10 years ago, on April 28, 2003, my beloved grandmother died at the age of 90. She died at home, as she had wanted. What is there to say about someone who was, without a doubt, the most important person in your life? I had her for 39 years, but a lifetime wouldn’t have been enough.
Ma. Guadalupe Sánchez Castañeda was born January 1, 1913 in Lerdo, Durango. Most of the family was from Jeréz, Zacatecas, but my great-grandparents had begun the long journey to the United States and made a stop in Lerdo to give birth to my grandmother. (Two years later her younger sister, and the last child, would be be born in Ciudad Juárez, Chihuahua.)
[My grandmother’s baptismal certificate.]
My grandmother was raised in El Paso, Texas along with her two brothers and four sisters. At some point her grandmother died, as did her father. My great-grandmother remarried (a first cousin!) and Antonio Galván was really the only father she knew.
[From left: Soledad, Jesusita, Antonia, Lupe (my grandmother) and Santos.]
Grama left El Paso in 1937 and headed to San Francisco, to escape the poverty and misery of women marrying young and “having babies every Monday and Wednesday,” as her sisters were doing. As anyone can imagine, a young Mexican woman leaving home at 24 without any accompanying family was a rarity-but my grandmother was strong-willed and independent.
In San Francisco, she walked across the Golden Gate Bridge on opening day, and worked as a cook and house cleaner. Eventually she married and had two children. The first, a boy, was stillborn with the cord wrapped around his neck. My mother was born in 1943. The rest of the family came from El Paso, first my great-grandparents, then the siblings.
My mother’s father died in 1956, while aboard a ship, where he worked as a fireman. My grandmother told she liked being married to a seaman, because they were gone a lot, leaving her some peace and quiet, but sent checks. Hah!
At some point in the late 50s she met my grandfather, Alejandro Cortón González, another seaman, this one from Galicia, Spain.
I could tell you that my grandmother was as great with my mother as she was with me, but that would be a lie. My grandmother worked hard, and I guess partied hard as well, often leaving my mother in the care of her mother; so, like me, my mother was closer to her grandmother than she was to her mother. An unfortunate family pattern.
When my grandfather retired in 1964 from Standard Oil, they moved to Santa Rosa, and I spent most of my summers here. For me, home was always were my grandmother was.
[My grandfather, Alejandro González, and his father-in-law, my great-grandfather, Antonio Galván.]
I loved sitting with her in the darkened breakfast nook, with only the light from the other room, as she told me stories of her childhood and youth. Our time together created a special bond that I still feel today, even after 10 years apart.
My grandmother took care of her elderly parents, and nursed my great-grandmother during the last three months of her life until she died in August 1974. My great-grandfather died the following March.
[My great-grandparents, Antonio and Vita Galván.]
When I graduated from San Francisco State University in 1989, I moved to Santa Rosa full time to get my teaching credential at Sonoma State and lived with my now-widowed grandmother to save money and keep her company. In that time I married, divorced and adopted two children. I didn’t leave until 2003, a month or so before her death.
The last 10 years or so of her life were a sometimes gradual, sometimes quick decline. Her asthma would get out of control and there were many trips to the ER at Memorial Hospital. Once, I got her to the ER right before she went into respiratory arrest. Another time I watched her go into respiratory arrest in her hospital room; an event that left me reeling. The large amounts of steroids she used to control the asthma eventually caused a hole in her stomach and intestines, and she was rushed into surgery. The doctor gave her a 20% chance of survival, but she pulled through, although with a stoma. Eventually, it was reversed, and we were able to get rid of the horrible colostomy bags.
I spent many of those 10 years fearing and dreading the eventual passing of my grandmother. How, I thought, will I be able to survive her death?
In 2000, when Cindy and Mindy came to live with me, my grandmother welcomed them into her home, and they called her “Abuelita.”
[The girls and I on adoption day, May 31, 2002]
[Mindy and Abuelita, either Mindy’s birthday, June 2002, or Christmas 2002.]
My grandmother turned 90 on January 1, 2003. In my heart I knew that she wouldn’t live to see 91, because she was fading. She often talked about death, welcomed it, was ready to go. She even told this to Fr. Denis, who came to visit her periodically. In mid-January I threw a birthday party for her and invited many family and friends. In April she was in the hospital and was not properly restrained, got out of bed and fell down. She came home, and died about a week later.
I had moved out by then, but came back when my mother, a retired RN, told me my grandmother was near death. The hospice nurse confirmed this. My grandmother had sort of shut down and seemed to be in a fog; she answered questions rather absent-mindedly. I called St. Rose, and Fr. Gerry came to anoint her with holy oils; he had each of us in turn anoint her hands and head. My brother carried her from her chair in the living room to her bed.
I stayed with her, taking turns with my mom and the girls. I prayed, I told her I loved her, asked if she was ready to go. She was awake part of the time, her eyes fixed on the ceiling, but not always “there.” I finally went to sleep after midnight.
On Monday, April 28, my mother awoke me around 3am to tell me my grandmother was gone. I went and spent some time with her, alone, before I woke up the girls and took them to her. The next days were a blur.
I contacted Jerrigrace Lyons, of Final Passages, who guided me through the steps necessary to keep a body at home, and the paperwork that went with it. She put me in touch with Kate Broderson, owner of A Plain Pine Box in Occidental. I arranged the funeral Mass as well, picking out all the readings, making a program, ordering funeral cards online, writing the death notice for the Press Democrat, getting by on little sleep. (My mother and brother were useless, but that’s another story.)
We waked her at home, the Rosary on Tuesday night. The funeral Mass was held the next day, the first time she left the house after dying. Afterward, Jerrigrace and her husband took my grandmother to be cremated. Friday afternoon, when I finally felt as if I could breathe again, I fell apart.
Ten years later I still feel guilt about not being present when my grandmother died, sleeping like the apostles in the garden as Jesus awaited his fate. However, my guilt is tempered knowing I helped her along her path, that she
would have been was proud and pleased by her sending, my last and greatest gift to her.
Tomorrow I will visit the cemetery as I always do on the anniversary of her death, and as I do every January 1, Mother’s Day, Memorial Day, and November 2.
I know that when my time comes, my grandmother will be there, to ease my passage to a new life, just as just as she helped me in life. Death is not the end, she lives in every breath I take; the bonds are just as strong today as they were when she was alive.
I love you, Grama.