The Universe is a funny place. This isn’t really a scientific statement. You can’t empirically prove things like funny or amusing or fucked up. But you can imagine that it is true, because you live here. And you have seen things that are funny or amusing or fucked up. I have seen them. They happen every day. So what do you do with something that is so strange, so alien, so incomprehensible?
When my grandfather died, it was May. The nature of the Northern Hemisphere in May makes it easy to believe in miracles. When his casket passed beneath an apple tree, a gust of wind blew all the petals from the branches and they fell in a light pink shower across the back of his hearse. It stopped when the car had passed, and I did not see it happen any other time. When we came home from Michigan to Georgia, a long and tiring and ridiculously poorly managed affair, I looked to the garden. Every rose bush had bloomed out in a glorious display of wanton fecundity. Spent blossoms littered our yard. It was ironic, then, that all the roses seemed to bloom when there was another Rose, my grandmother, withering away.
There are no miracles of nature in December. There was only a phone call. A distant relative called, sounded anxious. Without the conscious knowledge of the situation, I still understood deep down what had happened. I believed, perhaps, that it would just be another minor setback. So when my mother returned home from her shopping spree, I told her to call. She dropped the bags she was carrying. Her face fell. I didn’t even let her put down her bags. And this is the way it happened when my grandmother died.
If I look back at things now, as so often happens with sad things and bad memories, I can’t recall exactly what happened, or when, or where, or why. But this is what I recall, two years later, staring back at this little pane of life, and this is what you could see if you could also catch a glimpse.
We will be sitting in the garage, crying, holding on to each other as the realization hits us all that at 48 years of age, it is entirely possible to become an orphan. I will call my newly acquired boyfriend, who will hold my hand quietly as we wander through the store, buying the clothes we need to wear to the funeral. I will call my ex-boyfriend, who has previously agreed to watch our dogs. Did I mention we were supposed to be going on vacation? The irony of the situation, wherein my grandmother dies on the eve of the day we were set to leave to spend Christmas with her, will dawn on me several hours later. Four hours after the phone call, I will be standing in the yard, barefoot and livid, as my ex tells me that the news that I have a new boyfriend has rendered this the worst day of his life. I will remind him, quietly, who is dead and who is still alive. This is when I will realize that we can never be friends again.
In 10 hours, we will be standing in an airport crowded with young troops. My mother will nearly collapse, hysterical, as the airline officials attempt to tell her that there are no seats on the plane. I will step up as the oldest, the strongest, the most in control. One hour later, we will be on the plane. Sometime after this, my father will be notified by the Red Cross network in the airport at Frankfurt that he must return home. Having been placed on a plane some 12 hours earlier, he will now find himself en route to Michigan instead of Kuwait, spending an entire day on a plane, in his starched and pressed BDU’s, unable to communicate with anyone in our family until he arrives. Some time from now, we will joke that he’s no longer allowed to leave the country. You see, it was while he was in Korea that my grandfather died.
Things become hazy when we touch down. Some hours after the plane lands, we find ourselves staring, quietly, at the thick brown carpet in my grandmother’s house. The dog is suffering from dementia. No one can tell her what has gone wrong. In a few hours, other family members will begin turning up. I will avert my eyes as my aunt retreats into my mother’s arms, sobbing. I will take it upon myself to set out the food given to us by her friends from work, mothering everyone who has recently lost a mother. I will set up the bedding. I will set up the communication. I will listen, off to the side, as the story comes out. My grandmother’s sister will tell my family, with no tears in her voice, that they had been out shopping. They had gone to return jewelry. They had purchased a shrimp platter. They had gotten their hair done. They had stopped at a restaurant to eat.
My grandmother started coughing. There was blood on her hand. She looked scared, confused. She passed out. They were so nice, so nice, held up a sheet so people wouldn’t stare, at the restaurant. The ambulance was called. There was no hope. The tears will start fresh.
In the morning, the rest of the family arrives. My mother is the executor. She will call for flowers, for a casket, for the funeral home. We will go to the suite in which the wooden casket lies, only to find that it is across the hall and 2 doors down from the room where my grandfather’s casket laid for 2 days. Finding nothing else to do, we will wander around and look at the plants. There is a tiny philodendron with Sympathies from the New Baltimore Big Boy. We will stare. Someone will finally crack. All we get is a plant? They should have catered. I could go for a Slim Jim.
We will steal Tic Tacs from the closets in the hall when our supply of nervous snacking items has run dry. We will walk out into the snow, confused and tired and hungry, and the natives will laugh at us and our rejoicing We will look ridiculous, in heels and suits and tired, tired eyes, jumping after snowflakes in a way that can only be described as unfamiliarity. I will look at the older man staring after us, befuddled. Georgia and Florida. He will smile and let the door close behind us.
When we get dressed the next morning, preparing for the day ahead, I will look over at my cousin and my sister as we sit in the hallway in front of the mirrored panels. They will apply more makeup than I ever bother with. We will laugh. We will bicker. We will bitch about pantyhose. We look like we’re getting ready for a party. We will wonder what other way there is to act.
The second day is passing in the suite. We will listen to the rosary prayed. I will sob quietly in the second row as I watch my mother and my aunts shake quietly throughout the service. When the priest steps through the door, they will burst into laughter. Padre had a 99 cent sticker, bright orange and tacky, stuck to the bottom of his wingtips. They did not hear a single Hail Mary. When he returns to lead us in a final sermon the next morning, we will all giggle quietly behind his back. I think he notices.
The day is done. We are loading up the flowers we can bear to see to take with us after we have finished loading the casket into the hearse. I will serve as a pall bearer, being the oldest in my sect of the family. My cousin and I will wear fur coats for the first time in our lives, relics of my grandmother’s wardrobe and our intense need to feel like we are good grandchildren. I will drive a Lexus for the first time in my life, shuffling my sister and cousins to the cemetery. We will fear dropping the casket. It’s difficult to walk on ice in heels. My uncles voice will crack as he says that this Christmas, my grandfather simply got tired of being alone. We will leave a glove on the casket as we stand around in the mausoleum. It’s hard to tell anymore where there was crying and where there were simple sighs of exhaustion and cold and incomprehension.
This Christmas Eve is the most memorable of any we will ever have. There will be food as if nothing has happened. The shrimp tray is delicious. My cousins and I will sit on the counters, singing Christmas carols as loudly as we can. We will be boisterous. We will be joyous. We will be Italian. And then someone will look up, look around. If Gramma was alive, we would never be allowed to do this. We will turn the music down when some songs come on. I will never remember if there were any gifts.
One year later, I will be finishing a bowl of Rice Krispies in the dining hall, ready to walk to class and face down the end of the semester. There, on the conveyor belt pulling my tray to its sudsy fate, will be a little paper cup, used by the staff. It will have a smiling, checker-clad boy with an updo. There are no Big Boy restaurants in Georgia. I will stand, staring, for long minutes, unsure of exactly what is happening in my head. Anger, annoyance, amusement?
Ha ha, Universe. You got me.
I spent a long time thinking about the relevance of writing this. I did not know if this was the wrong thing to write. Does anyone else see, or care to see, the importance of a personal anecdote in the context of relationships with the world as a whole? I thought about it for days, deciding if it was even worth it. I thought about it at the dining hall. I thought about it at the gym. I thought about it walking home.
I passed a trash can outside the gym, where they were hosting a national swim meet. Staring up at me, perched perfectly at the top, was the same little checker-clad imp.
Touche, Universe. Touche.