To you, and the woman who would have been 95

by Janelle Hanchett

I don’t have many regrets in my life. Not because I haven’t made mistakes. Lord knows that ain’t the case. When I got sober there were memories so dark I spent the first year of recovery shaking my head occasionally – literally, physically – in attempt to rid the thoughts from my brain.

As if I could rattle them out of there.


The person who helped me get sober told me that the only way we can survive those memories is if we transform them into a way to help others. So I talk to other alcoholics. I talk to alcoholic mothers. I tell them how it was for me – the dark shit too, perhaps most importantly – so they can understand that I’ve been there too, and I lived, and found a way to stay sober.

And in that way, the present day infuses my past with a vague sense of meaning. The faces of the sick people in front of me give those experiences a shred of value. It’s not much, but it’s all I’ve got.

If I could do it again, I would not do it again. I would not hurt the people I hurt. But I can’t change the past any more than I can erase the memories.

My life brought me to my knees, flattened me into damn near nothing until I had no choice but to see the truth of myself and change.

I can’t regret that. Without the failure of my life I would have remained who I was. And nobody wants that.

So I don’t regret much.

But I regret the last year of my grandmother’s life.

In 2008 my paternal grandmother, who was one of my favorite humans in the world, with whom I felt a special affinity and understanding since I was a young girl, was dying. She was fading into dementia, passing into the gray.

I did not visit her once.


She was born July 26, 1920. She would be 95 in a couple weeks. She died in September of 2008, at 88 years old.

On the day I found out she passed, I went to a local dive bar and threw a few back in her memory. I went to her funeral pretending to be sober. Though I was sober that day, I was out of my mind with alcoholism, absent in thought and spirit.

About 6 months later, in March 2009, I found the beautiful “bottom” alcoholics speak of and crawled back into life after years of attempts at lasting sobriety.

But she was already gone, and I never said goodbye, and I never told her what she meant to me, and I never wrote her life history as I always said I would (she was a renegade journalist and mother of 5).

I can’t even recall exactly the last time I saw her.
How is such a thing possible? How is such a disaster possible? The extreme self-centeredness of alcoholism, the immaturity, the inability to tell the true from the false. Yes, all of that.

I try to make peace with it, but it feels like a terribly twisted up, skewed, inappropriate final scene of our lives together. A sick representation. A lie. A lie I cannot set right.

That was not what we were, and yet it is, forever, precisely what we were. At the end, at least.

You don’t know what you got til it’s gone.

It never seemed real that a force like hers could be gone.

But the years pass without her and the words I wished I would have said hang as if in purgatory. Unsettled ungrounded unheard and aching. Like hungry desperate spirits.

I guess this too is about me. She is at peace. I’m all tore up, at her birthday, on the anniversary of her death, thinking about how I would give almost anything for a chance to stop by her house one last time to say “Hey grandma I love you and goodbye.”

Maybe she wouldn’t have even recognized me. Maybe she had forgotten about me weeks before in the ages of a fading mind. Maybe it was best I didn’t show up, so she never had to see me quite so sick: Barely employed, separated from my children, lost lost lost.

And I, her.

I don’t remember her mind as faded.

Maybe she would have wanted it that way.


I want to beg you to go see your people. I want to shake my fists in your face and demand that you just fucking GO, NOW, no matter what, no matter how much they pissed you off last Christmas.

I want to say it so I can feel like 2008 has meaning, like it isn’t just the lack of understanding, selfishness and laziness of a 29-year-old granddaughter too young and dumb to realize what she was missing.

But you probably won’t go. Not if you’re like I was. One of the luxuries of our young lives is not having to go because they’re still here.

Until they’re not.

One of the luxuries of having your people alive is that you don’t have to think about them being alive.

I don’t wait any more. I don’t hesitate any more. I say it now, yesterday. Words hanging in the gray, scratching at my brain. Go ahead. Go on. Get outta here.


A few weeks after I got sober I was asleep in a bedroom in my mother’s house with just my little dog in his bed when I heard the door open. I sat up in bed, watched my dog jump out of bed and stare at the door. Then I watched the door shut. Assuming it was my mom, I got up to see what she needed, but when I walked out into the hallway I saw her bedroom door shut, and heard her snoring.

There was nobody there.

