In Memoriam

My grandfather died in May 2019. I typically write an essay after each major loss as part of my mourning. But I was not able to keep this practice when he died. Not until now. Writing has been difficult the past few years for so many reasons but in this case, I think I needed to let the loss breathe a bit before I could bring it to the page. I hope he'd be honored by the result.

I must have been preparing myself for months, throughout the updates on doctor appointments and hospitalizations. When I received word that Grandpa had been diagnosed with cancer, I thought, "of course.”

And maybe that knowing was something deeper or because so often that's how things end up in my family. Or because Grandma had been gone 12 years at that point and Grandpa kept saying things like, "this might be my last Family Reunion" and "this is probably my last Christmas." When I found out he'd opted for hospice, I wasn't surprised. He was 91. His other health problems meant he was unlikely to survive the aggressive chemo. He was ready to go.

This wasn't the first major loss I experienced while living out of state but it was the first time a loved one entered hospice and I wasn't there to help. Not since I worked for the same hospice that cared for my great-aunt and Grandma all those years earlier. Hundreds of things have changed in my life and in our family since then and yet I kept puzzling over how to be a good granddaughter from afar even though I knew there was nothing I could do. The roadmap changed and I did my best to adapt.

It all felt surreal, as if it was happening to someone else.

Grandpa started hospice shortly before my trip to San Francisco that spring and I received word of a shorter than expected prognosis. A prognosis is still only an educated guess; things could change quickly or stay their course. I’d seen both happen countless times throughout my former career. In any case, I couldn't reschedule my trip, not without throwing things off for other people, and so I decided to proceed as planned, knowing I might reroute directly to Chicagoland upon my return.

Grandpa held steady and I still wasn't sure what to do. Did I try to see him one last time? I called my cousin Adam to puzzle it out and then dealt with logistics.

I'm self-employed and throughout that spring and summer, it was near impossible to take any time off because of how busy work was. I may have traveled to San Francisco but I worked the whole time I was there—the beauty of working remotely. I flew back to Nashville, then drove to Louisville as planned for in-person work with a client, then jetted up to the Chicago suburbs that Saturday.

I didn't know what to expect. The last time I'd set foot in his nursing home, I'd been visiting one of my hospice patients. I knew this place and yet now I experienced it in a new way. When I found his room, I wasn't sure who would be there or if he'd wake at all for however long I stayed. My hands shook from nerves. The unknown has always held more sway over me than I'd like.

My aunt sat on a bed next to a reclined chair holding Grandpa, stretched out, asleep. Half his size. My aunt and I hugged and she gave me a quick update, then told me to wake Grandpa up. She warned me he probably wouldn't stay awake long.

Just from looking at him in the chair, I knew this was true.

But still. I put my hand on top of one of his and gently squeezed. His eyes popped right open and the moment his eyes alit on mine, a smile broke across his face. "Leigh!" He boomed, just like usual. Not quite as loud, perhaps, but with the same enthusiasm he'd been greeting me with for the past 39 years.

His hearing aids weren’t really working so I raised my voice to fill him in on life. He was tired and his eyes kept fluttering shut. He was frustrated by his inability to really visit but also resigned. He didn’t say it in so many words but he was ready to go.

My aunt and I talked quietly while Grandpa slept. He’d rouse himself every so often and ask for a sip of water or change the position of the chair.

He woke back up when it was time for me to leave. He clasped my hands, his skin papery but warm. “I couldn’t have asked for a better granddaughter,” he declared, his eyes intent on mine. I nodded, a lump in my throat, because this was it. I knew Grandpa loved me but he was not prone to such statements. This was what he wanted to leave me with and I clutched it close to my heart, grateful I’d decided to come.

A week later, he died.

There are so many stories I could tell you about Grandpa. How he piled all the grandkids into the bed of his pickup and drove us down the country roads. The popcorn he made every Friday night was always perfectly seasoned. The time he let me drive a tractor when I was 10 or 11—I steered, he manned the pedals. The way he boomed my name with a big smile on his face every time he saw me. Grandpa couldn’t really understand my life as a single woman—his sisters had been nuns and I definitely am not—but I never doubted he loved me.

After the funeral, after the cemetery, and well after the luncheon, most of the family headed over to the farm. Grandpa turned it over to my uncle when I was around 5 years old and my grandparents built a small house next door. Visiting the farm or my grandparents was synonymous and rarely did a visit go by spring through fall without walking over to find kittens in the barn or skip rocks at the creek (pronounced “crick.”)

