Saturday, January 19, 2013

Grande dame

Yesterday was the funeral of the lovely husband’s grandmother, the kids’ Gigi. She was 92 and had lived what the mandatory clichĂ© warrants: a good life. But she was tired for as long as I’ve known her, thirty+ years a widow and lonely, and in the past two or three years her decline was evident.

She was a funny lady.

She had the brightest blue eyes.

She was ready to be done. That isn’t to say that she wanted to die or gave up. But I remember the months before her 90th birthday, when some family suggested a party. “Who would come?” she asked. “All my friends are gone. Bernie is gone.” She outlived them all. There was no party.

Though it isn’t my place to say, I think there is a heartbreaking majestic grandeur in reaching the end of one’s life and recognizing it. Gigi lived through and past the I-don’t-give-a-damn stage we sometimes refer to charmingly regarding feisty old women, the one in which they speak their minds because they can, because there’s nothing to lose, the one where the rest of us may cringe but also lean in to listen closely. She spoke her mind until she was finished speaking it, and then she was just that: finished.

Sometimes heartbreaking isn’t exactly sad. It’s just…a breaking. Emotions are too deep for anything as fragile as a heart to hold contained. It’s that she was lonely. And then she was in pain. That her son and daughter have just lost their mother. That she won’t see her three great-grandkids grow big. That the head of the family is gone, and her absence is a forever thing. She cannot be replaced. That generation is over.

It’s that after thirty+ years she’s finally, longingly, determinedly back next to her Bernie.

Twelve years ago my lovely husband was then my new fiancĂ©. His uncle – his mother’s brother – died far too young after a gruesome battle with cancer and we traveled to New Jersey to the cemetery. I had met most of his family only a time or two and wasn’t sure how to react when at the conclusion of the funeral, his grandmother declared that we would go to the other side of the cemetery where Bernie was buried so that she could introduce me to him.

I was 23 and awkward. Also, I had never before been introduced to a dead person. We stood at the bottom of his plot. “Hi, Bernie,” the head of the family began. I didn’t know what was expected of me. She clutched my elbow as she spoke and I needed to do…something. I felt the eyes of all my love’s relatives on my back, the hope and sharp longing of an old woman at my side and the expectation of a sign from below. There were shrubs there, buried atop his plot. I pulled a fallen tree branch from their pruned surface, part in a mindless tidying, part to give my hands a purpose, part to give myself a small remove from the intensity of the silence. I don’t know why I did it. To my left she burst into tears. “Oh, Bernie, she’s taking care of you.” She gave me a squeeze and told Bernie I’d be a good wife for her grandson. I think in that moment she gave her assent that I join her family.

I stood there twelve years ago and she squeezed my elbow. I stood there yesterday and we buried her.

In Jewish tradition, after the casket is lowered into its spot the mourners stay and replace the displaced dirt until the ground is level and smooth. It’s a final loving act, like pulling up the blankets around your drowsy child each night. You cannot leave her uncovered and vulnerable. It’s an act of devotion.

It’s the most love-filled terrible thing.

The first clods of dirt are the most agonizing. They thud against the top of the casket with a hollow sound, announcing that object as vessel, reminding what it holds. With the first clods, the closest mourners often scream or burst with sobs. There is no pronouncement more final than dirt thudding against a casket. Slowly the depth rises. Soon dirt hits only dirt and that is a much quieter sound. Soon the sobs fade to whimpers until it is done.

Shovels are stacked gently. Arms wrap around shoulders. A cold wind blows bitter pushing the smell of fresh-turned earth, forcing corporal feeling, yielding not a moment of mercy. This is the world, beginning at the mud on the soles of the shoes of the anguished, stretching over acres of headstones and past the horizon of holidays and milestones unwitnessed and a future now altered. A family of unaccustomed small number summons the piercing determination to walk away, leaving behind its matriarch.

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