The dog settled back into his bed. I sat on the edge of mine and stared at the wall, overcome with the feeling that my grandmother had visited me. It was peace to my bones.

After years of struggle and alcoholism, I was finally getting well and my whole family knew something was different, something had changed. Finally.

I thought perhaps she opened the door, looked in, said “Well I see you’re okay now, Janelle.”

And left.


I tell myself that was our final meeting. But in my guts it isn’t quite enough.

Happy birthday, grandma, a little early. You always hated the damn things anyway.


And to the rest of you, go say it.

  • Willowtreewade

    There is so much obvious truth in what you have written that it brought me to tears, I haven’t paid enough attention to my grandma lately. I really should rectify that, thanks for the reminder

  • Katy

    Goosebumps with the silent visitor part. I want my husband to read this and stop his apathy toward his own mom, a mother-in-law I’ve never met and who has never seen my children, her grandchildren. Even if she did a shitty job, now that I’m a mom, I can’t fathom a permanent separation from my kids. As usual, love your posts.

  • Isabel

    My grandmother died in April. She would have been 90 on 06/12. My poor wonderful, beautiful, courageous, brilliant grandmother who helped raise me developed Alzheimer’s and no longer remembered me. I don’t think she did. She couldn’t feed herself anymore and she had lost her legs due to circulation problems. It hurt me so much to see her like that and I would not visit as often as I should have. I suck. She did so much for me and I feel like I did close to nothing for her. I couldn’t even give her my company. I know how you feel.

  • Allison

    I am so sorry about your grandmother, and those feelings surrounding her death. I am in recovery as well, and my little grandmother just passed away in May. I was with her and my mother at the hospital those last days, and whole it was so painful and sad, I was so grateful to be in a place that I could be there, even though she wasn’t awake. A few years ago, I wouldn’t have been capable of being there for her or my mom. I still have a lot of painful memories from my addiction, and I do that same thing, I shake my head when they come to mind, and try to not to dwell on them. Helping others is my way of making up for it, I am becoming a CDP, and I hope to help others out of that dark place.

  • Constance

    Oh, my heart aches with the longing you speak of. You say true, friend.

  • Mary

    Oh boy. This has pulled up something for me I have not thought about in years.
    I refused to let my father say goodbye. I was living 2500 miles away from him and in the phone call, he asked me what my (then) young husband were up to, sounding satisfied that all was well. I learned later, that he called all of his nine children that day. He told me he had decided not to fight the cancer any more, and I realized when he died soon after, that all he wanted to do was say goodbye and for me to somehow give him permission to go. At 25, I couldn’t. I cried and asked him if he was still fighting, and being the loving and wise father that he was, told me “sure”. He protected MY feelings yet again as a dad, giving up what he needed, to give me what I did. Years after he died, and I have no idea why, it occurred to me that he had forgiven me because he was no longer mortal and these things no longer mattered to his soul. Only love mattered. So I also let it go. The tenderness of that pain remains, though, and that’s ok. Thanks again, Janelle, for being such a great voice of the HUMAN thing.

  • Rae

    Why do you always hit me in my feels at the perfect time? 5 days sober today.

    • Erin

      Congratulations and good luck, Rae.

    • katie

      I’m in your corner, Rae.

    • krystn

      Woo-hoo! I am pulling for you.

  • Phyllis Quast

    I wish they would see me. I wish that they loved me enough, but they either can’t or won’t. I’m not what they want me to be…pretty, thin, 2.5 stunning and brilliant children and an Uber successful husband. I’m a 57 year old orphan with 2 living parents. I’m willing, they are not. In order to survive, I have to make peace with that…and I have. Going again, trying again, is more than I am able to do. Sometimes everything you do is not ever going to be enough.

  • Tessa Hill

    God damn it Janelle, you got me all fucked up once again.

  • Krystal

    Tears…I know so many people who need to read this! Time flies by too fast to ignore loved ones.

  • Erin Neri

    Life is way to short and this was a huge reminder of that! I love your honesty, people stuggle and make mistakes. It’s nice to know I’m not alone in that! Your grandma absolutely has no ill feelings towards you, her love was always unconditional and I bet she’s looking down on with you with emence pride!

