Cursory meditations on family, death, and dying

Being in California for Thanksgiving really got me thinking about life and death in some concrete ways. Seeing my entire immediate family produced a recognition of ‘the circle of life’ that was sometimes too realistic to handle. I watched my ailing grandmother, beautiful as ever, struggle to stand up and sit down. My earliest memory of her is a variation on her statement that she “won’t be around much longer.” And here I am, 22 years old and still have one grandmother living, and I don’t think she realizes how fortunate I am for that. This was the first trip that her oft-repeated statement shook me with sober understanding.

At the same time, I saw all of my younger cousins, who always seem to be much taller and much older than when I last saw them, even when it’s only a few months apart. My three year old cousin has become a tiny comedian, my ten year old cousin knows his mother’s favorite wine is a rose and even likes the way it tastes, and my thirteen year old cousin, the first baby I ever held, is about to enter high school and sent text messages to his friends at the dinner table the entire weekend.

My family always does these really cheesy slideshow videos. I’ve seen two for my grandmother, one for my grandfather, and one for a deceased second cousin. I wasn’t really sure why we were viewing one of these videos about my grandmother on Thanksgiving. It was nowhere near her birthday…was my family trying to prematurely say something about her death? This video featured footage of my aunt, a journalist no matter what role she plays, interviewing my grandmother about her life. The other most persistent memory I have of my grandmother is her stories–I could listen to her for hours. The questions were straightforward and basic, some stories repeated that I have heard times before, but it seems that only this time around did I really appreciate them. There were questions about her mother and father, the latter of which fed my grandmother, the youngest of four siblings, with a silver spoon once he became wealthy via a promotion at Merrill Lynch. Until then, the family lived in relative poverty in Brooklyn (an address that I have has proved to be impossible to find, but cross streets lead me to Park Slope). With this financial fortune, my grandmother was given the privilege of going to boarding school in Tuxedo Park, a city bus ride away from their new home in Larchmont.

In the video my grandmother told a story I had never heard before, one that endeared her so deeply to me that I almost cannot contain my joy when thinking about it. Like my mother, my grandmother had a rebellious side to her. This I think becomes obvious just by speaking with both of them, and I love that. Gossip at the school included a running joke that perhaps the nuns had no hair under their habits (which were worn all day, every day, of course). My grandmother volunteered herself to get to the truth of this mystery, and the next night began playing Bowman’s “12th Street Rag” on the piano in the middle of the night. Anyone familiar with the rag–which to me seems like the audible manifestation of spinning–knows it is not something to be slept through. As predicted, the nuns ran outside of their room, awoken suddenly by a mischievous teenager playing on the piano a rag that only speeds up. They shouted her name: “Barbara, not you again!” and only after all of the commotion died down did her girlfriends comment, as if a sidenote, that you know, it seems they did have hair.

I’ve also been thinking a lot about my drive to New York to move here, and how my father and I stopped by his childhood home in Linden, New Jersey. Much of the town has changed, but when we turned down the street he grew up on, he saw that his house was still painted the same color that he and his father had painted it when he was just a child. That sort of made me want to cry. I didn’t have the luxury of knowing my father’s parents as long as my mother’s–his mother, who I adored, died when I was six although it still feels like I knew her so well. I must have been 15 or 16 when his father died, but he kept so quiet about it I feel like it was barely an event in my life. That makes me want to cry too. And my dad was so upset I was moving to New York City–but why! Although I personally do not originate from here, he does, his parents do, my mother’s parents do, and so many members of our family come from and still are here. Although momentarily displaced, I ended up in the same spatial delineations as much of my family before me. I never really thought of it that way until now, it’s probably the one sense in which I have yet to romanticize my heavily traced relocation to this city. But still, that is wonderfully sentimental.

Old age is a really sad thing though, and I don’t care what any one says. I actually think the death of an old person is much less sad than the life of an old person. Every old person was once a young person, and even though that’s about as specific as you can get when talking about people, it’s safe to say that many were just as young and vigorous as I am now. I can stand on my legs and feet for eight hours at a time without problem. I can fill my body with pizza and wine and then get up the next morning and go to work. I can see perfectly, hear pretty well, taste everything. I could scream at the top of my lungs if I wanted to. I can stay up late and not sleep an entire night. I can touch my toes and run after my cat and pick up four year old children with no problem. These are all such simple things, and it makes me mad that my grandmother and my father used to be able to do all those things without thinking about it and now they can’t. They just can’t. My grandmother has extreme osteoporosis and arthritis and can’t play the piano anymore. The piano just sits in her home, touched only when a curious grandchild comes to visit. I watched her explain with words how to play the piano to four of my younger cousins. I wanted to run over to her and hug her and beg her to play something for me like she used to. But she can’t. She just can’t.

Before we showed the video on Thanksgiving (which was a surprise to her), we got to talking about what photo she wants at her funeral. She demands it be the nursing school photo of her. She looks calm, youthful, and pretty much like some one you’d want carefully watching over you. But my aunt and I could not stop talking about a photo, taken around the same time, in which she looks absolutely stunning. She hates it–“too film noir,” thinks she looks like she’s brooding; but I want to show it to the entire world. One thing that struck me about seeing her was how beautiful, and healthy, her face still looked. For the first time though her body looked old to me.

My dad used to be one of the most handsome men on the planet. I’m convinced of this. A few years back he started looking old to me. That was really scary. When I was in elementary school, I used to hang upside down on the swing set he built for me in my backyard, and he would do my hair for school. Every morning. One time he surprised me at my gymnastics Christmas party as Santa Claus, thinking it’d make me happy. Instead, I became very embarrassed and mad at him for doing that and refused to sit on his lap the entire night. Almost every parent there–as if their own feelings had been hurt–expressed their empathy by scolding me. He also once spent an entire weekend repainting the gigantic warehouse that was my team’s gym. He slept in the foam pit each night. About a month ago he got a hip replacement. Pretty soon he’ll need a kidney transplant.

All of this accumulated knowledge made it bittersweet to see my younger cousins grow up so fast. My grandmother, my father, my dead grandparents…they were all children too. And I know for a fact that were all active, amazing children. But none of them were exempt from growing old, even as their lifestyles varied. It seems unfair. It seems like the saddest thing in the world.

It’s even harder to imagine that if I’m lucky, that will happen to me too.

When my grandmother dies I will be so heartbroken I won’t know what to do with myself. But I will also find peace in the knowledge that she lived the hell out of her life, and was rewarded with one happy marriage with an incredible man, four amazing children, and eight adoring grandchildren. I’m not really sure if there’s any deeper meaning to it–or life, for that matter, than the potential for flourishing interpersonal relationships.

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