My grandmother died 26 years ago today. It was really early in the morning when it happened: a whole bunch of us were already at her house, sleeping, and she was at the hospital. I remember the phone ringing before dawn and my aunt answering the upstairs line.
"Did she die?" I heard her say.
I rolled over in bed and looked at the wall. I was 19, going to be 20 in 10 days. Back then I could still actually SEE the wall from bed. Now it's kind of a smudgy nothingness out there when I am lying in bed.
I spent every Friday night at my grandmother's, pretty much, until I was 14 or 15 and started going to parties and football games and so forth. Even then, I saw my grandmother constantly during the week.
I would often ask her who her favorite grandchild was and she'd refuse to answer. I think she thought I was an odd child. I say this because she would say, "June, you're an odd child." She did not understand my propensity for reading 86 hours a day, or for not wanting to play with other disgusting kids, or for being generally a nervous poodle of a thing.
Nevertheless, she adored me and I knew it. My uncle had a picture of me on her lap when I was way, WAY to old to be on her lap. I am all splayed out all over the chair like a pelican with my long legs. I would make my uncle, who is in India right now, find that picture and email it to me but it burned up along with all his other stuff years ago.
Gramma was hilarious without really meaning to be. She had good swear words. If she dropped something, it was "Horse shit sailor sonofabitch." She always said the entire thing.
Once a friend of my mother's was over, and gramma dropped something, and she said, "Hors–BANANAS." It was so OBVIOUS she had no intention of saying "bananas" except there was a guest there. Go, gramma. Subtle.
My grandmother had six children and one of them died as an infant. Recently we found that infant's baby book, and it was terrible. It was a normal baby book, full of firsts and observations, and then there was a mention that the baby was sick, and then her death date.
My grandfather was away fighting World War II, as everyone back then was wont to do, and gramma had two sons to raise, but she was devastated by this child's death. She wrote and wrote in that baby book, and I wonder if she ever told anyone else how bad she felt?
Gramma would have been a good blogger.
She graduated high school and didn't go further, and every card and letter I have from her has impeccable spelling and punctuation. She liked reading poems writing them and watching sad, maudlin TV shows and was a huge hypochondriac.
When Rock Hudson had AIDS, she told me, "That's what I've got."
"Gramma, I think that's pretty much impossible," I told her.
But she did have something. She had stupid stupid lung cancer, which by the way sucks and have I mentioned I detest cancer and would like to kick its ass?
Here we are doing something crafty, and the 949204 cigarette butts are killing me. Literally. I never saw gramma without a cigarette. Also, please note the scary clown paintings. I TOLD you they were nightmarish and crisis-inducing. Okay, so their heads are cut off and you can't tell. Trust me.
Also? Who totally remembers that Simon and Garfunkel poster in the kitchen like she saw it yesterday? Garfunkel has him some unfortunate hair.
My eighth birthday. You wanna know what I want for my birthday? Bring everybody in that back row back to celebrate with me. That's what I want. Back there is my grandfather, the grandmother I am turning into, Uncle Jim and his hot self, and gramma. (And since you're gonna ask, the next row is Aunt Kathy on the left and next to her is Aunt Mary who likes to shop. Then my parents and me and my friend Caroline Jeeter. I wonder whatever happened to Caroline Jeeter.) (I also wonder if I could have been wearing shorter shorts. What gives?)
One day I was 19 and home from college, I sat briefly in gramma's chair. It was an old lady chair, a La-Z-Boy, and next to it was a lamp that had a circular table attached, and I know that is totally an old lady thing to have but how CONVENIENT would it be to have a lamp and table combined? Her table had her coffee cup and cigarettes and Kleenex and pills and TV Guide and Vick's Vapo Rub and Ponds Cold Cream and pretty much every other old lady thing you can think of.
I have no idea why I even sat in her chair, but I looked down at her wastebasket full of Kleenex, and the Kleenex had blood on every single tissue.
"Oh my God," I remember thinking. "Gramma's coughing up blood." And then I got up off that chair and completely wiped that thought from my mind till she was diagnosed. Denial. It is a charming thing.
Gramma suffered with cancer from fall until the next July, and I happened to be home one weekend and staying with her. "Help me to the bed, I feel terrible," she said. Her color was off. "Should we call an ambulance?" I asked, still a nervous poodle.
"Yes, eventually, but not right now. I just want to go to bed."
So I took her arm, and all 100 pounds of me back then let her and her oxygen tank lean on me. When we got to the doorway, she moaned and fell to the floor.
Have you met me? Grace under pressure, is what I have. Here's a tip for you. Don't ever die around me, or cut yourself, or begin choking, because I will be so busy panicking that you will get no assistance.
I screamed and shrieked and flapped around until gramma opened her eyes.
"Honey, dial 911," she said.
Poor gramma. She still had to be in charge. Nevertheless, I literally DIALED 911, which took forever, and yelled her address into the phone, because I remember reading people used to say, "Send an ambulance" and hang up the phone, and that was before they could tell where you were calling from.
As soon as I said gramma's address, I could feel this blackness rising up from the bottom of me. I absolutely knew, without a shadow of a doubt, that I was gonna faint. Have I told you I am no good in a crisis?
"Gramma, do you need a pillow?"
"No, I'm okay," she said, never one to fuss.
"Then I will be RIGHT BACK." And I shot out the door and got the neighbor girl to come in with me. I think she was 15. We made a fine pair.
Anyway, a few days later gramma died. She was in and out of consciousness and one time I apologized for letting her hit the floor. "I don't remember that," she said. "Is that why my head hurts?"
Remember in the cartoons when they turned into first class heels? That was me right then.
My arm hurt where she had pulled on me, to try not to fall, up till the day she died. Then as soon as she was dead, it stopped.
I hope I get to see her again someday and apologize for being so useless. A lot of times on her birthday and sometimes her death date, I will smell cigarette smoke.
So maybe that's her way of saying she already forgives me.