousness and stopped communicating, I remember sending my aunt a text message in which I had wrote down everything that I wanted to say to my grandma before she died. At this point, I knew she was going to die, and I knew that I didn’t have much time left. I thought my aunt could convey my message in a way that grandma could understand. So, I sent the message and waited, and a little while later, my aunt told me that grandma had said that she loved me very much.
Even while she was slowly fading, the ties that bound us together were strong.
I did get to visit my grandma before she died. When I arrived at her room, inside it was dark, and all the lights were turned off, the dim sun outside let in some light through the window. I walked in and my sister, my aunt, my mom, and one of my mom’s cousins sat around my grandma’s bed. She was resting in the bed, a blanket draped across her. I could see her breathing, if barely, but at least she didn’t appear in pain. I didn’t want to disturb her, just being near her was enough. I stayed for about an hour or so, told her I loved her, and walked out that door for the last time.
On March 25, 2022, I was sitting in the Seton Lobby at MSJ, eating my lunch and waiting for my individual meeting with my track and field coach, Coach Tina, when I got a call from my mom. She wanted to let me know that grandma had passed and that she was coming home. On a gut urge, I told her that I would head straight home to meet her, but she insisted that I stay at school and go to my meeting first. I hung up the phone and walked over to Coach Tina, who knew immediately that something was wrong. I told her that my grandma had died that morning, and she asked if I wanted to do the meeting another time. I said no, because I wanted things to be as normal as possible, despite shockwaves of loss on the verge of hitting me.
When someone you love passes away, there can be a lot of guilt that accompanies the loss. Although, I don’t regret that I didn’t spend enough time with my grandma, I do regret that during that time I didn’t give myself the space and time to grieve. Being busy was both a blessing and a curse. If I hadn’t been so busy with school and with track and field at the time, I probably would have had a breakdown. Though, knowing what I know now, I think having a breakdown was what I needed. My daily to-do list kept me in an endless cycle with no time to stop, breathe, and acknowledge the reality of the situation, that someone I loved had died, and I would soon discover that everything was going to implode.
I also regret that I closed myself off from other people and tried to project a nonchalant attitude. If I’m being honest with myself, going to practice and being with my teammates and coaches was the best part of my day and was enough to get me through, it gave me a sense of community and reminded me I wasn’t alone. Running allowed me to let off some steam, and I used it as a crutch. Throughout all of this, I didn’t once express how I really felt outwardly, I kept everything inside and let it stew. I assume this was because I didn’t want to burden anyone with my grief and because I generally don’t like asking for help.
When I told people that my grandma had died, they said they were sorry for my loss and asked how I was, and I said I was okay. It was the kind of response you give when the cashier at the register in a store asks how you’re doing, and you respond without a second thought. You say you’re doing good when really you might be lonely or sad, and I was both. My grandma had lived a long life, and this was reassuring in some sense, but it still hurt regardless of the number of years. I even found it difficult to be open around my own family. My mom would tell me that it was okay to be upset and that I was allowed to cry, and I would just say, “I know,” and sit there numb. I would hug my mom and my sister as they shed their tears and comfort them in their grief, and inwardly, I wondered if there was something wrong with me.
The day of my grandma’s visitation and funeral was one of the hardest days I have ever had to endure. When my mom, dad, and I walked into the door of the funeral home, I was not prepared for the heaviness in the air and the feeling like I was being backed into a corner. There were pictures of my grandma everywhere which was enough to take by itself, and to make matters worse, my uncle had made a video montage of my grandma with songs that were too sentimental for my comfort. I appreciate his tribute to my grandma in all its sincerity, but I wasn’t in a good state of mind to appreciate it. The music blared in the background, and I was overstimulated and overwhelmed. I needed an escape route, so I ran to the bathroom and locked myself in one of the stalls.
I went back and forth between staying in the bathroom for a while, but I eventually came out when I knew that there was no way I was going to bail at my grandma’s funeral. It was my responsibility to represent her, and to be there for my family. I sat with my sister for a little while in an adjacent room to the funeral parlor where my family and close friends of my grandma’s were congregated, it gave me a bit of relief to know that she was as overstimulated as I was.
Eventually, I came out into the funeral parlor and approached the casket where my grandma’s body was. It was the most peculiar thing, I was viewing someone I had known my whole life, while knowing that they were already gone. She looked like a mannequin or a wax figure, there, but not alive. The only laugh I got from the day was when my aunt told me that she had smuggled a small bag of Cheetos puffs, one of my grandma’s favorites, inside the casket with her. The implosion began when I saw an older woman whom I have bible study with on Sundays show up to the visitation with her daughter. I’m not sure why I started to get emotional when she showed up, I think it was because in a sea of people I didn’t know very well, besides my close family, she was someone I knew and trusted. We sat down together and talked, well, more like she talked, and I listened. I had started to cry, and she was there to comfort me, and I didn’t feel like I was being judged. Some of my grandma’s nurses who had taken care of her at Bayley Place had even showed up to pay their respects, they all raved about how my grandma was a lovely lady. She would have been very touched, I’m sure, to see the impact she had made.
Before the visitation concluded, the funeral director led everyone in a short prayer and, afterwards, directions were given so that everyone could head to the church for the funeral mass. As people filed out the door, I stayed behind and glanced over at my cousin Chris, my uncle, and my dad along with several others, who were given directions about loading the casket into the back of the hearse. Whatever shaky composure I was keeping broke when I saw the funeral director close the lid to the casket and prepare it to be wheeled away. It was then that I knew it was really the end. I felt my eyes start to water and I threw my arms around my mom, and I held her and cried because there was nothing else left for me to do. I couldn’t run away from it anymore.
At the funeral itself, I sat in the front pews at the church with my family. I don’t recall much from it; I was choking back quiet sobs the whole time. I would have liked to say a speech about my grandma at the funeral, however, I’m glad I didn’t because I wouldn’t have been able to utter a word. Instead, I wrote a small paragraph about her that was placed on the back of the funeral program. Though I couldn’t vocalize it out loud, at least everyone who read the program knew how I saw and felt about her. Once the ceremony concluded, we went to the cemetery and buried her alongside my grandpa. Watching her casket get lowered into the ground was cathartic for me because I realized that the hardest part was over. It was upsetting, nonetheless, but there was some semblance of relief even if I couldn’t see it yet. After the reception, we all went to my aunt’s house and decompressed for a while, which I think was much needed.
When someone you love passes away, the loss of that person will never go away, but it does become easier over time to manage how you cope with the loss. I know that my grandma would have wanted me to be happy, so, that is what I keep trying to do every day. When I run a successful race, I think of her and how elated she would have been. When I make a painting, I think of how she would have displayed it proudly for everyone to see. Sure, there are things that I miss. I will miss hearing her laugh and our talks. If there was one person that I feel truly supported me in everything I did, it was her. There will never be another person that could take her place as my grandma. So, here’s to you, Rosemary Haas, you are one for the ages. I will never forget you, that’s a promise.
Kayla Hess is a junior at Mount St Joseph University. Her major is graphic design and her minor is creative writing. She has published writing for Dateline, MSJ's online student newspaper. She has also published writing and art in Lions-on-Line, MSJ's online and print magazine. She enjoys writing creative non-fiction and fiction.