This weekend my grandfather died.
He had struggled with advanced dementia and rapidly declining health for years. I think all of us had become so accustomed to his frail confusion that we thought he would live on indefinitely. But a week ago, he was sent home from the hospital with kidney failure and a hospice nurse. My mom called to prepare me. “Do you want to come home? This is it and it could be very soon.” I briefly despised her for her dark outlook. Meanwhile my grandmother—clearly cut from the same cloth as me—still believed that he would recover. She sat next to him, feeding him soup and pudding for days. She discussed vacations they could take in the spring. Gifts they ought to buy for the grandchildren for Christmas. She could see improvement, she told everyone. I believed her, too. Because I wanted to believe her.
On Saturday morning, the hospice nurse declared the end was near. She implored my grandma to allow her to administer morphine, because my grandfather was in terrible pain. She could not be convinced. Morphine would mean that he would be less coherent. And wasn’t he getting better, after all? Morphine would mean that defeat was being accepted. Defeat could not be accepted. And therefore, there would be no morphine.
My mom—who has always been jealous of my ability to charm someone into anything (a skill she swears I’ve inherited from my father)— was unable to reason with her. So she called my uncle. And somehow, my Uncle George, a real badass and all around tough guy, was able to calmly and kindly convince my grandmother to accept the reality of the situation. An hour later, moments after my uncle promised to take care of my grandmother, my grandfather died.
My grandfather, Lester, was really my step-grandfather. My grandma, Sandy, had scandalized her entire middle class 70s neighborhood by divorcing my philandering biological grandfather (actually a pretty cool dude in his own right). She married Les a few months before I was born. They were the quintessential grandparents. They took twice yearly cruises, bringing back flower-bedecked dolls and gleaming conch shells for their favorite (and only) granddaughter. During the years I was in the hospital receiving chemotherapy and radiation, I was able to barter painful medical procedures for fabulous gifts and prizes from my grandparents. Whenever a particularly frightening test was scheduled, my mom handed me the phone to call my grandma. Smurfette dolls, Cabbage Patch Kids, and trips to the National Aquarium: these were the rewards I received for allowing needles and scalding chemicals.
My grandparents lived in the same cute ranch house—with a pool—that my mother had grown up in. Each room had a theme, whether it was the white-and-olive green gardenia-themed parlor, the aqua-and-seafoam beachy bathroom, the crimson velvet matadors in the basement rec room (still confused by that one), or the sepia rustic cowboy family room. Every month my grandmother received a delivery of seasonal flower arrangements for each room. Copious amounts of seashell-shaped soap lived in the bathroom. The yard was filled with rose bushes and yew trees. This home became my true refuge. Life with my mother was hard. There was a constant revolving door of stepfathers and boyfriends. I experienced a great deal of physical and mental abuse at the hands of these men. I remember at the age of five thinking that I had lost the ability to cry, because I had cried so much already. I assumed I had used up my lifetime supply of tears. And so it was great to be at my grandparents’ house, where hugs and encouragement were plentiful. The refrigerator was full of Swiss Miss pudding cups and later (when I became more “sophisticated”), bottles of Evian. If I wanted alone time, I could hide out in my grandparents’ “damask rose” bedroom, filling legal pads with drawings of imaginary outfits.
I spent the summers with them, going out for breakfast every day and acting as the very young secretary for their seafood distribution business. My mother had forced me to learn how to type in second grade (because my handwriting was terrible), so I spent those hot days typing all of my grandparents’ business letters in their heavily air-conditioned home office. We took a break every day at 1:00 pm to watch Days of Our Lives. During the school year, one or both of them would show up to sign me out of class for an “unexpected doctor’s appointment,” and then take me out for lunch and shopping.
Each night I watched the NBC Nightly News with my grandfather. Even now, my brain believes Tom Brokaw=Grandpa. At dinner—almost always some form of seafood—my grandfather would grill me on the details of the news. “You’re the smartest cookie. You’re the only person who I would expect to remember these things.” The reward for a successful dinnertime quiz was usually a couple of dollars, a small fortune to me. My grandfather also taught me the mathematics of a successful game of billiards, how to choose a good whiskey, and the best ways to catch a fish (I spent a lot of Saturdays reading on his rowboat while he listened to AM radio and fished). My grandma gave me my love of lingerie, bold eyeshadow, and persistence. And every time I travel somewhere (even if it’s for work or just a trip to Portland), I always pack my most dazzling outfits. That’s another thing my grandma taught me.
There were times when my mother would have a falling out with my grandmother. And then I wouldn’t be allowed to see her for a series of agonizing weeks. I would hide in my closet, typing letters to my grandparents. I used stamps stolen from my mother’s purse to mail them. I miss you. Everyday I hope that you will surprise me by picking me up at school and taking me to Rutter’s for an ice cream sundae. It was my grandparents’ love that separated me from all of the other poor, lonely children in the world. Knowing that someone actually thought I was special and great made me want to succeed at school. To engage in proper dental hygiene. To remember to say “please” and “thank you.”
My grandparents gave me my first taste of champagne. They taught me how to correctly crack a lobster. They threw my birthday parties and sent me to camp. When I was obsessed with Annie, they paid for my mousy straight hair to be permed. They showed up for my shitty orchestra concerts and all of my school plays. My grandma bought me a rabbit fur coat when I won the spelling bee. A science fair trophy garnered a Barbie dreamhouse. Nevermind that my lonely home life was filled with powdered milk and chores; my grandparents gave me all of my nice childhood memories.
Even has a weirdo adult, when most of my family had long given up on me and my ability to have a “normal” life, my grandfather still thought i was the most beautiful girl. In the midst of his dementia, he always recognized me. “You sure will make some man so lucky some day…if you want to.”
For several summers when I was in elementary school, my grandparents had a vacation house in Cape May, New Jersey. Getting there involved taking the ferry. Every time we boarded that huge and seemingly glamorous ship, I would ask my grandfather if we were on the Love Boat. Because I loved that fucking stupid show. And without fail, he would begin to point out different crew members. “Oh yes, you can’t see that well, because he’s far away, but that’s Captain Stubing. And there’s Gopher. I guess Isaac’s probably down below mixing drinks, but we can’t take you to his bar until you’re in college.” I believed him, of course. When my mother texted me (yes, texted) to inform me of my grandfather’s death, this was the memory that made me burst into tears.
I’m so grateful for everything my grandparents gave me. All of that love, attention, and Barbie dolls saved me from a certain dark future. Everything that I am right now: successful, ambitious, kind, and productive…all of that came from them.
I’m writing this as I sit at a bar in Highland Park, Los Angeles, thousands of miles from my family. I’m not going home for the funeral because we all agreed that it would be better to spend a longer stretch of time with my grandma next month. All of us are worried that the holidays will be difficult for her. It’s strange to be an adult, crying at a bar about your grandpa. I’m grateful for the darkness. I feel completely devastated, angry, alone. It’s possible that several months of hurt feelings, disappointment, and avoided anger have finally collided with this truly sad time, completely breaking my heart. Because like my grandma, I’m unwilling to admit how truly hopeless a situation is until longer after the worst case scenario has already happened…but this summer is an entirely different story for another time.