“If I have to read another essay about a beloved grandma who died, I don’t know what I’ll do!” one of my college writing professors once exclaimed.
My grandma just died. I hope my professor will forgive me.
I understand my professor’s exasperation. I routinely read Facebook posts linking grandmothers’ obituaries and used to grade papers and projects about students’ grandpas that had passed away. I greet the news of each death with a glazed indifference. People die, and grandparents seem particularly prone. By now, the mourning seems cliché.
Now that my grandma has died, though, I feel almost embarrassed when people comfort me. I find myself dodging and deflecting each earnest, brow-furrowed condolence with chipper sound bytes: “It was a mercy at this point.” “It was a long time coming.” “I actually had a great time with my family. It was so fun to see my cousins from out of town!” I refuse to play into the cliché.
But clichés can only exist as amalgam, and Nana is the first foundational person in my life that I’ve ever lost. Within me, the experience exists in isolation.
I know my memories are old if they’re from my family’s former house on Calvin street, where I lived until I was five. One of my very first memories is of Nana chasing me around the dining room table in the house on Calvin street. Sun poured through the windows, pooling on the wood flooring, washing it to a sandy white. Nana was informing me that the next year I would go to school—zip up my backpack, board a big school bus, and ride off into the sunrise. I protested loudly and pattered to the side of the dining room table opposite her. I informed her that I would not go to school; I simply would not leave her!
My last memory of Nana was in her room on the dementia floor of Raybrook Manor. Sun trickled in trickled in through the window, bathing her in light, spinning her hair to silver. She slept. Her breaths caught in the back of her throat. I sang to her from the gray Psalter hymnal then threw in “Fly Me to the Moon” by Frank Sinatra. Lullabies. My voice faltered under the weight of emotion, and the words caught in the back of my throat. I did not want her to leave me.
I had never grappled with the question before: How do you say goodbye to someone forever? How do you turn your back on her remaining moments and walk out the door while her breath catches in the back of her throat? How do you accelerate onto the rattling highway and watch the city where she will die shrink in the mirror? Why do I wave the condolences away? Why do I make her death a cliché?
I was halfway to Chicago when I got the call. I turned the car around. My parents and sister had made it to her room with only three breaths to spare. Is it bad that I wanted to see someone die?
At the visitation the picture that made me cry was black and white, torn from an old album, thick, cream-colored paper still clinging to the corners. It was Nana as a baby, saucer-eyed and smiling. Her tiny feet dangled from the hem of her dainty white dress. She looked like an ornament to hang on a tree. Why had no one ever told me that Nana had been a baby?
There, too, were pictures of Nana and her cousins playing in a grainy gray yard. Pictures of Nana at the Shrimp Shack–our family’s favorite island eatery–with my cheery teenage mother and aloof adolescent uncle. Pictures of Nana and me inexplicably wearing little tinsel halos and holding thin sticks with tiny parrot heads on the end. Picture after picture of Nana’s life and all the lives wrapped up into hers.
At the visitation, my parents’ friend Nancy asked my sister and me, “What is your favorite memory of your grandma?” I’ve been thinking a lot about that question, and I now realize: I don’t want you to know or care that my grandma died.
Instead, I want you to know that when I slept over at Nana’s house, she would make me cinnamon-sugar toast. I would sit in the basement, reclined in front of the TV. When she descended with the plate of toast, I would take a judicious bite and reply, “Not enough sugar.” And, when she returned again, “Not enough cinnamon.” I would have her walk up and down the stairs four or five times until she got the ratio just right before I would deign to finish the painstakingly prepared snack.
I want you to care—just for a moment—that when I visited her on the dementia floor, even when she was miserable, even when she had cried all day, she would still smile at me and point to the bowl of jelly beans perched on her bedside table.
I don’t want her death to matter. I want it to matter that she was a baby once, in black and white. I want it to matter that she loved her clothes but still let me stuff her full of pillows when I visited, stretching her sweaters irreparably. I want it to matter that she came to every one of my concerts, whether I sang a solo or air-bowed on the cello. I want it to matter that if there’s anything you love about me, she loved it first.
Let her death be a cliché. Let my grief be trite. But cliché dies with detail, and I just want you to know that her life was not overplayed.
When my mom and sister went through all of our family photo albums for pictures of us with Nana, they found one that has quickly become my favorite photo of her. She is standing in her Chicago apartment, robed in a black cap and gown. She is about to graduate with her Masters of Education from Loyola. I’m standing beside her, scowling into the camera like a child from a horror film while she clasps her hands beneath my sister’s tiny denimed rump, Liza’s blonde head glowing on her shoulder. Sun wafts in through the window, and the city whirrs beyond the blinds. Nana looks knowingly into the camera through her silver-rimmed glasses and offers a satisfied expression that transcends a smile.
So, let her death, her remembrance, her afterlife be a cliché. I will graciously accept all bland platitudes about her release from suffering and her shiny new life Lord knows where. I know they’re sincere.
But if you really want to comfort me, offer me a memory, a detail I can hold. Or ask me for one of mine. I will smile and picture her in that graduation robe and say that she has already had her heaven.
Gabe Gunnink (’14) lives in Seattle, where he works for a European travel company and gawks at the landscapes and skylines surrounding him. In his free time, he enjoys practicing Portuguese under his breath on city buses, running far enough to justify eating an entire pan of cinnamon rolls, and faithfully implementing Oxford commas.