You died on a Monday. December, the eighth. Giving it a date feels strange. That something so important could be assigned a number.
Mom called at eight something that morning. That was too early for mom to call. You know how late she stays up. Sleeps late. Nursing depression and anxiety and chronic pain. I’d stayed up late the night before too. Doing the same, to a smaller degree. I’m working on it. But I’m not there yet. So I pressed the button to silence the ring.
A few minutes later my sister called. That’s when I knew. Because she and I don’t talk much. I’m lucky if she returns my texts, really. I’m an asshole. Judgmental. I alienate her from me. Apart, these events could be coincidences. Mom calling early. Sister calling at all. But together they could mean only one thing. Because you were put into hospice the day before. And 2+2+2 = Grandma’s dead.
I resisted the impulse to answer the phone with “Grandma’s dead, isn’t she?” But I said it aloud when I sat up in bed. Before I answered the call. Nathan appeared in the doorway. His tie untied around his neck. His shirt halfway buttoned. Toothbrush in his mouth, maybe. I can’t remember the details now.
I don’t remember what she said. My sister, I mean. She was crying though. I remember that. Mostly that stands out because you and she didn’t like each other. That wasn’t her fault. Mom vented to you about her, and you didn’t know her well enough to take it in context the way you could with me. You didn’t let yourself get close with grandchildren who might be taken away from you. And too many grandchildren had drifted away, breaking your heart. Your son’s many children who wound up wherever they and their mothers wound up. You said my sister talked too much. That she had too much energy. You missed out, grandma. I should have told you that more often. Before it was too late.
Now you’ll never have a chance to make up for the loss.
I sit on the edge of the bed after the phone call. Nathan sits next to me. The bed springs dip, and I let myself tip over. He holds me. I wait to feel sad, but it doesn’t come. I wait to feel regret for not visiting you more. That doesn’t come either.
Is there something wrong with me that I don’t feel anything?
I get dressed instead. I turn on the faucet in the bathroom sink. Toothpaste on toothbrush. Angle the brush toward the gumline and brush in wide circles. I don’t look at myself in the mirror. I don’t look at Nathan. I don’t know what to think. My thoughts drift toward you.
We’re sitting on the back step of your Oildale house on El Tejon. The house I remember best. The only place I felt safe as a child. And there’s a thunderstorm. Thunder. Lightning. Water ricochets off the tin roof over the concrete backyard. I’m little, and it’s scary. The noise. I remember that I was afraid, but I don’t remember what that felt like now. You make tea. Lipton bags from a big paper box. We sit on the porch and drink tea, and we talk. You tell me there’s nothing to fear from a storm. That thunder is just the angels moving their dinner table across heaven’s floor. That rain is something beautiful. That it’s the perfect time for tea with someone who matters.
It wasn’t the first time you did that. Changed something scary into something beautiful. Something to share with the people you love.
That happy memory causes a breach, and everything spills out. I sob like a lost child, toothbrush in my mouth. The part of me that’s watching myself notices that it’s happiness, finally, that makes me feel sad. That it’s the happy memory that hurts the most. Because it shows me what I’ve lost. If you were here you’d pat my hand. You’d make me tea maybe.
Without you here I forget why I shouldn’t fear the storm.
When I saw you laying there, everything in me knew you were dead. I watched the blanket where your lungs should expand underneath. It was still. And still. And still still. Your mouth was open. Eyes closed. Age spots darker than ever against your skin, paler than ever. I hoped that in whatever stage of death you were, that you were beyond pain. Beyond regret. Beyond worrying about us and how we might feel. I’ve read of people who say they came back from death. That they were in the room after their bodies died. That they watched their loved ones crying and couldn’t figure out why their loved ones were so sad. I hope that was you.
I hope you were so happy that you couldn’t understand why we were sad.
The men who moved your body were just people. I don’t know what I expected. Not angels, of course. I’d like to think I’m more practical than that. Still, I didn’t expect their audacity to have personalities, their own lives. Their own quirks of humanity. One was tall and slender in a stylishly tapered black suit. Well-groomed and effeminate. Young and in training. The older man, also in a black suit, took your death as an opportunity to train the youngster. “Have the bereaved fill out this section. She’ll sign here.” And “Grab the sheet there. Lift.”
