For the decade plus that we've lived in this house, we've been fortunate enough to develop a friendship with our across-the-street neighbors. We actually met him the very first day we moved in. The KingofHearts was trying to take out an old overgrown forsythia bush and he came over to lend a fireman's axe to the process and stayed for the entire removal of the bush, chatting and offering a hand where necessary. That simple act of service was the beginning. Then there were the inevitable home improvement projects here and there. He seemed to have a sixth sense whenever building supplies were loaded into our home and mysteriously showed up to offer help or simply just to supervise whatever project was going on. Pretty soon, The KoH began returning the favor(s).

That was the beginning, to steal a phrase, of a beautiful friendship.

Their grown children all had families of their own by the time we met them. The children and grandchildren all live in the area so they don't need us for companionship or help, yet for some reason we are still treated like a member of the family. While The KoH was unemployed after he left the military, he spent countless hours hanging out on their porch birdwatching and talking about life.
We've had meals together, shared tools, helped each other with projects, watched animals while the other was out of town, been there through fires, broken down cars, divorces and custody battles over grandchildren.

Somehow over the years a tradition got started that involved pulling out the backyard grill every time it snows. The KoH and I would walk to the corner market through the snow to pick up a pound of ground beef and trudge back to their house. By the time we got there, they had the grill ready and waiting. The menfolk stood outside in the yard grilling burgers in the weather while us women, aka the smart ones, prepared the rest of lunch inside and waited for the main ingredient. Eventually, we didn't even have to ask each other. When the white stuff started falling from the sky, one of us would call across the street and say one word into the phone, "Snowburgers?" and events were set in motion.

When The Dormouse and The Caterpillar came along, they became advice givers and confidants to us; adoptive grandparents to our girls who call them
grandma and grandpa. In this day and age - in our transient area, it's rare to find good neighbors; when you find some that you actually grow to love, it's nothing short of a marvel.

A couple of years ago grandma developed respiratory problems and was admitted to the hospital. It was serious and we didn't know if she'd make it, so we went to visit her in the hospital to have a chance to say goodbye in case she wasn't going to come home. The worst part of that whole thing was thinking about how I would tell The four year old Dormouse if she died. But she is a tough old broad and ran more on piss and vinegar than oxygen so she pulled through.

When The Dormouse entered first grade and her school hours changed, we decided to save the money on the do-nothing after-care program she was enrolled in last year. School would get out later and if I was careful and left work on time every day and the traffic gods smiled upon me, I could be home and meet her as she got off the bus. It could work, but I wanted to have a fail safe, so I asked
grandma and grandpa if it would be OK to tell The Dormouse that if I ever wasn't there when she got home, to go to their house and wait for me. I explained to them that this would only be in an emergency, that I telecommute two days a week so there's only even a chance of my being late the other three, and that I wouldn't expect them to take care of her, but this was just in case traffic was incredibly horrible or I got hit by a bus or abducted by aliens or something - I just wanted to have a backup.

They graciously agreed, and then set about creating a plan that worked for them. They decided that her normal bus stop wasn't logistically good since it was around the corner and they couldn't see it from their house. We changed where she got off the bus so they could watch her walk up the street to our house rather than coming from around the blind corner. I reminded them that she knew where their house was and again, this was only in case of emergency -- if I didn't make it home on time, which would be unlikely, but they had a plan and this was the plan.

Grandma, who was by then confined to a wheelchair, rearranged the flower pots in her window so she could see from her chair if my car was in the driveway. She watched the clock and sent grandpa out to wait on the porch at three o'clock Every. Single. Day. It didn't matter if I got home well before the bus arrived. It didn't matter if I'd been home for hours. They watch for her and every day The Dormouse walks up past their house and he meets her at the street, then she goes inside and gets a cookie. Every. Single. Day.

Even on the days I am home and sitting in my living room - and they
know I'm home and sitting in my living room - they still watch for her. Grandpa still meets her at the curb even when he sees that I've come outside to meet her at the curb too. Most days I go over there and meet her - she goes there by default now - and we visit for a half hour or so before heading home to start on homework. One day a few weeks ago on one of my telecommuting days, grandpa had some errands to run and grandma was home alone about the time the bus was due. My phone rang and it was grandma, asking me if I could watch for The Dormouse because grandpa was gone and she wasn't able to go out and meet her at the curb herself. Like it was clearly her responsibility and I was doing her a big favor by helping her out with it.

