We were creatures of habit. Our lives were marked by ritual. Our days followed the same comfortable patterns, from hello to goodbye. It was our way.
Thursday was our day. Every Thursday I would make the trip to my grandmother's to do the shopping, the cooking, the cleaning. Perhaps I would bring her to one or another of her many appointments. It was routine but never boring. It was a ritual. It was our way.
Appointment days were always a little risky. They were unpredictable. There was always the chance of confusion or delay. The shopping, cooking and cleaning remained to be done after. Nerves could become frayed.
One day, I brought Nana to the opthalmologist. Her pupils were dilated for the exam. She left the office wearing the oversize sunglasses provided, feeling surly. I helped her to the car. We began the drive home in silence.
Why have we stopped? she snapped peevishly.
I began to laugh. Her irritation was palpable.
I stopped because there's a huge yellow dump truck right in front of us. You really can't see it?
She paused, then laughed herself, about as hard as ever I heard her laugh.
My twenty-ninth birthday fell on a Thursday. No matter. I made the trip to my grandmother's. We kept our rituals: the shopping, the cooking, the cleaning. We kept our comfortable patterns. It was our way.
When it was time for me to go, she remarked casually that she had something for me. It was part of the ritual: as if it had almost slipped her mind. She rummaged through her papers and handed me a card. I received substantially the same card every year, inscribed with her good wishes and love. It was a ritual. This year, however, would be different.
I'm sure she watched my brow furrow as I slipped the card from its envelope. It was not a birthday card. It was a thank you card. With trepidation, I opened it and read:
I am thankful that you are my grandson. You have been the joy since the day you were born. I wish you Life's choicest blessings. You deserve the best.
Thank you, Christopher, for all the happiness you have given Grampa and me all the years of your life. Happy Birthday and Many Happy Returns of the Day.
Who loves you?
Your Nana (that's who)
I looked up. Her eyes searched mine for what felt like a very long time. Finally, I managed a small nod. She looked away, satisfied. There was nothing to be said.
Our days followed the same comfortable patterns. From hello to goodbye, we kept our rituals. It was our way. The only difference was one of awareness. Thursdays came and went. Thanksgiving. Christmas. New Year's. Thursday.
Your birthday's coming up.
Let's have a party.
A party? Where?
No, no... we couldn't.
She had no answer.
The family was invited. Our daily telephone call became twice daily as we planned the menu again and again: a vast antipasto, meatballs, sausage. Bread would need to be baked. Sauce made. We debated the merits and defects of every imaginable shape of pasta. Of course, there must be plenty of wine, and only the best coffee. Cake and pastry were ordered. Ingredients were purchased.
I arrived early on the day. It took two trips to bring it all in. We set to work and finished with a little time to spare for a celebratory glass of wine. We sat and enjoyed the fragrant kitchen.
The family arrived. The wine and conversation flowed. Dishes were passed up and down the table. Plates filled and refilled. Nana encouraged us all to eat far more than was good for us, playing gracious hostess one more time. The table was cleared, the coffee brewed. She was duly serenaded and opened her gifts as I served dessert.
I had given her my gift when I arrived: an African violet. It was another ritual. She would accept nothing else from me. Don't put flowers on my grave. Give them to me now. African violets. And so I did. It was our way.
I cleared the remains of the party to the indistinct murmur of something classical from the radio. It was late. She was visibly tired. She caught my eye and held it for what felt like a very long time. Then, she smiled and gave me a small nod. There was nothing to be said.
Thursdays came and went. Valentine's. St. Patrick's. Easter. Thursday.
She had her first heart attack just before my thirtieth birthday. There would be two more. Eventually, she was moved to a cardiac ICU in Boston, very nearby. I went to see her.
Hi, Nana. How are you feeling?
She thought for what felt like a very long time. She finally spoke.
It's not easy, dear.
I managed a small nod. I sat down. We kept our rituals as best we could, even there. We were creatures of habit. It was our way. I'm sure we talked about something. A nurse came in.
