“Life is not measured by the number of breaths we take, but by the moments that take our breath away.” ― Maya Angelou
All brambles gone. They swallowed hours upon hours of furious clipping and ripping & drying on the sun these last few days; mountains of tangled vines and thorns. Now the only proof of their existence - our scratched arms & legs, and stinging tears from the last bits of smoke. We started a bonfire today, which apparently is not exactly legal in France without an official permit. I look at the steaming pile of ash, marvelling how something that used to take up so much space can be totally gone in about an hour. This, of course, is not really about brambles.
My grandma passed away three days ago, back home in Czech Republic. The news caught me in the South of France, where we currently live and work. She never wanted to have a funeral, so instead the whole family will be meeting in a couple of months, when both the grief & Covid restrictions hopefully become more manageable: to drink a lot and laugh a lot recalling her outrageous adventures.
She’s been ill these last few months, first spending some time in a hospital during summer, eventually released into my mum’s care for misbehaving. She’s been first caught trying to climb up on the roof to have a smoke during one night, and after the first warning just plainly lit up a cigarette in her hospital bed.
A few weeks ago, she was admitted to the same hospital again. Both my parents worked as paramedics for most of their lives - more than 40 years that completely rubbed away their restraint & refinement in all things pertaining to medical diagnoses & life expectancy. So in her usual (and still shocking) savage manner, mum updated me on Babi’s progress:
“Grandma looks surprisingly ok, she's improving and if everything goes well, she'll be released home on Friday. In other good news. They've put her in a giant room with five other patients, but all of them died in the meantime, so she's got all that space just to herself."
Whilst grandma’s been driving the hospital staff crazy, mum went full on crazy in Babi’s apartment. That’s how Virgos process. She re-painted grandma’s bedroom, washed all the curtains and bedsheets, dad built a new toilet right by the bed. Grandma got to come home from hospital, happy about the changes to her place, happy to be with family. That same night, she let go. I believe she was holding on until the moment she’d be back with her people, in the same house, same bedroom, from which grandad Škorpík left us (almost to the day) six years ago.
Grandma joined him on Wednesday morning. Wednesday afternoon, we’ve all been totally stunned by the arrival of a totally unexpected baby goat here at the French chateau. My grandma spent her life in and around our family home next door from a beautiful Rajec castle. If she came back as a castle goat, I’d call that an upgrade. Circle of life and all that. It felt hilariously poetic. Next day, the baby goat went missing. Kids devastated, grownups splitting into search parties. We thought - probably a bird of prey or a fox, even though it felt highly suspicious, be it in the middle of a sunny day. I got upset. Fuck the circle of life and fuck the poetry. And then, when we all finally gave up any hope, David spotted the little one quietly huddling under one of the gardenia bushes, exhausted but totally okay. So I love the circle of life & the poetry of it again.
“Remember that people are only guests in your story – the same way you are only a guest in theirs – so make the chapters worth reading.” ― Lauren Klarfeld
Writing is my way of organizing life’s dazzling messiness, marking passage of time & growth, excavating meaning behind seemingly random or unfair life events. I don’t sleep very well lately. Although I’m super grateful to be surrounded by a loving chosen family, a part of me longs to be with my Czech family right now, joined in grief & healing. I get up around 3am every night and write. Committing to paper some of the epic stories, lessons & anecdotes surrounding our Babi.
When someone passes away, you often hear: 'She/he was a lot of different things to a lot of different people'...But our grandma simply..was a lot… Far from a zen master, she loved a lot and without judgement - every new boyfriend, girlfriend, husband or wife would be adopted into her family immediately... But following every breakup or divorce, she could also hate a lot & with slavic vigour. The good, the bad, the in between - all would serve as a good enough reason for the dreaded oslávka ('little celebration') at grandma's, more often than not ending with multiple guests departing on all fours.
Everything she did: from drinking to cooking, from singing to spending her life savings on the crap from late night telemarketing, she did with burning passion. I once complained about a girl at school I liked, who would not return my advances. Grandma listened, cigarette in hand, of course, and finally advised: “Just throw her in the sheets already, problem solved.”
I was thirteen.
She contributed to the advancement of Czech language. I remember she once opened a window and screamed at grandad on top of her lungs, so that the whole village would hear: ‘Ty prase pičí!’ which roughly translates as ‘You pigcunt!’ and is a total neologism.
She lived totally authentically and unapologetically, with just one self-imposed rule:
“Když můžu, pomůžu.” / If I can help, I always will.
Although she lives on in each of us who knew her, it's human nature to seek a special place outside of ourselves, where we can light a candle, spend some time to remember and talk to her. I finished her altar today. A kind owner of a crystal shop in Mont-de-Marsan printed her pictures for me yesterday. I used whatever I could salvage from around the castle. The altar is on the second floor of an old Armagnac distillery attached to the main château. Armagnac is a type of brandy produced in South West France, that packs some serious punch, like our grandma.
Getting to the altar is a real gamble, which she would also be on board with, being a notorious gambler in her times. She was a master bouquet & wreath maker (at one point her actual job), so I attempted to make her proud with what could be found in the wilderness surrounding the castle property. I think she'd chuckle at the randomness of having her name carved in a timber of an ancient booze distillery in a château in South of France. She's having grandpa Škorpík here with her, a mandatory shot of vodka to enjoy whilst listening to her favourite André Rieu's rendition of The Beautiful Blue Danube.
As I sit here today and type away her story, lasting lessons emerge. If you can help, always do. If not, remember: no matter how bad or good things get, you can always find a reason for a little celebration. You can find a love of your life in someone who can also behave like a pigcunt from time to time. And sometimes you solve a problem by throwing it into the sheets.
“Love life. Engage in it. Give it all you’ve got. Love it with a passion because life truly does give back, many times over, what you put into it.” ― Maya Angelou