After trading stories and remembrances, the grandkids (and a couple great-grandkids) walked down to that same creek. Grandpa was there in the land he tilled for so many years. He was there in our faces.

We are not the same without him but these things remain: the farm, the creek, our love.


Our last picture together, July 2018

I Miss Her {10 Years}

It's the blink of an eye and the stretch of time all in one. Ten years since Grandma died. The memories of her final weeks are crystal clear, could have happened just the other day, in fact.


Mom calling to tell me what Grandma's diagnosis was as I sat sobbing in my car in the office parking lot. The night I spent in Grandma's hospital room and all the stories she told before drifting to sleep. Swinging by the nursing home when I had a moment between patients. Liaising with hospice- the very one I worked for- when Grandma decided to stop treatment a month in. How she anointed everyone who visited with holy water, even when we had to guide her hand the last day or two. Everyone who stopped by the house and the visitor guidelines we had to enact so she could actually get some rest. The way I knew when it all changed, when we went from weeks left to days. Sitting next to her with a book in one hand and her hand in the other, unwilling to go to bed even though I wasn't the night nurse that final night. 

How empty a room sounds when another rasping breath doesn't come.

How we broke apart the night she died. How we had to put ourselves back together in the intervening years.

I'm all too aware of how much has changed since then.

I wrote Grandma a letter in college when she had a minor health issue and hadn't been good about taking her medication, telling her she needed to take care of herself so she could see me walk down the aisle. A few years later it wouldn't matter if she took her medication or not; cancer was a far greater foe to our dreams.

Grandma told me once she prayed to St. Francis, the patron saint of lost causes, for me to find a husband. Here I am, 10 years later, apparently a lost cause. Of course, I don't believe that but it makes me chuckle. It makes me think.

Our family has undergone so many changes since Grandma died. There have been weddings, divorces, diagnoses, births, and even more loss. We've adapted traditions and let go of others. People take turns hosting family gatherings and last year Grandpa even moved out of their house and into a retirement community.

We are not the same.

Loss changes us, this I know, but I could not have foretold the way this loss would irrevocably alter the course of my life.

If Grandma had not died, I might not have moved away from my Illinois hometown. I'd likely still work for hospice. 

Grieving while being a hospice social worker was impossibly hard. Much of that summer is hazed by my mourning. When I came out on the other side, I no longer felt the same about the work I did. I was still good at it, still passionate about end of life issues, but I no longer felt the same enjoyment. Before Grandma died, I could have been a hospice lifer. After, not so much. 

Maybe I'd have ultimately left that job. Maybe wanderlust would have visited and I still would have moved out of state. There's no way of knowing for sure but I can't imagine Grandma being alive all these years and not wanting to be close to her orbit.

We were close. She taught me my first sewing and cooking lessons. She exemplified compassion and grace. She was always, always, always taking care of other people. It is little wonder I ended up in social work.

When I was little, I wanted nothing more than to grow up to be like Grandma and my mom. My life took such a different direction, particularly the last several years, but their examples are still guiding lights. Maybe I'm not a wife or mother like them- maybe I never will be- but I look out for the underdog and cook and bake for friends and try to be there for family, even when I'm miles away.

I still wear the turquoise ring that I found in her jewelry box, the one she probably never wore. It was hers and yet it's my style and there seems to be some symbolism there.

It's been 10 years and my life testifies to the passing of all this time.

I miss her.


Coming to My Senses review

I couldn't tell you the name of my mother's perfume but I'd know it by scent. Saved for special occasions and date night with my dad, the perfume signified part of womanhood, this grown-up elegance and sophistication. I don't know the last time she wore it- it's apparently retired now- but it wafted its way through my childhood.

By junior high, I alternated wearing a few fragrances of my own. Love's. Debbie Gibson's Electric Youth. Bath & Body Works' Cucumber Melon.

And then my perfume days ended: my dermatologist told me fragranced lotion was further drying my eczematic skin out and I should probably avoid products with fragrance in them altogether. In retrospect, perfume might have been OK but it was easier to cut it out altogether. I still wore body spray occasionally but I sprayed my clothes, instead of my skin. That sums up my relationship with perfume for the past two decades.

When I first heard of Alyssa Harad's memoir Coming to My Senses: A Story of Perfume, Pleasure, and an Unlikely Bride, I was intrigued. I didn't realize perfume had a larger story or that perfume blogs existed or that someone would be anti-perfume or that perfume could change someone's life.