You need to go, dear?
It was not really a question. I kissed her goodbye and turned to leave. At the door, she called me back.
Who loves you?
I love you too, Nana.
There was nothing more to be said.
My telephone rang that night much too late for good news. It was my mother.
Christopher, I just wanted you to know that Nana's organs are failing.
Is she going to die tonight?
Never mind. I'm leaving now.
It was the same room, yet it seemed strangely different. Dials and displays provided the light. An oxygen machine hissed softly. My grandmother lay sleeping, still and silent, almost as pale as her bedsheets. She did not stir. A nurse touched my shoulder.
We have her sedated. She should be comfortable.
I don't know. Maybe an hour? I think she can probably hear you.
I nodded. She left.
Hi Nana. It's me.
She did not stir. I stood for a minute, fingering absently my grandfather's rosary in my pocket. Her hair was out of place. I smoothed it with my hand. The oxygen machine hissed softly. I watched her final heartbeats being traced in green light.
Somehow, I had thought it might come to this: just the two of us, standing at the gates of eternity. Perhaps she could hear me, but she didn't need my words. There was nothing to be said. I pulled a chair to the side of the bed and took her hand. She had loved me as I entered the world. I would love her as she left it. The time for words had passed. Love was all we had left.
Perhaps it was ten minutes. Perhaps fifteen. A monitor sounded a soft alarm. The nurse returned.
Things began to happen very fast. Bright lights were switched on. Staff moved briskly in and out. Is more family coming? Yes. Then we'll leave her here for now. Can you take this? Yes. I was handed a small envelope with my grandmother's ring. Would you like us to remove the machines? Yes... yes, she wouldn't want them. I stood to the side as the room bustled with activity, then grew quiet. The lights were dimmed.Once more we were alone.
I stood for a minute, fingering absently my grandfather's rosary. Her hair was out of place, Once more, I smoothed it with my hand. Then, as you might kiss a sleeping infant, I leaned over and kissed her forehead.
There was nothing left to be said. She had no more need of me. I left to wait for others who might.
At her funeral, the priest directed a question to the grandchildren. If you could describe your grandmother in one word, what would it be? There was an awkward silence. He had no idea what a difficult question he had asked. I could feel many eyes on me. You're supposed to be so bright... answer that one. But I had no answer, and I refused to desecrate the moment with a lie.
The priest finally broke the silence. Well, I would say that your grandmother was a woman of faith.... It was a stock answer, I suppose, and it served his purpose. Yet it was inadequate. As he continued on, all I could think was Yes, but....
The question haunted me for several days. If I could describe my grandmother in one word, what would it be? Many words came to mind, yet every one was Yes, but.... I did, however, finally manage to answer the question, at least for myself. My grandmother was complex. That is the only word that does her any justice. No other word will do.
When we cleaned out her apartment, I was given my choice of her possessions. I have the following:
A pair of eyeglasses
A wooden cane
A costume jewelry bracelet
A battered aluminum pot
Three pairs of scissors
Two wire whisks
Fried Green Tomatoes At The Whistle-Stop Cafe, in paperback.
These would all be quite worthless to anyone else, I'm sure, but she would have understood their significance. Except for the glasses, all these items are still in regular use. I think she would have approved of my choices.
Did my grandmother want it that way? Did she wait for me before she left? Did she choose to share her final moments with me alone? I do not know. Knowing her, maybe.
My grandmother did not leave me money or property but, as she left this world, she gave me a final gift, wrapped in a lesson. Her gift to me was a life lived completely, from beginning to end. She was complex, and loving her was no less complicated. Quite likely, I am the only person who can say about her that, when we parted, there was nothing left to be said. That is enough.
And there lies the lesson. It is not easy. It is not easy living; it is not easy dying. The best we can do is try to live our lives completely, from beginning to end: to love one another, and to live in such a way that, when we part from those we love, we can know one thing in our hearts.
There was nothing left to be said.