I’ve been struggling to write something about my grandfather’s death for the past two weeks, because I know something has got to come out. And it’s probably got to come out before I’ll be able to do anything else. Like, you know, look for a job. Buy a suit. Clean my fridge. All the things a law student should be doing during her winter break. So here goes. I’m going to stop nitpicking, stop erasing, and make a freaking post, even if I hate it.
Here is what I know: I don’t know how to write about this. This. Death. Grief. Grief. I’m angry at it, even, angry at the word and the tag. I have a list of grievances (hah) to sling at grief.
- I am twenty-seven. I am the age of every heroine in every romantic comedy. Ergo (by my five-year-old logic, which is totally deserving of a public audience…good Lord, have I no shame?), things should be going right for me. I should be slightly frustrated (but not too) with my affable parents, in the beginning send-off of a lovely career, and right around now is when Mr. Right turns up (magically!) and shows me what love is really about (because, obvi, I ain’t seen nothin’ yet). Negotiating a loved one’s death – alone (oh, how I have learned to hate the word) – in the middle of all these should-be’s is really not flying with The Plan. Clearly we are in a Nick Hornby novel, and not a Nora Ephron film. Not exactly the sugar-coated year I was hoping for.
- I am a first-year law student. At a really tough school (I know, I know, which one isn’t). That is more than enough to negotiate. Life is supposed to go right, because it’s 1L, everything about 1L is all wrong, and during 1L, 1L governs 97% of your life. The other 3% you’re supposed to spend accidentally napping.
- My cat died two posts ago (okay, partially my fault for not posting enough this semester).
- Basically, THIS IS NOT SUPPOSED TO HAPPEN. Not now. Not right now. Some other time, maybe, when life is less crazy, when I eat proper meals, when there is someone sleeping next to me in the bed, when, I don’t know, something has given in. Not now. Now is supposed to be A Fun Year. It’s supposed to be oh twenty-seven was a great year, or twenty-seven was good to me. Twenty-seven was not supposed to be my hell. But I’ll tell you, folks, it ain’t lookin’ good for twenty-seven. Twenty-six is winning by a long shot, negative two deaths and two falling-in-loves ahead of twenty-seven. Twenty-seven boasts 1L and Living Alone for the First Time. Oh, and I almost forgot, Finding A Mouse in My Bathtub, Who Proceeded to Eat My Food (Noisily) in the Night. Whooooooohoooooooo, right? So great.
One more thing, and I will cease to be bitterly narcissistic and move on to what is unarguably far more important, poignant, proper, and slightly less petulant. I want to declare, and am about to declare, to all the internets, that I DO NOT WANT TO BE THIS GIRL. It’s not a freaking tragedy! My life is not awful. It. Is. Not. Awful. I am not some sad girl who writes some drippingly sad blog about her sad, vacant, heartachey law school life. That is not the story of this blog. It’s not. I won’t let it be. I REFUSE. I have not given up, okay? Got it? This is a blip. I just missed that contract that they passed out right before orientation labeled EMOTIONAL INSURANCE AGAINST PERSONAL TRAGEDY DURING TIMES OF MASSIVE STRESS. I’m sure it was there. I am one signature short of a perfect law school existence. But I’m not going to miss it again, baby. This semester is going to be MONEY. (Not literally, of course. Literally, it will be negative money.) Plus, I mean, by the end of it, I’ll be twenty-eight, so if the problem is an accursed twenty-seven, well, twenty-seven, your days are numbered. I mean, not that I’m daring you to have at me or anything. Please, twenty-seven, be a dear and make something go right before you disappear. One thing. Redeem yourself. Please. I triple-dog dare you.
I’m done with my tantrum now. And what I meant to say was this:
It was awful. There is nothing that I can tell you that was not awful about it. Everything was life on ice. Between my phone ringing too early in the morning and the last moments of the luncheon after the funeral, and God, some time after that – sometimes still – it was life from the bottom of a well. And that is the ugly truth. There is nothing perky or happy to say.
It was not a tragedy. I am one of those extra super fortunate people who still have living grandparents in their late twenties. I am a fairytale. I knew my grandfather before he was sick; better still, I remember him before he got sick. I remember him when he was portly and talked about my grandmother having all the right curves in all the right places (at the time, gross; now, pretty sweet). I remember him yelling at me that Ken Starr was a liar tryin’ to get a good man down during the Paula Jones/Monica Lewinsky episode of the Clinton era. I remember him holding my hand walking down the street. I remember the smell of his sweaters. I remember my terror when he had open-heart surgery. I remember the gauze taped over his chest. I remember his inexplicable affection for my grandmother’s cooking. I remember those ten years when he was drinking too much, and the past five, when he was smoking too much. I remember begging him to tell me his stories. I remember him making me feel safer than a fortress built around me. I remember all the bad things about him and all the good things about him. He was a lovable, deeply flawed hero. He was my hero, he was a hero for all of us, and he died in his sleep two weeks ago, losing his long, epic battle with his own reluctant lungs. It was not a tragedy.
