This piece was written by Anna Scholin, a friend from college who not only acted in a show I directed in 2004 (!&$!), but designed and made the incredible costumes for a show I wrote/directed about Edgar Allan Poe. Now Anna is recent Stanford grad and lawyer in the Bay Area.
Growing up, no one I knew had ever died. Well, some great-uncles perhaps, but not anyone I was close to. Then in 2002-2003, everybody died: three out of four grandparents, the great-aunt I adored, and a few other assorteds to round it out.
My father’s father was the first to go.
He died mid-sentence during a doctor’s appointment. He had had six different types of cancer, some since the mid 1970s, but he was stubborn and just refused to die. Until he started to tell his doctor a joke about how he would not die. Best punchline ever.
At the time my father would call his parents once a week to check on them, since they lived in the far north, ten miles past the end of the earth. He called Grandma at the normal time that week and chatted to her for a while about the dog and the weather and the usual. Then she said, “Guess what?” My dad, “What?” [with only mild interest]. Grandma: “Your father died!” [with midwestern up-beatness, the same way she would say, “look, a cow!” as we were driving. Through fields of nothing but cows.] Possibly the second best punchline ever.
Three months later Grandma died herself. Hers was not the “Awww, they loved each other so much, she couldn’t live without him” story people seem to assume when I say that. She probably did love him in her way, but when he died, she mostly seemed excited that she would get to do so much more. At some point twenty years before, Grandpa had taken to a chair in the living room and refused to move more than a couple blocks from there for the rest of his life. Now that she was on her own, Grandma dreamed about spreading her wings. Instead, she developed a sudden respiratory infection and died a little over a week after entering the hospital.
Her death was hard, because it came out of nowhere. But also because she lingered there for a week of frantic trips across vast frozen expanses, to see her scared and fragile, trying to give away ten times more than she ever owned. She wanted to take care of so many people she was leaving behind.
My grandmother also left behind her french poodle. While I had loved Woofer as a child, by the time my grandmother died, he was ancient, covered in warts, and the producer of terrible smells. My father and his two sisters discussed it, but my father was not having that animal in his house and there was no way Woofer would survive the cross-country trip to either of the more sentimental sisters’ homes. My father convinced his sisters that the merciful thing to do was to put Woofer to sleep. My aunts cried and talked about how much Grandma had loved Woofer and Woofer loved Grandma and now for them both to be “passing” so close to each other…. but oh, wouldn’t it be lovely if they could be buried together! My father the unsentimental scientist was aghast and his stunned pause allowed his sisters to gain steam. Two days later, Grandma was buried in a pale pink casket – my father lost a lot of arguments that week — with her dead dog curled up at her feet. They do not embalm dogs. As he was in life, Woofer was in death, close to Grandma. And rather pungent.
I’m going to skip over most of the minor funerals. There were a lot of them and they all blur together. My great aunt’s made me very sad, but was standard for an elderly person passing fairly peacefully at the end of a well-lived life. The father of a close friend of the family had perhaps the most fun funeral, as it was held at a restaurant “with decent food, not goddam ham sandwiches” and included an open bar. Death marched on.
My mother’s father did not have good timing when it came to dying. He had had cardiac problems for many years, but he and my grandmother continued to travel the globe. They intended to keep doing so, as my grandmother put it, until such time as she had to “bring him home in her checked luggage.” May of 2003, was set to mark both their 50th wedding anniversary and his 80th birthday. Grand celebrations were planned and plane tickets were bought for family to travel home from all over the country. Then he up and died two weeks before the party. The good news was, everyone could change their tickets to come to the funeral!
It was a pretty typical funeral. Things eventually wound down and finally, it was time to say last goodbyes at the open casket. My grandmother and the most supportive of the aunts hugged each other and stood and touched his body and kissed him. Grandma was in tears that “he didn’t live to see the whole family together again.” While behind her the rest of us started to tear up, Grandma rushed on to declare that, the worst part about it was, “We didn’t even get to take a last family photo! With Grandpa dead, when are we ever going to take a new photo with all the kids and grandkids, the last one is from five years ago!” Sobbing aunt: “Why don’t we take one noooooowwwww?!” The more squeamish aunts and uncles wanted no part of this and quickly deflected Grandma’s photographic desires onto the grandchildren. Us kids were firmly commanded to wipe off our tears and “SMILE!” The resulting photo, in its 2003 digital camera quality glory, is exactly what it looks like.
Funerals bring out the best in my family.