I’ve been thinking a lot lately about how I will fare when my mother is gone, how I will deal with her absence, if I will crumble or if I will rise. It does absolutely no good to play this game, because that’s what it is. It’s a game of magical thinking, trying to imagine one’s reaction to a life-changing event. I still play it anyway, believing at some level that it will prepare me for what is to come.
I ponder the word grief a fair amount too, sometimes feeling like everything I do in a day is layered in this concept, except those days where it lifts and the beauty of the moment shakes off my inevitable future without her. But even those moments are bittersweet, as it feels like I’m cheating somehow or betraying her in those seconds that I don’t look or feel like a person who is losing her mother.
When I think about what I should look like, what grieving looks like, the first person I think of is my grandmother. This is ironic, given the lengths she went to avoid grief and pain. My grandfather died when I was 12 from a heart attack. She was 65. For years, she told me this: “He died laughing. Can you imagine? He had just won a golf game and was ribbing his friend Chuck in the car, and then he was gone.”
At the funeral, I remember her walking to his graveside stiffly, leading his mother there gently by the elbow. My great-grandmother wore a pink polyester house dress and stood bravely on her thick legs as the preacher put a hand on her shoulder and said, “Parents should never have to bury their children.” I wore a new blue and purple dress and suede ankle boots for the occasion and as the coffin sat in the open air, I held on to my mother’s hand for dear life.
After the service, because it was what you did in my grandparents’ world, my grandmother hosted what felt like hundreds of people at their house: pigs in a blanket, asparagus wrapped in prosciutto, mini pork sandwiches, gallons of white wine and buckets of martinis. She told us to smile, to greet people, to pass the hors d’oeuvres, because this is what you did in my grandparents’ world.
The strange thing is when I think of those few days, I have no memories of my mother’s grief, only my grandmother’s. I can picture what happened when we found out my grandfather had died, as my dad brought my sister and me home early from our monthly weekend with him. Our mother told us and we sat on her lap and cried. My father cried too, but stayed outside, standing just beyond the screen door. We all stayed like that for what seemed longer than possible before my father stepped off the porch and disappeared. Yet from those two days around the funeral, nothing in terms of my mother. Only my grandmother’s face has stayed with me, the sharp edges of her body, the quick moves she made from one room to the next, never standing still, as if trying to outrun her husband’s death. She remained in near constant motion for the next 15 years trying to outpace it, in part by traveling the world. When she wasn’t on a trip in those subsequent years, she drowned her grief in bottle after bottle of chardonnay and an affair with my grandfather’s best friend.
My grandfather’s absence was palpable to me in those years after, but I never fully absorbed the magnitude of her loss until the year I turned 25. She offered to take me to New York for Christmas and my birthday, which was just a few days before the holiday. I was single and trapped in a miserable job at a mutual fund company and jumped at the chance. She had her own reasons for wanting to leave town for the holidays — I realize now it had much to do with the fact that the wife of my grandfather’s best friend had recently died and this hadn’t changed dynamics of their relationship. My grandmother wanted to get married again and cook for someone every night; he wanted to live alone and eat hot dogs for dinner.
Bits and pieces of the story had come out over the years, but what I could see clearly on that trip was that my grandmother was incredibly unhappy. It didn’t matter that he paid for our trip and sent everything from martinis to a miniature Christmas tree to our room that week — what my grandmother wanted, he wouldn’t give her. As the days passed, I realized that what she missed most in that city was my grandfather. They had often taken trips there together, and she showed me the places they had been: the famous post-theater spot Sardi’s, a speakeasy called Chumley’s, the restaurant Josephine. We went to a drag show in the Village after having dinner with Julie, a woman they had met years ago at a San Francisco Cabaret. She was 75-years-old at the time and invited us to come see her perform.
My grandmother was buzzing with life at 2 a.m. afterwards, laughing like a teenager, telling me what a crush my grandfather had always had on Julie. All week, whether we were headed to see Chicago or coming from a showing of Scorsese’s Kundun, she would tear up in the cab and say, “Bob Greig would have loved that,” or simply, “Bob–” clearing her throat and putting on her dark glasses to hide her crying. She would usually take my hand at some point, squeezing fiercely. I squeezed back, helpless.
