I didn’t cry when I heard that my Grandmother died. It was in October of 1996. I was nineteen at the time and living in Oahu in a run-down, one-bedroom apartment on Kanekapolei Street. My roommate was this slimy, French coke-head named Dave and my new (now “ex”) girlfriend Amber had already claimed a couple drawers in my dresser even though we’d only been dating for a couple of months. I was selling T-shirts to tourists in Diamond Head crater for pennies an hour–making just enough to keep me in cheese sandwiches, Mini-Thins, Newports and Coca-cola. My grandmother was very proud of me. To her, I was perfect; to everyone else, I was a broke, going-nowhere loser–which was actually quite a bit closer to the truth
My mother was the one who was hit the hardest; my grandmother was not only her mother but also her closest friend. When she called me she was crying so hard that she was completely unintelligible and I had to calm her down before she could even tell me what was going on. Even then, all she could choke out was “Your grandma is…” over and over again.
“Dead?” Dead is a good word for dead. It’s so final, so perfectly monosyllabic. My mother couldn’t bring herself to even say it. I sat on the other end of a scratchy, staticy phone line two-thousand miles away and tried to talk her down, to sooth her, to be her little hard plastic shoulder to cry on. I was stoic; I couldn’t crack up now. Tomorrow, perhaps.
Two days later, sans tears, I boarded a red-eye from Honolulu to Seattle chasing a ten AM funeral for the person I loved the most. With only a plastic cup of Coke and a few bags of peanuts to keep me company, my mind began to wander back to my grandmother. The past few days had been a mad rush and I hadn’t had any time to think which, in retrospect, was probably on purpose. I had responsibilities. Who was going to take care of my mom if not me? Self-indulgence was hardly an option. I stared thoughtfully at the little plastic phone mounted in the back of the seat in front of me. Maybe a call to my mom would redefine my role as the unwavering rock of dependability that I had cast myself in. Maybe. It would certainly drain the thirty or forty bucks I had left in my bank account.
I suppose it’s worth mentioning that dependability, responsibility and most other -ability suffixed adjectives are not words commonly associated with me. I remember thinking that this was pretty funny. My grandmother had a way of bringing out the best in people. I had thirteen hours to kill so I spent most of it thinking about her. My grandma is worth remembering.
She was born in nineteen ten. Unlike some octogenarians, my grandmother was not grumpy, not sad or self-pitying; she wasn’t tired, she wasn’t bored, she wasn’t afraid. She was never old. I have a great sepia tone picture of her from the twenties. She’s leaning up against a wall, smirking and wearing this really audacious flapper outfit. I’ll never forget that picture… I don’t think she ever forgot it either. My grandmother was something else.
She survived through the Depression, clipped coupons and eeked by on social security and a small pension. Yet, for some reason, she always thought it was a good idea to try to slip me a twenty whenever my mom wasn’t looking. And, though she couldn’t afford it, she was strangely obsessed with feeding people. While at her house one was obligated to eat something. It was an immutable law. There was nothing anyone could do about it. She had to cook something and you had to consume it. Not to imply that she was pushy. She was always extremely sympathetic to whatever excuses you might have. “I’m just dropping off a magazine from Mom,” “I have a doctors appointment,” “I just ate a huge dinner,” these were all met with an understanding smile and then a resigned shrug, as if to say, “I understand and I am truly sorry, but the Gods demand it; you will eat pot-roast before you leave this house.” Then, with a few artful, disarming remarks she’d have you reclining in her ugly Laz-Y-Boy while drinking her apple juice and watching her television. My grandmother was selfless.
During World War II, my grandmother worked for the Army and helped develop underwater camera’s that were used in strategic reconnaissance. After the war ended her career prospects were dimmed by men returning to the workforce. She had many different jobs including working at Newberry’s, being a checker at Fred Meyer, being the manager of the Baghdad Theater and several others that I can’t recall. My grandfather (who I don’t remember too well) got sick some time in the 70’s and it was my grandmother that had to provide for him. She often worked fourteen hours a day between several jobs to make ends meet but she was never bitter about it. After she retired and my grandfather died she kept herself busy with her garden, her prodigious cookie production operation and her grand-kids. She saw adversity as a project, defeat as an annoying setback and if she ever thought someone had it better than her, she never mentioned it to me. My grandmother was unstoppable.
I caught my transfer in Seattle and made it to Portland on time. My mother and stepfather picked me up from the airport. They both looked terrible. We all hugged and got in the car. I think I remember my mother trying to make some sort of chitchat to show me a brave face, but the bulk of the ride to town was spent staring out the window in silence. I felt bad for them. I really didn’t know what to say.
The funeral was your typical affair. Big funeral home. Faux Victorian furniture. Sleepy music. People cried. All the while soft-spoken funeral directors gently nudged the proceedings forward. Managing a funeral must be a lot like dropping off a kindergartner on their first day of school. They know the moment has to come but they just don’t want to say goodbye yet. I saw a lot of family that I hadn’t seen in a long time and we exchanged “I’m sorry”‘s and “Are you OK”‘s. Theirs tearful, mine not. By this point I was starting to get a bit paranoid. I spotted my stepbrother and stepsister; drawn-faced and red-eyed, milling about in a foyer full of people they didn’t know. I supposed that they must have felt oddly out-of-place being at a funeral for a step-grandmother. That didn’t stop the water-works, however. They didn’t know my grandmother very well and to this day I really have no idea why it hit them so hard, but I remember them being pretty broken up about the whole thing. My step-siblings didn’t interact with my grandmother very much. She was a bit player in the cast of people that made up their lives. So why were they standing by the door sobbing and choking like a couple of world-class hired dirge singers? Or maybe a better question is why wasn’t I?
I don’t really remember the funeral itself, which means it was probably unremarkable. What I do remember was approaching the casket afterward. Seeing someone dead with your own eyes really cements the idea in your head. There is an eerie, coldness and a stillness that rubs off and sticks to you. It is a moment that punctuates the finality of death and forces us to contemplate the nature of mortality. At the risk of sounding repetitive, I fully expected that this terrible moment that I saw her laying there was going to be when it all came pouring out. Just as Gilgamesh did at the side of Enkidu, I would gnash my teeth and pull out my hair. Instead I just stood there and stared.
I used to ask my Grandmother a lot of questions because she was the only person whose opinion I trusted implicitly. Perhaps another reason I asked her is simply because she had such great answers for everything. When I asked her if there was a God, she said:
“I don’t know, maybe.”
When I asked her if she was afraid to die, she said:
“Nope, I’ve already done everything I wanted to do.”
When I asked her if she had that chance to be young again, whether she would take it or not, she said:
“No. I already was young; I’m going to try being old for a while.”
And it was always like that. I’d try to corner her with some annoying, open-ended question and she’d cut me short with her Buddha nature. My grandmother the Bodhisattva.
She died in my mother’s arms in the back seat of a car. It was quick and painless. She wasn’t afraid. I imagine if I were to ask her if she had the chance to be alive again, whether she would take it or not, she’d say something like: “No. I already was alive; I’m going to try being dead for a while.” That’s just the way she was. The more I think about it, the more I believe that the reason I haven’t cried is because there really isn’t anything to cry about.
She didn’t suffer and die in a nursing home. She didn’t waste her life. She had no regrets. She wasn’t torn from us before she was ready. She lived a long, full life and in the process brightened up the lives of everyone she knew. She has influenced me from the way I visualize the workings of the universe to how I make a peanut butter and jelly sandwich and everything in between. I don’t mourn her because she never went away. I’ll keep her in my thoughts and save my tears for tragedy.