My grandmother died in late January of 2005, at 93 years of age. The day before she ended this dance, she and I were planning her 94th birthday party and joking about the hospital food. Sometime in the evening a nurse came in and said the doctors wanted to start her on a morphine patch, but Grandma was reluctant because she “didn’t want to become an addict.” I always loved that line. A bit later on, as I was getting ready to leave the nursing home for the night, I told Grandma that I’d be getting together with my cousin Colleen, Aunt Bev’s youngest daughter, that night and that I’d likely have a bit of a hangover the following morning. I told her that I’d try to be in by noon the next day. She lifted her arms, pretending to pick up a pad of paper, and said “I’ll see if I can pencil you in.” We both laughed and I kissed her goodbye. There’s something defining about our relationship that the last words we shared were an easy joke.
About two weeks before that night my mother had sent news to Guatemala that Grandma was nearing the end and that they wanted me to come home. Grandma loved all her grandchildren limitlessly, but she and I had a special connection. My mother told me that Grandma had been asking about me every day and that she couldn’t remember why I wasn’t there. I booked a flight that afternoon and was home in Upstate New York the following evening. My mother warned me that Grandma had been growing increasingly confused in the previous month, and sure enough, when I saw her the following morning her first words were, “I’m a little mixed up. I don’t know where I am.”
I explained to her that we were in the Hilltop Manor Nursing Home, up near the mall. I explained to her where that was in relation to the house she’d lived in for the past 60 years. I told her it was just up the road a bit from Brozzetti’s Pizza – and something happened. She, somehow, got it. All of it. She was clear and conscious for most of the next week and a half. She told me she loved me and pulled me in for a kiss. She thanked me for coming and asked me about Guatemala. I told her about the volcanoes and the bars around Antigua, and she said she’d always wanted to see one. I presumed she meant the volcanoes. Over the coming days I was with her for most of her waking hours. One night I snuck a bottle of her favorite, Seagram’s 7, into her room and we shared a drink. I’d read her some of my stories (which we both knew she couldn’t give less of a damn about) but she loved the sound of my voice and I loved being with her, whatever the reason.
By that point, she hadn’t been eating for almost a month. The nurse told us that this was part of the dying process. Her body was shutting down its systems. Three days before she died, when we were given the option to introduce a feeding tube, we turned it down. She’d had an excellent contract with the universe, and if the end was to come, we were going to walk towards it with solemnity and grace.
The night before she died I asked if she was hungry. She said she wanted a slice of Brozzetti’s. I went down the hill and returned half an hour later with a pie. She had two slices and after finishing them she pulled her two daughters, my mom and Aunt Bev, both in their 60s, to her breast and said, “You’ve always been such beautiful girls.” In that room, that evening, four human beings sat together in love and the assurance that none had ever betrayed the others. Christ’s last supper had nothing on us. God, I love those women.
Nursing a well-earned headache the following day, I arrived around noon. In the night Grandma had slipped into a coma from which she’d not recover, and in the last hour her breathing grew more labored. Each inhalation was a gasp for air, each exhalation a release so passive it wouldn’t have moved a feather, followed by a pause of a minute or more before the next great twitch told us she was still not ready to go. That hour was the only pain I experienced in the whole process. The spirit was willing, the body was done. The hospice nurse, noting a change in her pallor that I couldn’t see, said to my mother, Bev and me that “it was time” and she left the room.My mother sat to the right of Grandma’s bed and took her left hand. My aunt was counterpoised. They both reached back to the foot of the bed where I sat by my matriarch’s feet and took my hands in theirs. Together we formed a circle of living generations. Bev, older than my mother by a few years, leaned in close and whispered into the chasm Grandma was becoming. She said through tears; “It’s okay Mom. We’re here and we love you. It’s time to let go.” And she did, just like an ancient salt doll falling backwards into the ocean. It was as peaceful a crossing as I can imagine. The angels welcomed; they did not weep.