A few months ago, she helped define grief for me again, albeit accidentally. My mother, step-father and I were headed to the cemetery where my mother will have a headstone. She’ll be cremated, but wants us to have somewhere to go when she’s gone. (My grandmother, gone 10 years now, did not allow us the same. She had an adjoining plot to my grandfather, but because the site wasn’t well maintained and his marker was chipped by gardeners and never repaired, she decided to be cremated and sprinkled out over the Pacific.) My mother recently procured a plot near a dear friend of hers, Christie, who died in 1999. “I couldn’t be happier knowing I’ll be near someone I know,” she said.
Death has always been a part of my mother’s lexicon. She worked in geriatric social work and hospice care for 25 years before she got sick, and has a library full of books on death and dying. She is a straight-up Kubler-Ross junkie. This is, to say the least, a little unusual. I have done my best to confront the issue of death on her terms, brave and clear-eyed. A topic steadfastly avoided for most of my life, the concept crystallized when my sister was diagnosed with advanced breast cancer at 28. But there was always the possibility (and later, reality) of remission for my sister, which has never existed for my mother. What I mean to say is, after my sister recovered, I put death back on the shelf. There is no more shirking it this time around, so I figured I might as well get the grave site visit over with. I have not, however, taken my mother up on her offer to tour the crematorium.
Just before we left, I was looking through the bookshelf in the living room and saw the title, “Up From Grief.” Given my current fascination, I pulled it off the shelf. It was my grandmother’s book, inside she had written, “Given to me 20 (underlined) days after Bob died and three months since Edward.” Edward was her friend Edith’s husband; Edith had given her the book. An accompanying postcard stuck inside the book by Edith read, “I don’t like this book, but everyone else does. Read if you want.”
From what I could tell, she’d made it about halfway through the first chapter, arguing with the book’s premise the entire way. On a particularly classic page, she has bracketed a passage about how “grievers are afraid to admit their real feelings to others and often to themselves” and written “Don’t think so.” Next to the assumption that those grieving feel guilt, anger or shame, my grandmother has scribbled “NO” and underlined it. Screw survivor guilt and feelings of doubt and confusion. Shirley Greig wasn’t having it. Even though her husband had died incredibly recently, I don’t think her view of this psychobabble changed much over the decades.
How does this change my understanding of grief? I’m not exactly sure, but I read the passages out loud to my mom and we laughed so hard we cried. Her commentary was perfect — entirely irreverent and a direct reflection of how she lived her life.
We visited my mom’s site on Memorial Day, as that is when she always visits Christie. It’s really not such a bad day to go to a cemetery, as the place is full of people and the headstones are bursting with flowers and flags. We drove up there under the threat of rain but the sun was out by the time my stepfather and I wrangled Ma out of the car. We stopped for a second and tilted our heads back, felt the rays on our faces.
She pointed at a spot on a gently sloping hill with sweet little tree just a few feet away. We rolled her over and she showed me Christie’s grave, a reddish headstone with an etching of a mother and three children. The quote there said something about how light shines on anyone who remembers those who are gone.
“So,” I said, after a few moments of silence. “Where will you be?”
“Right here,” she said, pointing to the ground beneath her wheelchair. My stepfather had managed to wheel her directly over her plot.
“You are fucking kidding me,” I said, and she shook her head. And then we cracked up, because we find this type of morbidity mildly hilarious. “Will your headstone look like Christie’s?”
“Yep,” my stepfather said.
“No,” my mother said. “Smaller, level.”
“Close enough,” my stepfather said.
“And what will it read?” I said.
She tried to get it out, but couldn’t find the words. This was happening more and more. My stepfather said, “It’s a beautiful day and I love you.”
As soon as he said it, I realized she’d already told me. Hearing it out loud was almost more than I could bear in that moment.
“So,” she said, “So–” She was stuck on the words, but gestured around her plot with her good hand.
“If we come, you’ll be here.”
“It’s good you’ll be here, Ma.”
“Not good that you’ll be dead, but that you’ll be here. That there will be a headstone. You know what I mean.” She nodded.
The sun, the flags, standing there looking at my still-alive mother perched on her future grave site provided an odd comfort. I wonder sometimes if my grandmother had been more able to confront her loss, to give in and express all those feeling she so denied, she might have died happier or at least more at peace.
Not long after all of this, I heard a piece of an old interview with George Burns on NPR. He said that even though Gracie had been gone for 30 years, he still went once a month to Forest Lawn to see her. He talked to her about everything and anything on those visits, told her what was happening in his life. He said it helped him miss her a little less. Here’s hoping.