From Amazon:

Alyssa Harad’s affair with scent begins in secret, late at night, by the glow of her computer screen when she stumbles on a blog devoted to perfume. Bookish and practical, and a stranger to beauty counters, she is surprised to find herself lured into a sensual underworld of quirky characters that changes her mind about much more than perfume. Candid, elegant, and full of lush description and humor, Coming to My Senses takes readers from a private museum of rare essences in Austin, Texas, to the glamorous fragrance showrooms of Manhattan, and finally to a homecoming in Boise, Idaho, to prepare for Harad’s wedding. This deeply personal story reveals the intimate connections between scent, our senses, and the people we are and want to become.

Alyssa Harad emailed me a few months ago, after a recommendation from Katie Gibson (thanks, Katie!), and asked if she could send me a copy of her book. I couldn't say yes fast enough. Whenever a book on my To Read list arrives unexpectedly in my hands, it's as if the stars have aligned.

I had to set Coming to my Senses to the side until I traveled to Seattle last month. There, on the plane, I settled in. Harad whisks her reader away on a feast of the senses. I could have sworn I smelled amber and rain and honey and leather and vanilla solely based on reading her rich descriptions. I contemplated how each perfume would settle and what a heart note actually smells like. What scents have I been drawn toward all these years without really thinking about it?

I was fascinated by the association between perfume and memory. Or just plain scent and memory. We might not smell something for years and the moment we do, we have an instant association. Women have long been known for their signature scent and this can bring back memories of special occasions, relationships, and so on.

The perfume world is accessible while feeling remote. Perfume can be costly but I wonder whether it's a more affordable luxury than we give it credit. After all, one bottle can last years. Harad takes us along through the blogs, the history, the perfumers- giving us the information, while also flooding our noses, so to speak. Along the way, she adjusts to a transition in her career and decides to get married to her long-time boyfriend.

Perfume makes her come alive in a whole new way and it was absolutely lovely to witness that transformation. I'm not saying I cried a few tears on the plane. I'm just saying.

Coming to My Senses is an easy and mesmerizing read. I felt strangely bereft when it was done because I wasn't quite ready to leave the world Harad created. It appears I'm starting a new relationship with perfume.

2013-12-07 16.15.18
When I read the latest copy of InStyle magazine, instead of skipping over the perfume inserts, I actually opened the tab and inhaled deeply. I never do that! Not only that, I considered the notes and scents and my reaction to them.

The other day, I rubbed one of those perfume inserts on my wrists. Just to see how my skin interacted with the scent.

Now I'm contemplating visiting a perfume counter and finding a signature scent of my own. Maybe I'll help my mom find a new signature scent, too. It's the daughterly thing to do.


Do you wear perfume or have a signature scent?

Disclosure: The publisher provided me with a complimentary copy of Coming to My Senses but all thoughts, opinions, and reactions are my own. Affiliate links included in this post. If you click through to Amazon, any purchase you make supports this site.

The First Reading

First Reading


A reading from the Book of the Prophet Isaiah.

They told us to line up just outside the sanctuary doors. Family started to gather and I saw him standing there at the start of our haphazard line. Alone. Slightly stooped, almost frail. As if his strength seeped out of him the day she left us.

I had rarely seen him without Grandma and it hit me that this was his future. She would never be at his side again. But he shouldn't have been alone, not for this.

I moved toward him without thinking and took his hand. He blinked away tears and patted the hand he now held. Words weren't necessary. My cousin Jennie appeared on his other side and took that hand. Now he was flanked by granddaughters.


This month marks two years since the death of my grandmother. I knew I would eventually write about her funeral and I hope I've done it justice. Please head over to A Deeper Family to read the rest of the post.

A Cousin Walks in to a Coffee Shop

It doesn't seem remarkable on the surface but my cousin and I went out for coffee while I was in town a couple of weekends ago. No big deal, right? People meet for coffee all the time.

Except we'd never done that before.

A few days before I returned to my hometown for our annual family reunion, I received a voicemail from Adam stating he had good news and bad news. When I called him back, he said he wouldn't be at the reunion because he'd planned a bike trip with 20 friends and it was that same Sunday. After I made fun of him for not remembering that the reunion falls on the same weekend every year, I told him I'd miss him and I'd see him at Christmas.

He didn't like the thought of going that long without seeing each other. But what other option did we have?


Over at A Deeper Family today, sharing about one of my favorite cousins. Head on over to read the rest.