Note: I originally wrote this eulogy for my grandmother and posted it last year, but when I overhauled my site, it was the one post to have vanished. I’ve saved it until now to republish on what would have been her 83rd birthday.
Thinking back to that service, and my delivery of the following, I’m kind of amazed that I made it all the way through.
I can’t believe that it’s been just three and a half months since I saw my grandmother. I was lucky enough to steal some time away from work to be able to come up for what would turn out to be my final Christmas with her. I always found a reason to let life get in the way, and I never came back up to visit as often as I’d like. It’s funny, but during these past twelve months, I’ve flown back up here more than I had in the past twelve years. Part of that was due to the fact that when my great-grandmother died, I knew that I had thrown away my chance to say my last goodbyes, too worried about work, and life, and somehow being a failure in her eyes.
Sure, I’ve done better for myself since then, but when I heard that my grandfather was beginning to fade, I knew I couldn’t just hide away down in California. And when he died, I knew that it wouldn’t be long until I was back up here to say farewell to my grandmother.
I’m sorry. This is harder than I expected. You see, my son came up with me this time, and this is his first real experience with death, the first time he has been exposed to the concept of a bittersweet celebration of a life well-lived. He is lucky to have spent as much time as he did with both of his great-grandparents, and I guess what I’m about to say, the stories I’m about to tell, are as much for him to learn a little more about them as they are for me to pay my respects.
The hardest part is knowing where to start. There are so very many things which I’d like to share with you, but right now they’re just a jumble in my head; lodged behind this lump in my throat.
Perhaps I should begin with how she taught me (quite inadvertently, I’m sure she’d insist I clearly mention) my very first four-letter word. That sort of thing tends to happen when a car door swings shut with only your leg betwixt it and its final destination. Later on, in an outing with my Grandfather, I used it in perfect context, to the effect of nearly causing him to have an accident (of either variety). Since then, I’ve been extremely cautious in my usage of… colorful metaphors while traveling by automobile.
In so many ways, I’ve found that I am like my Grandmother (and not just in my reaction to vehicular agony). She was the standard which I’d found I’d set for myself, when that sort of thing began to matter. But really, I think that the biggest impression she made on me was in treating me like a person when others could only see the symptoms of adolescence. It’s quite simple to dismiss someone when you know better, but it takes integrity and valor to see them as a human being- moreso when that human being is an abrasive, caustic malcontent. She had my back when no one else did, even when I walked on painful and lonely roads, beset on either side by buffalo too numerous to mention.
That’s not to say she didn’t speak her mind. Sure, she had my back, but she never hesitated to tell me when she thought that I was in the wrong. We used to argue all the time, on all range of matters, from the mundane to monumental, relishing not in the causing of pain, but rather the gamesmanship of passionate debate. There were times we got so into it, that my mother appeared to be upon the brink of nervous breakdown. But when we’d finished, there was no bitterness or anger left remaining, just a renewed connection between the both of us, and the unspoken eagerness to do it all again sometime.
It’s funny. One of the points on which we argued most since I left home, was my choice in paramours. She never missed a chance to speak her mind on the subject of the dubious ladies who had contrived to besmirch my honor and misdirect my virtue. Until she met my wife, that is. Not once, not even once, did I hear so much as even an uncertain word against my dearest one. She loved my wife as only someone who truly understands the concept of unconditional love might. She saw, perhaps even before I, that meeting and not driving my wife away was the best thing that I’d ever managed to accomplish.
One of the hardest things for me was to watch her health decline. 26 years ago, give or take a month, she had her first heart attack. So I suppose, in a very real way, she’d been declining for a while. But these past few years managed to steal away her vitality and stamina, and our debates, once lively and verging on a yet-undiscovered full-contact sport made up of naught but words, had fallen into carefully moderated disuse. They weren’t nearly as fun as they’d been before, as she required oxygen to even cross the living room, and so we’d lob our gentle jabs at one another until we both got bored.
As you can probably infer, we didn’t have the typical familial relationship, filled with loving words and niceties. Somewhere along the way, she expressed her affection toward me by reassuring me that she could rock-a-bye me with real rocks. I never failed to retort that there was still time to push an old lady down the stairs. A few years ago, out of gift ideas, and with time running out for Christmas shopping, I ordered her some polished rocks off Amazon, with an invitation for her to give me that rock-a-bye. I’ve been told that it was one of her most treasured possessions.
I’d love to say that my grandma was a sweet and kind little old lady, full of sunshine and other assorted flavors from the Whitman’s Condolence Sampler, but I don’t want to sell her short. She was her own person: proud, and fierce, and above all loving. Besides, if I say too many purely nice things, I’m sure tonight I’ll hear the wind carrying her message past my window of, “Oh, pooh!”
As has been observed, my Grandmother managed to transmute the simple expulsion of carbon dioxide from her lungs into a form of punctuation. If you were to base a film franchise upon her life, and for some inexplicable reason, cast Bruce Willis as the lead, you would be treated to such cinematic gems as: Sigh Hard, Sigh Hard With a Vengeance, and Live Free or Sigh Hard. There again, she and I share a bond.