  • Ranie

    My granny goose was 97 in the hospital after a surgery and I almost didn’t take the trip to see her. I had been sober just long enough to know it was the right thing to do, even though My mother said my appearance would bother her. I took out my piercings and tried to comb over my Mohawk. I sat with her at night, neither of us could sleep with all the bustling and whirring machinery. The only book I had was a big book, so I read bills story to her. Later I realized that maybe that helped her to understand her drunken sons. I’m so grateful God uses me when I show up.

  • Louise

    I lost my brother to suicide. Five days prior I refused to dance with him at an engagement party. He was 24 and I was 7. I thought he looked silly and I was too “cool” to join in. I am 27now and not a day goes past where I don’t wish for a do over.

  • Vanessa Cameron-Lewis

    When you write about your alcoholism here it sounds like you have been a solider in a war where you had to leave your home to go and fight; where you signed up not knowing what you were getting yourself into. If you had been a soldier at war in a foreign country i wonder if you would feel the same about not being able to say goodbye to your grandma? I just came across your writing tonight and so here i am sitting on the floor on my dogs pillow cause i can’t be bother moving the computer cord to another socket at 11pm New Zealand time instead of going to bed with my baby. oh the early morning wake ups where everyy morning I decide i will go to bed early cause i cant lift my head from the pillow. Your a wonderful writer you crack me up with laughter and tears. Thank you

  • Erin

    This is beautiful. In fact, we are heading out to see my 89-year-old mother today (we lost my Dad, at almost 90, in Dec 2009). I’m sorry that you didn’t get to say goodbye to your grandmother. It’s so hard to watch someone slip away into dementia (my dad did too)…when they die, you kind of realize that they weren’t really with you for a while before that.

    On another note: my husband got sober in March 2009 also. There must have been something in the air that month, on both coasts. He saved himself, our marriage…maybe all of us in this little family. And my own anger/outbursts faded as he came back to me, whole. You did a brave and wonderful thing in becoming sober. No, it doesn’t erase the terrible stuff, but you did something to make it possible to move on and to salvage the good.

    Thank you for a moving, timely piece. Happy birthday to your Grandma.

  • Anya

    So, the tough part of reading this is the paragraph where you wrote “I want to beg you to go see your people. I want to shake my fists in your face and demand that you just fucking GO, NOW, no matter what, no matter how much they pissed you off last Christmas.”

    I wish I had read this yesterday instead of this morning. I was in the middle of my 2.5 hour drive to go visit my brother when he called w/ some bullshit reason to not do the dinner we had planned out & instead of finishing the drive & going to see him anyway, I let my anger and hurt allow me to lash out at him instead. I turned around and drove home. Thank God nothing happened yesterday so I was able to send him a text this morning apologizing and asking him to call me later.

    Thanks for the reminder Janelle. I’m sorry for your loss & your feeling of in-completion. I wish there was a way to make it easier, but you’ve heard all the platitudes, it doesn’t help in the end. I hope your mind quits beating you up for your disease though. You’re an amazing woman.

  • Linda

    I lost my dad in 2006. I had my son in 2007. MY dad died at approximately 3 am…I didn’t get to see my son for 3 days!!! when I finally got to see him he was nestled next to me in his little crib thingy and all of a sudden I hear the faucet go off in the bathroom!! I KNOW this faucet is SENSORED!!!! I say “hello” (thinking it was a nurse coming in to check our pulses)>>>>> no answer!!! The water goes off!!!I look at the clock and it was 300 am on the dot! I look at my son he is smiling???????????????? We were both awake….10 minutes later the faucet goes on again and then off as if someone had just washed their hands again. So in my mind it was my dad coming to visit what he could never meet 🙁 and I did the same with my dad. He was dying of cancer and I drank the sorrow away!!! I almost didn’t make it to his funeral on time!!!! I was Daddy’s GIRL so I don’t understand why I did that but to this day I feel his presence!! I took a nap on the couch and felt someone beside me sit down! I look to think it was my 7 year old son NOW….NOPE!!! No-one there!!! Same thing happened in my bed and same thing has happened at work!!! TWICE!!! I know my dad is with me now and I know he knows I was only dealing with losing him by not going to see him so I wouldn’t miss him as much and remember him as the dad that wasnt so frail and was strong and remembered his daughter!! SUCKS!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

  • Andrea Mae

    I lost my Grandmother much the same way. I am sorry for your loss.
    I was deep in addiction at the time as well. I feel her often. I applaud your sobriety and so very much appreciate your writing. I am a few days shy of my 1 year sober and am so damn grateful for it.

