Grandma died last week. After 2 ½ years of bedrest in a trailer she shared with Dad and his girlfriend, she passed away. Everyone remarked at how she had been of sound mind until the very end. “Just yesterday she called me a nigger!” said one of the home-care nurses with the strange fondness that accompanies all manner of recollections of the recently deceased, he is a white man who had the thankless job of bathing grandma, whose general bitterness was made more potent by painful bedsores. It wasn’t ever clear to the nurse if he was being blamed for causing the the sores by not cleaning enough or for aggravating by cleaning too much, but those details didn’t matter much.
The funeral was miserably sparse. We tried hard to remember that you can’t judge someone’s life based on their funeral when they die at such an old age. At 88, most of the people who knew grandma in her prime are either dead themselves or at least bedridden. Maybe if we had gotten some webcams set up at the local nursing home it would’ve been a better showing. But probably not.
There were three flowers at the funeral. Three. That is not the number of bouquets or vases, that is the number of actual flowers One of them was from the home-care company, standard procedure. One was from mom’s cousin even though mom and dad have been divorced for two decades now. And one was from the auto supplier where my uncle worked as a welder, some forgettable industrial name like “Danolt,” or “Pardna.” This was their way of showing my uncle that they had checked in on his alibi for missing work and that the “my mom died” excuse was no longer admissible.
There was a photo board: a large easel with an ambitiously sized poster board with a few scattered pictures of grandma. Her death had hardly been a surprise to begin with and there was almost a full week between her passing and the funeral, but in all this time, no one managed to anticipate this important piece of marketing. You might think that the people you know well- your own family, for instance- won’t be swayed in their recollections of you by a bit of post-mortem propaganda, but the sparely decorated card stock with one picture of grandma and her twin sister in beautiful gowns at the height of their youth, drowned out by the yawning space between other photos, which portrayed grandma at various stages of decay- “grandma in armchair” “grandma eating peas” “grandma in bed” – felt like incontrovertible evidence of her life’s futility. Exhibit A: there is no Exhibit A.
Isn’t it horrible when the preacher, out of spite or bad habit, invokes Jesus at the funeral of an atheist or butchers the name of the guest of honor? Or when the speaker recites from a bulleted list the major points of interest on someone’s life, as though converting the fields of a voter registration into sentence form: “Linda was born on October 3, 1926. She lived in Clio, Michigan. She was a female, Caucasian.” I like to think the explanation for these lackluster funerals must be that the presiding authority only ever “met” the deceased person after they had become so.
But there was no danger of this at grandma’s ceremony. We were somewhat smug in the knowledge that grandma had been so devoutly religious and so faithful to her church over many years. Yet the preacher’s transition from cue-card facts to platitudes about death were equal to what I’d expect of a hospice center chaplain. He spoke warmly about grandma’s reunion with grandpa, how she would find him waiting for her at the gates of heaven, joking playfully “what took you so long?” Cute but, at the time of grandpa’s death three years ago, he and grandma had been divorced for 30 years. Anyone who knew grandma knew that she possessed an undying hatred for grandpa to a degree that made it downright inappropriate to mention them in the same sentence. And the pastor knew grandma, he knew all this! Grandpa was the asshole who walked out on his family, grandpa was the one who died first, and yet, somehow, grandpa got the last word.
I hope that grandma’s god turns out better than her preacher did. I have a weird image of her arriving to heaven and discovering that her god is not the one she thought she was praying to, and, like a child pulling at the skirt of a woman she discovers is not her mother, is left alone and confused.
There would be no burial- grandma had been cremated- and the ceremony was short, so it was necessary to have a few speeches in order to give the event its proper weight and to take up time before lunch. There were at least a couple college-educated family members among us, who at least knew the main ingredients of public speaking and what a proper memorial might entail, yet vulnerability is an intangible that seems to defy conditioning in my family. Uncle Don stood first. “Grandma used to drive a ’68 Chavere,” he began.