It’s funny: my mother has repeated, on numerous occasions, that were it not for the pains of childbirth, she would have been convinced that I was her mother’s child. I suppose that’s why that last bit, originally a self-deprecating observational jab at myself, works so flawlessly with her.
So I says to this guy, I says…
More jokes? I can almost hear you thinking, I’m not sure if this is the time or the place for that sort of thing.
But when, then, if not in a moment of despair?
The time for grief has come and gone, and will most likely come again, striking in those unguarded moments when we think that we’re alright. We do not grieve nor weep for her, for, regardless of your views on what comes after, it is an incontrovertible certainty that she is now finally free of pain. Our tears are shed only for ourselves, because we are human, and because we so very dearly miss her. We weep not because she made us feel that way, but rather for the laughter which in us she so easily inspired, and from which we find ourselves so suddenly bereft.
Death is not something to be feared, like an arbitrary cessation of festivities, nor some sort of adversary to be outwitted ‘til the end. It’s a natural closing of the story of our lives, our hopes, our dreams, one which will be continued in the tales of our children and grandchildren and in the hearts of all who’ve loved us. Death is but a liberator from endless pain and suffering, the final rest which we have sought since we were old enough to regret all those naps not taken in our youth.
I’d like to end this with a story from years ago, from one of the many road trips I had the pleasure of taking with my grandparents. You know, I always found it amusing that my grandfather, who worked at Boeing, preferred to get somewhere behind the wheel of a car. Maybe he knew that it wasn’t just about the destination…
We were in Oregon at the beginning of the summer, right after school had gotten out. It must have been close to a hundred degrees, even as night began to fall. We’d had a particularly trying day, the three of us, especially my grandmother and I, an occupational hazard, I suppose, of one of the travelers suffering from his particularly potent form of adolescence.
We’d pulled up to the motel in the early evening, just as the sun was beginning its descent, and my grandparents decided that what they could really use, after a day cooped up with me, was a quiet evening out. Sure, they invited me to come, as they were obligated to at least offer me some sort of sustenance, but, as our room had air conditioning and HBO, I elected to stay behind. Let’s just say that no objections were made. I did what any red-blooded American boy would do, and flipped through the channels to see what sort of life I had been missing with Basic Cable, while my grandparents had an evening of civil conversation in an environment free of rolling eyes and a constant stream of sarcasm.
It must have been a couple of hours later when they returned, because I’d managed to get bored by the offerings of even Subscription Television. From the way they… let’s say… sauntered in, I knew something was amiss.
Driven by maternal (or gran-maternal instinct, I suppose), though it could have easily been the finest example of passive aggression which I’ve been honored to have witnessed in all my many years, my grandmother decided that she’d had enough that day. She snapped her fingers toward the cot, informed me it was time for bed, and, uncertain as to the duration of my safety, I skulked my way over and sat down upon it. Another snap of her fingers, and I laid down, immediately regretting my decision.
My grandmother then began piling blanket after blanket upon me, comforters used to ironic effect, until I began to sweat uncontrollably, both from the trapped in atmosphere and body heat, though I must say that stark terror played no small part. She tucked the many layers between the mattress and the frame, informing me that I was cold, and that I needed to bundle up. Had I the presence of mind, I might have voiced a concern that, in light of this apparent cold snap, said provisions would be best utilized by the those touched not entirely lightly by the eld.
My options rapidly evaporating, much as what moisture I’d managed to conserve, I turned my head (the only part of my body which I could move) toward the other side of the motel room, to where my grandfather was seated on the bed. I could just make out his face in the reflection from the mirror which stood adjacent to the bathroom. I shot him a pleading look, to which he responded with a small shake of his head, and non-verbal “I told you so.”
My eyes screamed at him for help, but by then it was already too late. I was beginning to suffer from heat stroke, and my eyes began to close. The last thing from that evening which I can reliably remember was that look upon my Grandpa’s face, and the smell of wine upon my Grandma’s breath.
My grandmother always had my back, but she felt it necessary, at times, to remind me not to run afoul of her good nature. Especially all day. In a confined space. Regardless of how many buffalo she pointed out (it was all of them). I’ve since taught this lesson to my son, though I refer to it as “not being that guy.”
I will miss my grandmother, and grandfather, who passed away not even one year ago. I never knew my dad, and therefore could almost be excused from understanding that two people could be so very much in love, were it not for the pair of them. They inspired me to look for someone with whom I could tolerate the idea of a togetherness spanning decades. In my heart, there is emptiness which is suspiciously their shape.
It’s tempting to despair that I won’t know what to do, should I one day need them again, but then I remember the love we shared, and all of our happy moments, and I realize that I’ve learned everything I needed from them (but nowhere close to what I wanted), and perhaps they left so that I could finally set aside the training wheels.
I love you Grandpa. I love you Grandma. Keep the car running, because I’m waiting on another road trip. And Grandma, I wouldn’t mind that rock-a-bye.