I thought they’d send only well-trained perfection. How dare life infringe on this moment.
When they brought in the stretcher, mom fled the room. “I can’t watch this,” she said. Or something like it. Sister went with her. To comfort her. They sat in the courtyard through the sliding glass door. I stayed with you. Sat on the edge of your roommate’s bed. I didn’t want to leave you alone. I didn’t want to leave you alone with strangers. Not yet. And I wanted to see what happened now. I knew I’d write about it later. The details that hurt the most. The observing part of me looked at the part of me crying and thought, huh. Curious.
The older man avoided eye contact. The younger one tried. But there was a moment when, as they maneuvered the stretcher through the door and it caught on the bed and the older man struggled to untangle the two, that the younger had a moment to look at me. I didn’t bother to hide my emotion. I let the tears collect under my chin and stream down my throat. I didn’t wipe them from my cheek. He made no emotional overture. No effort at comfort. I appreciated that. His expression wasn’t unkindly. He didn’t look away embarrassed. I was grateful for that too. We stared at each other for what felt like minutes. And I gave him an acknowledging smile though my face was wet and terrible. A little, hello fellow human. Here we are.
They wrapped you in the sheet like a shroud. A mummy on a table. They pulled a blanket up to your face, and before the little panic in me that thought you wouldn’t be able to breathe could cry out, they folded the blanket over your chest instead. Relief washed over me. They put a pillow underneath your head. And though part of me knew you didn’t need it, that you couldn’t feel it, another part of me was relieved. That part of me thought, just in case.
You looked like a picture in a history book. Some mythic mummy a kid might write a paragraph about between recess and lunchtime. My face tingled and my mind stretched out to accommodate these conflicting images. To put these two things together. Myth and reality. Outside and inside. History and present. Death and Grandma.
They weren’t as different as I thought.
I merged with some tapestry then. Became just another stupid thread in the whole of creation. I waited for the moment I’d want to tear it apart. To singe a hole through it like a cigarette burn. But I was too small to do anything of the sort.
The entourage returned. Sounds of mom crying. Everyone else silent. My silent tears. I looked from mom to you to mom, and I thought, someday that will be me.
The men left the room. The moment they were gone, I forgot they existed. I forgot that I was supposed to be saying goodbye. Until mom leaned over and talked to you. All I could hear was mumbles and sniffling.
“Do you want to talk to her?” mom asked me. And I stood up like I wanted to say something. And I did want to say something. But I felt too stupid in front of all those people. It felt stupid to say goodbye. Or that I was sorry. Or that I missed you. That you dying meant it was my turn all the sooner. That I hoped god was real and that he was better than you’d hoped he’d be. Because, frankly, your concept of god sounded more like the devil. The punisher. The judger. What an asshole.
I wondered if you could hear me still. Even though you couldn’t move. Even though your mouth hung open because you were already stiff when mom woke up that morning to find you dead and no one could close it again. Even though your tongue looked like crumpled paper inside your frail and near-toothless mouth because you couldn’t feel that it was dry. Because you had no impulse to sip water or run saliva through to ease the parch. I wondered if you could hear me.
Because who really knows how long it takes the brain to die? Who really knows except for what our cumbersome, insensitive MRI machines can detect? Who really knows? Maybe synapsis still fired. Maybe you dreamt of heaven. Maybe you dreamt of seeing the son whose death sent you fleeing from Bakersfield when the family still needed you. When I still needed you.
Maybe you dreamt of gold-paved streets and golden gates and a man there you’d tried to impress your whole god damned life. He better have opened those fucking gates for you. He better have fucking let you in. If he didn’t, I’ll find that motherfucker, and I’ll make him pay.
You spent your life trying to earn your way into heaven. Penance. As though in hurting yourself here on Earth you might get a bigger payout after. Or at least less punishment. Maybe it worked.
It certainly worked for the funeral. You planned it yourself, made payments on it since 2002 when your son died. So that even though the prices went up since then, we didn’t have to make up the difference. Maybe your plan for heaven was the same. A lay-away plan for the afterlife. Happily-ever-after at 50% off.
I wanted to talk to you. To say all the things I wanted to say before it was too late. Just in case you could still hear me. But I couldn’t do it. There were people around, and I felt stupid. I knew I’d regret it. Just like I knew I’d regret not visiting you more yet still I stayed away. Because I was afraid. Because I knew it would hurt too much. And as I did then, I did now. I chose regret. I learned in that moment that my capacity for weakness was greater than I thought.
