Why International Women’s Day is Hard
How did a woman who left New York for the west, and rode a horse named Chief and climbed to the summit of Mt. Rainier in her 20s, in the 1920s – how did she come to this?
It’s International Women’s day, March 8. Blog posts abound. I write this after the fact. Not because I forgot about it, though the 8th was a busy day. But because I have a hard time with International Women’s Day. March 8, that day, has a different meaning to me.
[Note: see update at very end]
The kernel of the story is hard: Early that morning, my grandmother woke up. Fell. Pain. Broken hip. (this, some three months after falling and breaking her hip. The first time.) What we know comes from grandpa’s phone call. She fell. Broke her hip. She’s gone and by the time you get here, I’ll be gone, too. Gunshot wounds. Police tape. News stories, and shock.
He came from gun people. We have pictures from long ago of him, holding a rifle, crouching low beside a big gleaming trophy. Another photo shows two teenage boys (my dad, my uncle) standing each with his gun on either side of a deer carcass. We’ve gone out to the desert on family trips— set up empty sodapop cans on a log and shot BB guns at the small targets. After trying it out, I didn’t care for it.
I was there the first time she fell. We were heading to a wedding. I wore a cloak and swiftly turned and headed out of her bedroom while she finished dressing.
Crash. She was crumpled in the corner. I felt helpless. “Aspirin,” she said. She gulped it down, dry. And while she rested on the bed, waiting for the ambulance, she said, “Just wait, this will be my fault.” He sat in the other room, at the table. 21 years have passed since that conversation, enough time that I don’t know if she actually said the word “he” in the “this will be my fault” sentence. But the meaning was clear. Her husband will will consider this her fault.
So. March 8. Early. Two days after her 85th birthday. She wakes, gets out of bed, walks to the bathroom and slips along the way. Thump.
Last I saw him, 3 months before, he wasn’t moving so fast. 89 years old, walking with a cane in each hand. What happened? He hears a crash and hobbles as fast as he can down the hall. There she is, lying on the floor. Groaning in pain. No one else is right there to help. His oldest son’s wife—who’d come to stay for a while to help out—is gone. His granddaughter, who comes to help from across town, is not there. Can he even bend down? What can he do?
Did he consider calling 9-1-1? Or was the choice to call for help beyond him? What went into his decision not to call for help, but to fetch his gun? (And where did he fetch it from?) Was that act a result of feeling helpless there, two canes in his own home, when he decided that we’re no good for this world anymore?
I’ve visited this scene in my imagination, from her perspective, in the days and weeks immediately afterwards. What goes through her mind when she lies there and watches him approach, gun in hand? Does she say, “No, Kit, no!” to him? Is her pain so great that she wars within herself—because his gun will end her pain—but the ending of a life should be an act of God, not an act of men? Did the fierceness of her pain make her say “yes”?
(I later heard a story, how she told one of her sons that she knew she’d die from one of his guns) Was her stabbing-hip-pain made worse by the unfolding of this inevitability, that what she’d always dreaded was now coming to pass?
Even though they both died on that day, her death looms larger to me. I was with her the first time she fell. This time, he made the choice. In deciding for her, he diminishes himself. I have fewer questions of him. Anger, yes. Why the [bleep] did you do that? Why?
Had he contemplated this end before this morning? Or did the idea come on him at that moment?
Did he say any gentle words to her? Did he acknowledge any of their 60 years together? Did he say to her, “Polly, it’s better this way.” Did he surprise her, in the end, not with the recrimination she fully expected, but with regret? If he felt any of that, did he have a voice to speak such words? Or was he silent as he hobbled toward her, gun in one gnarled hand, cane in the other, straining with effort to bend down and point the barrel close to her chest, and pull the trigger?
I hope it was swift. Instantaneous. A split-second ear-ringing shout, a stab of pain, a second shocking insult after the first one in her hip, and then no more.
He hobbles to the phone. What goes through a man’s mind right after he’s shot his wife? Is there a torrent of thought, unvoiced?
His intent is clear—he will be next. But first… he picks up the phone. Dials. His son answers. He says, “Your mother fell. She’s gone. By the time you get here, I’ll be gone, too.”
Two decades after these events, a flurry of International Women’s Day posts come out. March 8. March 8. March 8. The day has been commemorated for some time. Maybe it’s been amplified by blogging. Yes, I see the need for it. This year’s theme is Ending impunity for violence against women. The day comes at, well, a hard time. The larger theme is overshadowed by a particular instance that is, well, exactly in keeping with that theme. Because the day holds a question I will never know the answer to—was my grandmother’s death of her own choosing?
UPDATED, March 2013. Later in the year after I wrote this, I learned something new about the events leading up to this day. I learned about a conversation that changed everything that I’ve thought about this event.
I don’t know what to say.
Your grandmother was obviously a fascinating person having climbed to the summit of Mt. Rainier in her 20s and in the 1920s.
I really feel for you.
How heart wrenching! I hope you can spend most of the year focused on your happy memories of her. I can see why this carnival was so hard for you and I give you a lot of credit for being able to share and memorialize the tragic end to her life.
Thank you all for your comments. On the whole, I do concentrate on the good memories. It’s just that the day itself—March 8—is that day. And two decades have leeched the rawest of the shock into something much paler than it first was. In more recent times, I concentrate on this story as, well, as a writer. (contrary to Jasia’s comments, no, this wasn’t hard to write. As a result, I was able to go to more difficult places with it. Plus, there are new discoveries. This is the first time I imagined it from my grandfather’s point of view.)
And today I’m getting ready to head down to my parents’ house to interview my dad. I’m taking the albums that his mom made, esp of early childhood… (in my possession for scanning) and so today will be spent in a ton of remembrance, and my bet is that it’ll focus on any other day than this particular one.
This story is more shocking for the reader than it is for the writer—the writer has had 21 years of time living with it, it’s brand new for the reader. My boyfriend read this and said, “I never know what to say about this.” And over the years when talking about my grandparents, I find myself bracing the person for the shock of what I’m going to say next.
But at the same time, any process of exploring one’s family history involves delving into dark and hard times, because those stories are there. Don’t deny it. And so I wrote this, in part, to honor the pain and grief and bad times that are in all our family histories.
Okay, with this, I’m off to find the link to the StoryCorps question generator, because it’s been a busy week and I’m too tired to think up questions on my own and I’ve got to be in mega-listener mode in 1.5 hours’ time.
It’s rarely that you hear such a moving story.. We could use some more of these women today, and this is a guy speaking! As cold as one may be, you cannot help but empathize with your story. I think I am going for a headache myself, better get my [edited comment spam term and link deleted] before it gets any worse. But before I go, I must say that you should be proud you are the grand daughter of such a woman and there are many things to be learned from her life.