This year, my grandmother decided to die on November 11th. She was 97. She passed peacefully exactly 8 months after her husband of 70-something years (we all stopped counting and I'm not good at math). She was in such bad shape at my grandfather's funeral it shouldn't have surprised me as much as it did. But there she was, her head cocked at a weird angle in the open casket, her skin cold to the touch. That really did me in, how cold she was. My grandmother didn't like to be cold.
I started to cry and looked for a blanket to put on top of her. But I didn't, I figured everyone would look at me like I was a freak. Didn't I know she was dead? She's supposed to feel cold. Hey, be happy kid, she made it to 97. Most people don't make it that long.
I should have called her more. I should have taken Elena to see her more than one time. Elena's resemblance to my mother was confirmed by everyone who saw her at the funeral parlor. Friends from my mother's childhood followed Elena around like they were looking at some kind of ghost from yesteryear. When Elena was a baby, she wasn't quite the clone of my mother that she is now. We had hoped to get there when she was alive and in my own selfish imagination, I pictured my grandmother seeing Elena and briefly, so briefly, getting the opportunity to relive her youth. I thought she'd see Elena and in her demented, fragile state, think she was looking at my mother, all young and beautiful and full of promise, before being ravaged by all kinds of illnesses.
But she died before we got there. I went to O'Connor's Funeral Home and St. Stephen's Church for perhaps the last time. St. Stephen's where my grandparents and all three of their children were married. Where my Eliza was baptized so they could bear witness. Where my Uncle Mimi and so many other relatives were Eulogized. St. Stephen's is a huge, beautiful, historic church. It is in danger of being shut down, like the rest of the area that surrounds it. Once a bustling, lively section of Pittsburgh, Hazelwood is now a sea of broken down houses and boarded up shops. Even Dimperios, the Italian market, is finally closed.
After the funeral, I asked my Uncle to drive past my grandparents house and he did. I looked at the long steps leading to the front door, the big hill, the green awnings with the single white stripes on each end. I remembered my grandfather's garden in the backyard and the railroad apartment on the first floor we ran through as kids when it was rented out. The chime of the doorbell and the sound of going up the steps. I turned 40 the year my grandfather finally left that house. the last time I was there was in 2007, the year he turned 100. So much of my life was spent behind that heavy front door.
With the passing of my grandparents goes an entire world. They were the glue that held us all together. Now we are all spread out. At my grandmother's funeral, I read two short letters she'd written to me over the years. It was so special to bring her voice back to life. One of the letters recounted her joy at the birth of my cousin's son Dominic more than 10 years ago. It was truly a special moment to look out at my cousin that day and relive my grandmother's happiness over her newest and quite possibly favorite great grandchild. My cousin has a drinking problem now. If my mother new the details of her current situation, she'd be crushed. I don't even know if I'll see this cousin again.
Eliza broke down and started sobbing heavily during the funeral mass. I was overwhelmed, unsure of how to comfort her. I asked her why she was crying and she said "I miss great grandma." Eliza hardly knew my grandmother so I found this hard to believe. I think her breakdown may have come from exhaustion or from the fact that we were seated back far away from the cousins she longed to play with. But I held her and shushed her and stopped crying myself because I have a job still and that's to take care of my kids. But maybe the whole spectre of death, the finality of that body in the casket, really got to her. Watching her and my mother, so tired and sick from chemo, interact in the hotel between funeral home visits, I can see my own daughter's fear of her grandmother's passing. On the day before the funeral, my mother spread out the comics on the bed of the hotel room and told Eliza how she used to lay the comics out on the floor at her own grandmother's house and listen to a radio program.
For Eliza's birthday, my mother wrapped her gift in comic newspaper pages. Eliza was delighted. Grandmother's are so important.
My mother is superstitious and says things always happen in threes. I barked at her when she said this but there it is, my grandfather and grandmother within the same year and my mother with pancreatic cancer. Who knows who's next but I do know this, it seems to have taken on some kind of domino effect lately. Death is a part of life blah, blah. That doesn't mean I have to like it.
Looking ahead to Christmas, I had cards made with photos of the girls for the first time. I chose five happy photos of them on the beach, picking apples, and climbing cherry trees. I quoted the Christmas Carol "Do you hear what I hear" on the card, this part:
Said the king to the people everywhere,
Listen to what I say.
Pray for peace, people everywhere.
Listen to what I say!
The child, the child, sleeping in the night
he will bring us goodness and light,
he will bring us goodness and light.
I would like to think my grandmother would be happy about my sending cards, about being polite and keeping in touch with relatives she and I share. I wish she was still alive to see the card, to see my kids. I wish I'd had kids younger so she could have been healthier and enjoyed them more.
But mostly I just hope to move forward and love who I love now and enjoy each day the best I can because life unfortunately, is fleeting.