When you came out of heart surgery a few months ago, you wanted to die. You stopped eating. You slept. Shit and pissed yourself rather than walk to the toilet. I wrote you a letter then. A goodbye/thank you/please-don’t-give-up-and-die-on-me letter. You listened to me read it, because you didn’t want to sit up to read it yourself. You cried and then went back to sleep.
I feel bad I asked you to keep living. I didn’t know cancer was eating your kidneys. I didn’t know it was causing hormone fluctuations that manifested as rage. I didn’t know the fire behind your eyes was pain. Or that you’d go through a broken hip and a predatory senior home or desperate, selfish displays from family members before the end.
I was selfish. I wanted you to live. And I asked you to try harder. I feel like shit about that. A selfish little shit begging you to live in pain when you felt like dying. Just like the rest of the vultures. Just a more articulate one.
Last night I put thoughts into words.
I said, “I thought I understood, but I don’t understand.”
I said, “She died. Her body died, but where did she go?”
I said, “I’m going to die someday.”
These things felt so important in my head. So vital and raw and alive. So full of meaning that I had to tell somebody. But when I did, they were just cliches. Anonymous. Unimportant. The plastic flowers in the back of a 99 cent store covered in dust. Inanities.
It didn’t make me feel connected. It made me feel isolated. Adrift on a piece of wood in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. I…you…we became a number. One among infinity. Meaningless. The cliches became an impotent rage. A fury that your life could be just another life. Your death just another death. It made me sad for you. It made me sad for myself. I could vomit fire and burn down the village. The church. The people. With their stupid little rosaries and their mumblings and the bullshit things they tell themselves.
You used to say “If I am a good girl and say my prayers at night, when I die I’ll go to Oklahoma.”
You used to say, “When I kick the bucket, Mandy, you’ll have to continue these Christmas traditions for your grandkids.”
You used to say, “You have to finish your first book before I kick the bucket, Mandy. That way I can carry it around and tell everyone who passes by my granddaughter wrote this.” You shook your fist when you said this. As though brandishing a book at someone. You don’t remember that now. But I do.
Well I didn’t finish that first book before you died, Grandma. I hope that’s the last time I fail you. And mom’s talking about taking your ashes to Oklahoma. And I’ll keep up those Christmas traditions, Grandma. Because those Christmases did exactly what you wanted them to do. They made us feel like we were part of something bigger. Like maybe I was part of a family after all.
Through all the chaos and violence and addiction. Through all the trauma and legal trouble. Through the separation and the sickness that eroded our family from the inside.
And maybe that’s the only thing that gave me something to hope for when everything else was fear and stomach bile. And maybe that’s why I’m strong enough to stand up now. Because of you.
And, sure, maybe that sliver of hope I held onto so tightly wouldn’t have been so vitally necessary if you had raised a healthier, stronger family. If you hadn’t let in the men who hurt your daughters. If you had been strong enough to stand on your own. I’m not stupid enough to call you a saint just because you’re dead. No, you weren’t perfect. And I love you anyway. I’m grateful anyway.
Because if you hadn’t been exactly who you were. If you hadn’t made the exact mistakes you made in the exact order you made them, I wouldn’t be here.
And I’m selfish enough to say it was worth it. I’m not so sad that I don’t want to be here. I’m not so selfless that I could say, “yes be a healthy person even if that means I never existed.”
Thank you for being who you were. Thank you for everything you did for me. I hope you feel yours was a life worth living. It was to me. To me, you were everything.
I miss you. I love you. You mattered.
Thank you for reading this. I wasn’t sure if I should share it. Or how much of my personal life to reveal on the blog. But I decided to risk it. We’re all people after all. And we’ve all lost someone.
My grandma lost people too. She wrote a poem about her grandma after she lost her. And so many of the themes between her poem and my experience are the same. Memories of the people who mattered most to us becoming precious. The times they made burdens a little lighter or scary things a little less scary. That was my grandma. A hell of a woman. Who smashed roaches with bare feet and cussed like a sailor and believed in god with ferocity and made a family out of people adrift.
Her name was Carolyn Glass.