At the moment of her death a flood of memories took me under. I looked at her face, her hanging jaw, her slack skin, her withered frame, her hands in the hands of her beautiful girls and I felt the totality of our time together. I could feel her hands under my armpits when I was four years old, as she was holding me on what with a thinner woman would have been called a lap, but with Grandma was just a soft river of very long breasts. I could hear her yell, “Whoop Deee Doooooo!!!!!” when she won the bingo games at the church hall. I could taste her macaroni and cheese. I could see her still-spotted drinking glasses as she stacked them “clean” back on the shelf. I could feel her pain in the hours after she inadvertently slammed my finger in the door of her old Toyota Corolla somewhere back in the early 1970s. And, in that moment, I knew I was to be a central keeper-in-the-clan of those memories. I knew I would play a central role in guiding the family through her wake and burial. I knew someday I would write about her, not once, but many times. I knew that someday I would be seated at the left hand of my mother, with my brothers, and God willing, my father, counterpoised across the hospital bed with the next generation at her feet. I knew that someday in the distant future, informed by this day, we would tell our own mother that it was okay, that we were here, that we loved her. That it was time to let go. No memory would be lost and hers would survive. The fabric of our family would remain whole and there would be no haunting ghosts of what was left to be said.
All through those days, while preparing for a world without my grandmother, I was also planning to attend a memorial dinner for one of my closest friends, John. (John, for the record, was a son of famous political lineage, and out of respect for the privacy of his family, we’ll leave it at that.) In the late Fall of 2004 I left the United States for what ended up being the beginning of my life as an ex-pat in Guatemala. About ten days into my time in Antigua I dropped by an internet café to check my email. One task at hand was to respond to a letter from John, who’d written me a few weeks earlier. In his email, he said he wanted to travel and would meet me anywhere in the world “for a bit of brilliant madness.” I was to find out much later that he had just gone through a terrible break-up, was having problems professionally, and really, really needed to spend a bit of time with a good friend away from the rest of his life. When I received the email I myself was in no place, emotionally, to see anyone I knew. I had just quit my job and been dumped by a woman I loved more than I thought possible. Right up until the day she walked out, I thought she’d be the one with whom I’d have the 2.5 fences and the white picket kids. The hurt was huge and I was on the run from anyone who knew that part of my life. Screw it, I thought. Hit the open road. I’d drop John a line sometime. I knew he’d understand.
I opened the email account and saw that there were about 50 messages with John’s name in the subject heading, and first thought, “Cool, John must be up to something,” but realized after opening the first one that he was, in fact, up to nothing and never would be again.My friend was 44-years-old and someone who lived a larger life than is within my ken to describe here. And yet, somehow, he’d been laid low by a normal dose of over the counter medication. As his brother pointed out at the memorial service, John had been “nuked twice by the Soviets,” and once found himself under the care of a wandering sadhu in the Thar Dessert, as he was sprawled next to a dry well in an Indian ghost town, dying of dysentery. And all of these events transpired years before he and I decided to spend Election Night 2000 in a lengthy bar conversation with a lady of the night rather than accept an invitation, extended through John’s political lineage, to watch the returns with the 42nd President of the United States.
All true stories and they just touch the surface of his utterly unique life.
A few days before he died, John had helped his mother move into a new apartment in Florida. He had a sore back. He took two pain killers and started to feel even worse. Within a day he had entered hepatic failure. Three days later he died while lying in a hospital bed waiting for a liver transplant. I wasn’t with him at the transept, of course, but his mother later told me that his eyes were filled with pain, fear and horror. The doctors said it was Acute Tylenol Toxicity Syndrome. What the hell? Being in the fallout zone of the Chernobyl disaster while searching for Vlad the Impaler’s Castle in Transylvania didn’t touch him, working as a crewmate on an oil tanker that came to the assistance of a Russian nuclear sub with a core-breach didn’t slow him down, but two Tylenol took his life. Again, what the fucking hell?
What struck me to the quick, after I read the emails reporting John’s death, was that I could remember virtually nothing about him. Those stories just mentioned were gone. Kübler-Ross is no fool, but she missed by a mile on the immediate effect of someone being violently, and unexpectedly ripped from the cloth of life. The first stage isn’t denial, it’s complete cognitive collapse. John and I had been close friends for a decade. We’d spent countless hours together, close enough to joke that we were “brothers from other mothers.” And yet, as I sat in that internet café I was horrified to realize that with two exceptions my memory of the man had been blasted away as completely as if he’d been standing in the middle of a bridge in Hiroshima on an August day in 1945. With the exception of being able to recall the moment we first met (I was hitting on his wife) and another day, years later (at a Yankees vs. Red Sox game at Fenway Park), he was gone, not just from the world, but from me.