I wish I had known how to tell the miraculous story of her birth. To me, in the context of a room full of her offspring, her improbable life was that much more incredible. Grandma and her twin sister were born late one night at their parents’ home, very premature. Their parents hadn’t even known they were expecting twins, and in the moment between the labor and the birth they gained a daughter, then an additional daughter and then nearly lost both. The infants were impossibly fragile, just over 3 lbs each. The doctor covered their little bodies in olive oil and swaddled them tight. He turned on the oven, low, and pulled out the lower rack. He placed their tiny selves down and there they passed the first night of their lives- a makeshift incubator brought to you by Sears. Perhaps it was the heat or maybe it was the fact that they were there side-by-side, drawing each breath together, that enabled them to live through the night and mutually agree to face the world.
Maybe its best grandma’s funeral was such a bust, because now I have no choice but to remember her as I knew her.
I remember taking her grocery shopping, how she would swell with pride at her loving grandchild at her side as I held her arm through the parking lot, up and down the aisles. I used to wonder if she walked slower just to prolong our time together. She wrote a grocery list but it contained the same items every week. I teased her “Grandma, you eat whatever you want, don’t you?” when she insisted on her Nilla Wafers with Mackinaw Island Fudge ice cream.
I remember how, in those days, it often fell to me to take care of her. At first it was with minor repairs around the house, then running errands in town, then doctor’s visits. I began to be uneasy about the level of responsibility easing its way onto my shoulders. “Which course of treatment will you be taking for the liver distention?” “When would be a good time to operate?” “Are you prepared for such an invasive procedure?” Grandma looked me right in the eye as the doctor posed these riddles to her. I sense that she didn’t so much need me to give the right answer as she needed me to give an answer. She was not capable of making such choices when her own life was at stake: “I’m too biased” she said, once, as a joke. I think it was a joke.
I thought about how grandma’s illness paved the way for dad’s redemption. Dad, who had followed his own father’s footsteps and walked out on his family, carried a toxic regret that all the passing years had not relieved and no amount of hugs or “I forgive you’s” or visits with grandchildren could repair. And then, grandma got sick and the family turned to him to care for her, to keep her out of a nursing home. He stepped up, and together with his partner, watched over grandma every remaining day of her life, which there turned out to be a lot more of than any of us expected. When Dad and Jackie took on the job, they didn’t realize that grandma needed to be under constant supervision. For 2 ½ years, they never went to the movies, took a long drive or even ran errands together- someone always stayed behind. Dad feels guilty now, in the way that anyone who is freed by the death of someone else must feel, but he has more right than the rest of us to feel peace. With her passing, grandma gave dad his life back- free time, but also a free conscience.
I remember how she always seemed so afraid of the outside word, delivered to her each night on the news in 90-second doses of depression. Once, when I told her I was going on a trip to North Carolina she said “North Carolina? They had a tornado down there.” I didn’t bother explaining that a single tornado at some point in the past didn’t render the whole state un-visitable, she’d made her point.
I know Grandma wasn’t just afraid of the world because of the news. Those grim messages would not have stuck so firmly if they didn’t bear a resemblance to her own experiences. They were like scents her mind could never forget, and she smelled them every day. The world was cruel to grandma: she hated the man she had once loved the most; she saw chilling patterns continuing in her own children’s behavior; she worked arduous jobs for long hours and had a mortgage on a trailer to show for it; she suffered long years of illness and pain as her body wore away beneath her. It’s nice, in a way, that she was able to spend so much time in the security of her bed before taking her leave. She was safe from the big mean world in that aluminum womb, taking her time on her way out of the world that she had once rushed into.
As I play back the memories, it’s the sounds that resonate most. There’s the noise of grandma’s turn-signal as we drove to the store, the antiquated clacking noise was never not going as long as the car was in gear, so faithfully did she anticipate every upcoming turn. There’s the hum of grandma’s television in the background as she free-styled a soliloquy of laments on top of it, angry at the world with no one in particular to point it at. There’s the audio recording I have of her the last time I visited, where, during an unexpected moment of lucidity she said in a voice croaking but clear “I love you, honey.” And there’s the phrase, the line that grandma said without fail whether or not the conversation allowed it, the same words that my sister tattooed on her back, and that every emotionally stunted member of my family can’t help but recall when they think of her, those words will always be all the evidence I need of her true, good nature- “Bless your heart” she always said. Bless your heart.