  • Kate

    This was a wonderfully timed piece for me. I am struggling because my grandparents are quickly declining. I live 6 hours away and I have a hard time getting to them. I am getting married in two weeks and didn’t think they could make it. Yesterday, my grandpa called to say that they want to come to the wedding. Selfishly, I think it would be too much work and stress on everyone(themselves included). Maybe he wants to be with his entire family one more time…to say goodbye. You’ve shown me that and I thank you from the bottom of my heart.

  • Brigitte Wallace

    My parents divorced when I was 16 because my dad had issue with drugs and alcohol. I remember going to kids AA with my mom. We had all lived in a home owned by my fathers motherfor my entire life. My mother paid her over 100,000 over my life of living there. My fathers mother kicked my mom and I out after the divorce and we used my college fund to find a new home. She sold our home and bought herself motorcycles. Few years later my fathers mother moved down the block from us. I havent spoken to her in over 10 years but drive by her house everyday and walk by her in the grocery store. Growing up we were so close, but I totally felt like she just kicked me out of my home. I really should stop by and say hi, but still hurt. Thanks for the great read. It sucks that grief is forever.

  • gina sapp

    So real…thank you!

  • Amy DuBois

    WOW! It’s as if the Powers that be sent you just when I needed you. My 92-year-old Grandma has been struggling with Alzheimer’s/Dementia since January. It’s gotten horrible lately, but the worst part is our family’s total resistance to acknowledge and discuss openly what’s happening. The woman who is the keystone of our family is suffering. She took care of all of us so many times and now we’re avoiding her in her time of need so we can live in denial of losing the most precious person in the world. <3

  • Renee Pedersen

    Janelle – you don’t have to worry about not telling her how you felt about her; she knew. Think about it; you know yourself when you have a connection to someone whether you see them everyday or once every five years, the love is just there. Your grandma loves you and is watching over you now. I have no doubt that she is very proud of the woman and the writer you have become. Heck, maybe your writing is your grandma working through you! Maybe you can ask her the next time you see her!

  • also Linda

    i was lucky enough to be able to be with my dad while he died. we took care of him at home, my sisters the nurses, my sister the bookkeeper, and i. our brothers drifted in and out. he was our last parent. that makes me the family elder, very strange. but he died at home and it was peaceful and hard and something else. it took me nearly 10 months to figure out how to name the something else. what it was, was sacred. i wouldn’t have missed it for the world.

    for nearly 2 years i’d been searching for somewhere on the water, half-way between Daddy’s home and mine–a 5 hour trip–so that he could go fishing again. despite all my best efforts, no property appeared. Daddy died on a Monday. we buried him next to our mother on Wednesday. on Sunday, feeling lost and sad, i turned to the internet to look at waterfront properties. there were none in my price range anywhere between our homes. i scrolled the map closer to home and got nothing. i went west and there was a single dot. the dot was in my county. the dot was 14 minutes from my home.

    it’s a beautiful place and Daddy would have loved it. we looked at it on Sunday and bought it on Monday–one week after he passed. i know he had a hand in it.

  • alexandra

    Beautiful. Pain, and with regret, but I believe–and it seems to me that you do, too–that our words are carried to another dimension of living. I believe your grandmother hears your grateful heart.

  • wanda


    What a powerful post. I felt a special love with my own grandmother too. She died 2 days before my 20th birthday. When I got back home from her funeral – her birthday card was waiting for me.

    It was the saddest time of my life.

    Your story is full of hope and I would bet that your grandmother is at peace knowing you are living victoriously now. Thank you for sharing.

  • Carolyn

    I’m much older than you, probably old enough to be your mom, and I would love to say that with age comes wisdom, but I don’t necessarily think that is true. I believe your grandmother knew what was going on with you, that you were not at a point in your life where you were able to participate in her process of dying. Did she forgive you for that? I’m sure she did, because she loved you with all the unconditional love we give our children and grandchildren, especially those that are hurting and lost.

    I am atheist and have no belief in spirits and the afterlife, but I have huge belief in the power of love and family, and that is what she gave you, so forgive yourself and honour this amazing woman by carrying forward her legacy