I could tell you who my grandfather was, but know that I can never do him justice. They called him Brownie. Everyone. Even his three sons (but not, for a mysterious reason, his only daughter, my mother). He never finished the seventh grade, because his own father passed away, and he had four siblings to take care of. He lied about his age to get into the navy during WWII, and was the handsomest mate on his ship. (I know this. He has a picture of the whole crew, displayed to me on a recent visit. “Which one are you?” I asked him. “I’m the best lookin’ guy in that picture,” he said. So I looked at every man standing on that minesweeper, and pointed to the one I had decided was the best-looking. “That’s me,” he said, and sipped his ginger ale.) He knew about romance: he took a month of leave after the war, intending to make a career out of the navy, and never went back because he met my grandmother. He used to miss the last bus home every night to kiss her goodnight one more time. He was a man who, with his own two hands, built his family’s home. He sent all four of his children to college on a fireman’s salary, and none of them graduated with debt. He was the best storyteller I’ve ever met, and the strong man in my life. (When my father announced an intention to move in with my mother before marrying her, Brownie leaned over the coffee table and told him, “I would kill for my daughter, Bob.” By the time I arrived on the scene, they had made friends.) He built a dollhouse for my sister. Then it was mine. Now it is her daughter’s, and it is missing nary a shingle. He had 9.5 fingers. He survived a bullet in the neck during WWII, thirty years as a firefighter, triple-bypass surgery, stomach cancer, and an aortic aneurysm. He was extremely humble about his own life, and sometimes haughty about The Way Things Should Be. He said a beautiful, heartfelt grace. He called me Genius One when I was little (my brother was, inevitably, Genius Two). He took me to the museum and listened while I named all the dinosaurs. When I converted to Islam and started covering my hair, he would say that Muslim girls were the prettiest girls in the world. Every single time I walked into his house. He always told me to take care of myself, that he was proud of me, and how much he, a working-class Catholic with a seventh-grade education, enjoyed reading his translation of the Qur’an. They don’t make people like my grandfather anymore. And now, well, now this man, who always seemed invincible, who was fierce, and soft, who will be the family legend for a long time, now he is no longer. Except he’s laying in a casket there, and somebody put makeup on him.
And I’m standing there, and I think, in the middle of it, in the midst of so many sober, appropriate thoughts: He would have punched the [use your imagination] who tried to put foundation on his face. But death has a way of catering to the needs of the living. There is some discussion of that’s not how he wore his hair ever and he looks good and even some I don’t think he looks like himself from my younger cousins. But he does. It just looks like him from ten years ago. But they don’t remember, of course. To them, he was just the sick guy on the couch. They have no idea. I cry for that, too. For being immeasurably more fortunate than all of them.
Don’t worry. I said my goodbye. We all did. There was some confusion, a week after Thanksgiving, about whether or not he wanted to be resuscitated if he stopped breathing. He did, one night – stop – and he was resuscitated; later that day it was discovered to be a misunderstanding. But the phone calls were made, the he might not make it through today calls, and so we all came to be with him. I sat by his bedside. I held his hand for the longest amount of time I have since before I was in kindergarten. He struggled to breathe. He watched me cry, and told me not to be sad, not to feel bad – gulping for small breaths, his pulse thundering in his loose neck (I told you he was a hero). And then (miraculously, like everything else about him) he improved, so we went back to whatever we were doing before, and hoped to get in one more hug at Christmas. We knew Christmas might not come for him, and so did he. And it didn’t. He was 85. It was not a shock. Not a surprise. Not a tragedy.
But these not-tragedies are still awful and grief-filled. I still miss him. I do, I knew I would, and I probably always will. It doesn’t go away, really, ever. I don’t know that we ever get to be exactly the same again. I don’t mean that I will walk with an emotional limp, or that I won’t be able to love again, or anything. But that life – it turns out that missing is part of life. You never decide, “Oh no, that’s great, I mean, I’m happy that life turned out this way. It’d be awful if [insert loved one] was still alive. Total disaster.” It doesn’t happen like that. You stop crying, sure – at least mostly. You are able, after some time, to even talk about it without crying. And eventually, you almost never cry about it. But your heart grows a shelf: a shelf of beloveds. On it sit the memories you have about all the loved ones who have left – not by choice, and not because you left, but because they died. As we all will. And I don’t mean to be morbid by pointing this out – what I mean is that it’s natural, and poetic, and even heroic. Some of these people, these people here on earth (just think!) we’ll love so much that we’ll never leave. Someone will have to take us from them. Only that will keep us from their table at Thanksgiving.
So on my shelf, I have my grandfather, my cat, and my childhood dog (he was the best dog in the world; Marley is a poser). I know. Pretty great for a twenty-seven-year old, right? Short little shelf of missing. I know. Like I said, in this way at least, I’m a mythical creature. The stuff of dreams, that. I am The Spared. This blessing is not lost on me.
Nor is it lost on me that I have no regrets. I got to say a miraculous goodbye, a stolen-from-the-clutches-of-death goodbye, a tearful, heartfelt, loving, last goodbye. He knew it and I knew it. And I think we did okay with it. I’m glad I cried, I’m glad he saw me cry, and I’m glad I held his fragile hand. We said many Iloveyou‘s. I am lucky, too, in that I never doubted that he loved me for one second, not one. I am pickier about boys because he was so snobbish about me (ah yes, the what would Grandpa think sword has dealt the fatal blow to more than one relationship). I loved my grandfather. I admired him and enjoyed his company, even when he was deaf and sick and couldn’t talk much, even when he repeated his stories. He taught me about stories, and now I write them all the time. I don’t know if he knows all of this. But if I ever become anything – a lawyer, an author, a wife, a mother, something I have yet to set my sights on – he will have contributed to it. And I will miss him when I get there. Oh, how I will miss him. And that’s just as it should be.