No Rose Without a Thorn This work is considered exceptional by our editorial staff.

October 17, 2013
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On June 15, 1956, Rose O’Malley gave birth to my dad at age thirty seven. On September 7, 2000, Elizabeth, wife of Peter, gave birth to me. I had a forty four year old father and an eighty one year old grandmother when I was born. Having a grandmother that old, I’ve learned, will inevitably lead to frequent visits and dinners with her.

As a young child, I would always dread those visits spent with her. They were usually boring and to be quite honest, they would often interfere with any plans I had set for myself. However, whenever I raised awareness to my parents of such troubles, they would only tell me to be more polite. “You do exactly what you want every other day of the week,” they would say. “Can you not afford to sacrifice an hour or two to spend time with your grandmother? She may not be around much longer.” It was this last point that I always thought was foolish; my grandmother wasn’t bedridden, she wasn’t even sick. In fact, she seemed to be more active than my parents, and at eighty nine years old! The idea that she would be dying any time soon just seemed silly.

I remember one particular day, as we picked her up from her retirement home to take her out to dinner for her ninety fourth birthday, she had a walker with her. I asked my dad about it. He seemed upset, and replied simply, “She’s getting old.”

This was the first time I had seen my grandmother portray any sign of weakness, and in all honesty it was somewhat traumatizing. At dinner, she told us for what seemed like the tenth time about her experience performing in an opera as a member of the chorus. She showed us the same pictures that we had all seen countless times. For some reason, it just dawned on me at that moment that she must be losing her memory.

After that night, we didn’t see her again for a long time. She would say, “I really am getting old, and I’m just so tired all the time. I’m not up for dinner.”

It wasn’t until one night more than a year later that we saw her again. During dinner, we went through the same routine as always. We talked about our lives, and she told us about some things going on at the retirement home. She told us about how her friend from school had passed away a few days ago. Now, occasionally my grandmother would outlive someone close to her, but I’d never thought anything of it until now. As a younger kid, I would always just accept those losses as part of the life of an elderly person. But now, after a year of not seeing her, my perspective on things changed. As she explained yet another death in her life, I realized that she had suffered more than losing just another pal for polite small talk; she had lost a lifelong companion, one of the only people still around that shared her memories from so long ago.

“I’m so sorry about that, Rose,” my mother said comfortingly. My grandmother took her hand. “It’s just so hard, honey,” she said weakly. She didn’t cry, but there were tears in her voice.

We drove her back to her retirement home. This time, instead of saying a hasty goodbye and rushing into the building so she could get to sleep, she took an unusual amount of time with her goodbyes.

She walked to me and my brother. “This could be the last time I see you, I’m just…” She trailed off, and then said weakly, “I’m getting so old. I just want you to know how much you mean to me.” Her eyes glistened with tears. “I couldn’t have asked for two more beautiful grandchildren.”

She turned to my mother. “This may be the last time I see you, honey, so I just want you to know: I couldn’t have chosen a better wife for my Danny. I hope you’ll be as happy as Johnny and I were.” John was my grandfather’s name. He passed away when I was four. It had never occurred to me how much she must miss him.

I was sitting in my room. About a month had passed we’d last visited my grandmother.

My bedroom door opened, and in walked my parents. I was confused and slightly worried; my parents very rarely make a deal to both be in my room at once, especially without knocking. What could be wrong? Could it be something with my grades? That was the most likely possibility, since my parents are very strict about school.

My dad spoke first. “As you know,” he said, “Grandma Rose is very old.” My head began to spin. Did something happen to her? Some injury, maybe. But then why would my parents both feel the need to tell me? A feeling of dreadful panic shot through my veins as I mentally explored the options. My father continued, “Unfortunately she had a stroke a few hours ago. And she, well, she died.”

She is dead.

It took me a moment to process this. I couldn’t believe that a woman who had lived for ninety five years with a fully functioning, thriving mind that held memories and experiences from nearly a century ago could die so suddenly. She was supposed to be the one who lived forever, the impossible woman who watched her grandchildren grow into adults, until she finally passed when all of us were ready to say our final goodbyes. How could she go so soon? It wasn’t fair. It just wasn’t fair. I was attacked by a flood of tears that I thought I would never have to bear. I let them flow freely, for tears were the only thing at that moment that could even begin to express my feelings.

“It’s okay,” my dad said, teary-eyed himself. “She’s happier now. She’s up there playing golf with Grandpa.” He paused, and then said with a watery smile, “She is home.”

The next few days were cold. Not in temperature. Coldness is the feeling one gets when ones father refuses to express the furious mixture of depression, anger, anguish, and many other emotions he feels because of his mother’s death. He instead goes on with a smile on his face so painfully obviously forced that it’s really just an unintentional grimace.

Despite the fact that he was obviously seriously suffering, he didn’t seem to make an effort to not think about it. In fact, we talked about it most days. One particular day, he was talking about planning the funeral with my aunt Jennifer. “We happened to remember that her favorite flowers were yellow roses,” he said, “which really go well with her name, I think. Jennifer made this joke-type-thing, she said, ‘There’s no Rose without a thorn.’ Anyways, though, there was a bouquet of them in her room at the retirement home, and she made a point of giving one to each of her grandchildren in her will. So you’ll get them at the funeral.”

When the funeral did come, there were probably one hundred people there. They were mostly people who had known her for a short time, or who were friends with her children. However, it didn’t matter who anyone was, or how long they’d known her. What mattered was that they had all come to her funeral, to mourn her death. I don’t remember much other than that, besides the same cold feeling that had occurred at my home. I also remember being handed the yellow rose, and pricking my finger on one of the thorns. I laughed for the first time in days, thinking that it was some sort of Heavenly sign that there is indeed, no Rose without a thorn.

It was this whole experience that made me realize how important it is to know your enemy. All these years, I’d acted like my grandmother was getting in the way of my life, and I’d ignored everything I could have learned from her. It was only until she died that I’d realized she was a privilege, and my real enemy in life was the fact that she was growing old and would be dying soon. Even if the time I spent with her did interfere with my social life, I should have realized that that was the cost of having someone like her in my life. It also hit me at that moment what a precious gift life was. Somebody who I cared about had been harshly torn from my life without a moment’s notice; who’s to say that something like that won’t happen again? I helplessly wondered how I could ever be so foolish as to not cherish the time I spent with her. I also realized that I needed to be more open-minded about how things happen from other people’s perspective. When I have grandchildren of my own, will they be as small-minded and blind as I was? Her passing had also changed my ideas on death. Before, I had always been fairly frightened of it, and wondered whether I’d ever be ready to die. When my grandmother died, she had been ready for it, that I am sure of. Now, I don’t doubt that I’ll be ready when my time comes. Because of my yellow rose, I’ve also begun to see the true emotional value behind certain material objects. At first glance, someone might see a yellow rose sitting in a thin vase on my bedside table and think it’s just for show, and that I’ll throw it out when it wilts. Well think again, because I can promise you right now that there is no way in hell I’m ever letting go of my beloved Rose.

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