My grandmother’s decline started long before the beginning of the end.
It started long before she began repeating the same questions over and over, in thirty-second
intervals. A long time before she tried to leave the house at night to go find her long-deceased
mother in town. It started long before she thought she’d make coffee for the guests of her
childhood boarding house that had been torn down some 50 years earlier.
And then it ended. It ended with me seeing death for the first time.
That was two years ago. I was on a plane from California to Europe a mere hour and a half after
having gotten *the* call. My grandmother had less than a day left.
I arrived thirty-five minutes late. Her earlobes had taken on a grayish color, and she had a
beautiful yellow flower on her chest that the nurses had given her after disconnecting her from
the machines. A body greatly dwindled in size from eighty-nine powerful years of life.
I am motherless.
My birth mother lived, but she chose to pursue a drunken stupor over her children. A detail that
matters to this story, to this relationship. A detail that means my real mother was my
When I wrote her eulogy, I had trouble keeping it free from too much detail. Because life doesn’t
happen in the big picture. It happens in the small moments.
My grandmother was born in an Austrian mountain town in 1932 - my hometown. She lived in a
foster arrangement when she was little because she was an illegitimate child. In the thirties, such
things still mattered. Finally, in 1940, she was deemed worthy enough to move in with her father
who had begrudgingly agreed to marry her mother.
She sometimes sat with me in front of the tiled fireplace that’s typical for an Austrian mountain
home. She thought that the happiness in her later life had more than made up for the pain of her
I listened with an aching heart as she told me of her miserably long elementary school days in the
bomb shelter below today’s ski slope. The apples that her less nourished schoolmates stole from
her, the incessant drudgery for the family’s chicken farm and guesthouse. Her father used her as
a pack mule daily after school to deliver heavy goods up the mountain in her much despised,
larger-than-life wheelbarrow. Having arrived at home, there was no time for school or homework
- life was all about the boarding house and its eternal grind, merely existing, bent over the
washboard for days at a time. All that next to much sorrow and little love.
You might think that my grandmother’s general fate had already been written at this point. But
that couldn't be further from the truth.
My grandmother took it upon herself to escape to Switzerland as a 21-year-old in order to make
a career for herself.
At that point in the fireplace conversation, a wonderful, liberated smile usually formed on her
face as she raved about her experience. She went twice. Twice she was lured back home under
the pretense of a better future, only to have her hard-earned income taken from her as soon as her
train pulled into the station.
She was always quick to add that she had it good as an adult back in Austria though, because she
met my grandfather. A husband who didn't hurt her, she said.
My grandmother has always been a role model to me. A role model of independence,
intelligence, equality, strength - character traits that weren’t all that welcome in times that had us
woman folk ostracized to do the washing and cooking and drudging. She didn’t have the
opportunity to continue her education but learned English and French anyway. She grew into an
astute businesswoman running her own in-house bed and breakfast, the woman of her house,
independent and fierce.
Almost all of my childhood memories stem from my time with my grandmother. With her, there
was always peace, and there was love, both of which I was in dire need of. She was the type of
person who was able to console me even though I had messed up, like the time I took to the
mischief of running circles around the sunchairs of her guests down in the garden.
The fireside moments weren’t all that frequent though because my grandmother had always put
others before her. Day in and day out she busied herself. There were the insurmountable loads of
mushrooms my grandfather brought in from the forest, or his bucketfuls of cherries from our
trees. The daily cleaning of the guest rooms, the eternal ironing on her commercial machine,
operated with winter boots because of the freezing cold temperature in the basement. All that
while enduring the relentless pain of her repeated herniated disc injuries and the countless other
predicaments that never had to be mentioned, because life was really about the positive
according to my grandmother.
The stifling grip of Alzheimer’s Disease crept up behind her long before the beginning of the
end. It took hold of her a little at a time. It unknowingly pulled the rug out from under her
But then it all happened very abruptly. Seeing her lying down with her head down, surrendered,
was the major transition I needed to say my goodbyes to her, knowing that the disease had
reached the deepest layers of a restlessness that made her who she was. My grandmother rarely
ever sat, never mind lay down.
Her characteristic strength, that of intelligence and courage, retreated further into the background
every day. It left an abyss of silence, of unspoken words, fearful eyes, frightened expressions.
She didn’t have any means left to communicate. Bewilderment. She’d have never wanted to see
herself this way - even just the quietude and the idleness would have bothered her to a fault.
I wasn’t all that heartbroken when she died. I had bid her farewell two years earlier on that
couch. In a way, her funeral quietly felt like a celebration because she was finally free from her
torturous oblivion. My tears were those of relief because she didn’t have to hurt anymore.
“Bad weeds don’t die,” she had always said. She meant herself.
On the day of her funeral, she was the dazzling guest of honor. Her final home had been
decorated abundantly with flowers, vibrant and humming, just like the countless arrangements in
her garden that she nursed daily with her love.
Quite the opposite of the bad weed she saw herself as, she was with us one last time - as a flower
My grandmother meant more than the world to me. She left me with so much life. Above all,
with the independence and courage it takes to be a strong woman. Because of her, I was able to
grow into that fierce, yet vulnerable soul who doesn’t hold back in life. Who escaped to find her
own “Switzerland” in this world, far, far away from the pain, just like her. Today I live in
America, far away from that aching pain my childhood brought.
Because of my grandmother, I was able to grow into the real me. The me who found happiness
and peace later in life, like her, making up for that lacking childhood. The motherless in me
replaced by a grandmotherly love. Today I'm loved, by the people I chose to surround me, and
above all by myself. A love for the woman I've become that I celebrate by running wild and free,
wearing flowers in my hair, just like my grandmother, on that special last day of hers.
Farewell, my sweet soul. Your sorrow may have caused you to forget many a sliver, but you will
never be forgotten, for the rest of my days. You are with me in every flower, every moment, and
whenever I use your courage to persevere in this world that’s not always made for independent
and fierce flower children like us. You are loved.
Mona Angéline is an unapologetically vulnerable new writer, artist, athlete, scientist.
She honors the creatively unconventional. She shares her emotions because the world hides
theirs. Her work was accepted in Flash Fiction, Down in the Dirt, and Academy of Mind and
Heart Magazine. She’s a regular guest editor for scientific journals.