In Memoriam

Yesterday—Sunday—was my grandmother’s memorial service. Sally died this year in Pittsburgh, on the first sunny day of spring. On Friday night we celebrated what would have been her eighty-ninth birthday. Saturday night, at dinner, we read some of her poetry, poetry she had written for every major event any of us had, events that I always just want to get Chinese takeout for. Yesterday, we had the party she wanted us to have.

If there’s one problem I had with the otherwise really quite perfect festivities yesterday, it’s this: several people said “this is a lovely party, exactly what Sally would have wanted.” Fine, but wrong, I felt like saying—this is the party Sally wanted to have, wanted in the past indicative, no subjunctive needed, full stop.

She wanted a party, and we had one. She wanted an event that was about life, not about death or loss. But funnily enough, it was only really at the party—well, at dinner the other night—that it really sunk in for me the momentousness of her being gone. Surrounded by everyone that used to so often gather at her house, at the Golf Club, I realized the whole that was now missing its center. A hole in the whole—a mediocre pun, one that would have barely elicited an eye-roll from her before she responded with something much better. 

It’s not as if we were unprepared for her death. Since as long as I can remember, every Thanksgiving she sent us Cope’s corn pudding (which my mother, her daughter, really loathes). Starting when I was around ten, she’d send two boxes, ‘just in case.’ When I was eighteen, seven years ago now, and a college freshman, we started going to Pittsburgh for Thanksgiving. No more Cope’s in the mail. No more obligation to eat it (I take after my father in most of my food preferences, but after my mother in my more than mild disdain for Cope’s). She had been sick for a while; I'd gotten to visit just a few weeks before the end.

But you can be prepared for something in the abstract and not really understand how it will effect you in any number of concrete individual moments. Those moments, played out in chance encounters or long planned for parties, reveal through empty space the size of the missing person. 

I don’t believe in heaven where, happily ever after, I will see her again. I don’t believe in a Hades where shades flit around bemoaning their meager disembodied existence. I don’t really even believe that my energy will persist after I die, unless it’s in some vaguely pseudo scientific ‘matter is just energy (go read Einstein, bro) and so my matter will scatter and become a star some day’ nonsense that gives no comfort to me, Henry, the ancient historian who likes baseball and interestingly prepared pork parts.

This is pretty much it, and so I want to end not with sentimentality but with a story, a story that has grown in meaning over the years as I think about it and about her.  For her eightieth birthday, she took the whole family to Costa Rica (sweet, huh?). We went zip lining—she went zip lining! At the time, it meant nothing to me. Everyone can zip line, it’s not that hard, all you do is let them strap you in and go.

But over the years I’ve come to better understand adulthood and bodies and fear and change, and while I don’t understand any of these things in any real way, it has slowly dawned on me—slowly, but as they say, surely—that it really is something to want nothing more on your eightieth birthday than to fly through the jungle on a zip line surrounded by your dearest loved ones.  That process, the process of slow realization of the special qualities one took in some sense for granted, is one that I’m sure will grow now that not only that birthday, but her life, recedes into past and memory. 


(This was the back page of the booklet handed out at the memorial service)

© Henry Gruber 2013