The next two days are a jumble in my memory. I’d been asked by the friend in New York who had sent out the original message about John’s death to visit a place called Café No Sé and tell John Rexer (now my partner in this magazine) that John had died. It turns out that John and John had known one another for 20 years back in NYC. Ed also informed me that there would be no immediate “arrangements” but that John’s mother, Liz, would be putting together something in early 2005. I vaguely remember visiting a travel agent and booking a flight anyway. I needed to get back home, to Flannery’s Bar, where John and I had first met and which had been the headquarters of our friendship. I needed to see Cliff and Jen and Bob. I needed to be with people who could fill in the gaps in my memory and remind me that I actually knew this man.
Upon arriving in New York, I made my way to Flannery’s and met with the clan for a stunned night of tears. And in that time, with those other intimates, the recollections started to return. John’s face came back to my mind first, then his gait, then, one by one, his stories. In that act of communion we rebuilt a life, each of us with separate pieces, from those we’d been allowed to retain.Five years on, as I recall the oppositeness of those two losses, I’ve been wondering about how differently the deaths were processed. And as I recently got together again with Liz and Ed and Jen and Cliff and John’s brother and sister to raise a glass for what would have been his 50th birthday, I’m led to speculate about the biological, or possibly the social evolution that our species has undergone to lead us to such different experiences. I think that there is something deep inside and deeply human about the connection between death and memory. When Grandma died there was no violence, no assault. The fabric was not torn. No memories were lost. We grieved, individually and as a tribe, but the funeral rites, while beautiful, did not need to heal. Grandma’s ghost never troubled me. Nothing was left unsaid. I could recall her, but didn’t see her in the wind. Yet, when John was taken by a rogue wave of entropy, I needed – utterly needed – to come together with friends and share the thin scraps of crepe with which we’d each been entrusted, and as such, to again make the world whole.
When Grandma died I never felt as if she’d gone. I can’t say it was a faith in heaven or any kind of hereafter; I just knew she was there, somehow. When John died, even after the stories that night in Flannery’s had been shared and, months later, the memorial service had been rendered, there was still an aching sense of loss. Something was still missing, something vital, even in death.
In the year after John’s death and memorial, I saw him everywhere. Maybe it was guilt for not responding to his letter. I’d see him rounding a corner on the cobblestones of Antigua, and I’d race to catch up to his ghost. I saw him in the subways of New York, just darting onto a train leaving the station, or at the top of the stairs heading out onto a busy midtown street. I saw him in Peru. I saw him on Tierra del Fuego. But I was never able to reach him. Then, one day in the Spring of 2006, after I’d traveled through India with his mother and a number of his friends from his days growing up in New Delhi, I made a trip to Kathmandu. A friend who had traveled there years before told me that I must visit the Boudhanath Stupa, one of the most beautiful Buddhist Temples in the world. The friend, Adam, told me that while he didn’t believe in “all that stuff,” there was still something oddly powerful about the place. I went there with a friend from the trail, Danny Hoy. Each of us had our darkness, and when we arrived at the Stupa, without words, we both wandered off in our own directions, somehow knowing that we’d meet in a few hours, someplace close.
Danny drifted away and I found myself walking up the steps to the top of the temple. Boudhanath is a large dome with three tiers, upon which devotees are constantly working, always rebuilding. It is a gentle place. Maybe the gentlest place I’ve ever been. People work quietly, assuredly, communally. I idled around, stopping to watch old women and young men passing buckets of whitewash to other old men and young women who would reapply a coat where the brilliance had somewhat dimmed. This has been going on for hundreds of years as a quiet act of faith in the unending cycle of life, death and rebirth.
Drawn by another human instinct to climb to the top of a structure, I found myself walking up the last set of steps to the center of the Stupa, from which radiated thousands of prayer flags to the edges of the temple’s foundation. I looked up and saw John. He was walking towards me, smiling. I started to tear up and walked towards him. We closed on one another and, of course, it wasn’t John at all. John was an imposing 6 feet plus of radiant Irish-American spirit. The guy walking toward me was a tiny, humble Nepalese man. But without reason, unless you believe in “that stuff,” he held out his arms, took me in an embrace and said into my ear, “It’s okay. I’m fine. I love you.”
I held him close and said, “I love you, too, brother.”
And somewhere in the world there was a bit of brilliant madness. Finally, I let John fall backwards, like a towering salt doll, into the ocean.