Last month when I was out of town on business, we put The Dormouse in an aftercare program where The Caterpillar goes to school for the week because there was no way The KoH could get home from where he works that early. I told him he needed to tell our neighbors of our plans but then in the hustle of getting me out of town we both forgot. I got a frantic call in on my mobile phone San Diego from grandma saying, "The Dormouse didn't get off the bus today... do you want us to go to the school and look for her?"

I tried to explain a couple of times over the past few months that they didn't really have to keep track of her every day, that this whole thing was supposed to be an emergency plan and I that as her mother I did realize that it was mainly
my responsibility to watch for my child - especially when I was already home. But it became clear in the first week of school this year that they had other ideas and this was how it was going to be. Grandma had been a day care provider years ago and had often lamented the fact that she couldn't take care of The Dormouse when I was having childcare issues. Her real grandchildren are all in high school now and I think this was her way of keeping her skills up - maybe of finding a reason to see The Dormouse every day. I finally gave up trying to keep them from feeling responsible for her - and the feeling guilty for it... I just accepted their gesture.

In recent months,
grandma had more and more trouble breathing and was feeling increasingly worse. She said to me more than once last week that she was tired of it all. Tired of feeling badly, tired of being confined, tired of not being able to get around. Just tired. And ready to move on. I reminded her of all the folks who needed her around telling them what to do but I think for the first time that gave her little comfort.

On Christmas Eve, we came back from some errand to find an ambulance that wasn't running it's lights blocking our street. I briefly bitched about the snow on the streets and the fact that it wouldn't go by me so I could get to my driveway until I realized the driver was trying to turn around so I got out of the way and shut my stupid mouth. As we pulled into our own driveway, I noticed over my shoulder that the van in front of
grandma and grandpa's house was gone and I had a bad feeling. We gave it a few hours and when we didn't see the van come back, we called their daughter. It wasn't good news.

Early Christmas morning, I looked across the street through my dark living room and noticed the van was back but felt it was too early to call. I knew she'd refused a ventilator in the hospital and they were going to send her home with hospice care since there was nothing else medically to be done, but it was too early for her to have come home. I wondered if grandpa just needed a few hours' shuteye.

The girls got up insanely early and Christmas events had just begun when grandpa saw the lights in our house come on and called to tell us the bad news. Bad news for us anyway. Grandma was ready to go. This was what she wanted. She was tired. It doesn't make it any easier to tell your kids though. The fact that it was Christmas Day just complicates matters a bit.

I've talked before about my familiarity with death. A combination of flat affect, religious beliefs and desensitization help me to deal with it pretty well. But let me tell you, explaining to your children that not just a goldfish but someone they love has died? Sucks beyond the telling of it. We decided to wait until late Christmas night to tell them - I wasn't about to throw that flip-flopping emotion into the Christmas morning ritual so The KoH and I sucked it up and did the opening presents thing with smiles on our faces. It was a good Christmas. The Dormouse didn't get her playstation/Wii/Nintendo gift package spectacular, but she did get some video games to play on her computer and decided that Santa knew what he was doing because eighty-eight games on three CDs was better than three games on three different gaming systems. I wasn't about to argue with her logic.

I debated about waiting until the next day entirely - that way Christmas wouldn't become The Day
Grandma Died in The Dormouse's mind, but in the end we decided she was young enough that that wouldn't be the case. She took it hard, which I suppose is a good sign and a testament to her emotional maturity. We sat and talked and cried and I held her for most of the next hour and then that was about all her brain could handle and she had to put it away for awhile. We've been coming back to the subject in fits and starts as she's been able to process it more. Today she's spent her time thinking about Grandpa and what we could bring him to cheer him up or help him. It's life experience and I know we all have to go through it eventually. This event and countless others she'll endure will help her to become a compassionate, balanced person. She'll have to deal with life's tragedies sooner or later. But oh, how it wrenched my heart from my chest to tell her. How easy it would be to just shield her from the entirety of it?

I started out with this post trying to write about grief and parenting. But my writing process is fairly Faulkner-esque and as such I just write out what's stuck in my head, trying to get out. If I don't, everything bounces around in there and I don't sleep. I'm only just now realizing that while I've been trying to write about grief and being a mother, what I'm really writing about is friendship.
The times in your life when you are able to make a friend who becomes a real part of your life are precious few and far between. I think it's very easy to ignore those times. It's easy for me to sit back and say, "Well, she wasn't my mother. It shouldn't bother me so much." And that's true. I did not lose my mother, my grandmother, my wife of over fifty years. I cannot even imagine what her actual family is going through right now... nor how much more Christmas sucked for them this year than it did for me. But I did lose a friend. A part of my life. I think it's only fitting to mark that loss.

We'll miss you, Grandma.