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Dying Together

A life's fading days are every bit as authentic as its strongest.
dying stained glass

When my grandmother died, I was at work. This is not quite true; when my grandmother rattled out her final breath, mine was keeping the peaceful rhythm of sleep. But when I got the call, when she died to me, I was at work.

By 86 death has been been a long time coming, and in the last few years of her ill-health and slipping mental powers he had seemed perpetually hovering in the the wings: present and unobtrusive at family parties, a diffident suitor who knows his suit will prevail. Thus, I had not expected I would cry so much.

Death, at least for those in whose tradition the occasion triggers multiple outlays of hospitality, can be as pompous and expensive as any wedding. But when all the expenses were totted up and accounted for by grandmother’s nine children, there was still money left over, and they decided to spend it bringing each and every grandchild home for the funeral. There are 46 of us: by bus and plane from Ecuador, Spain, London, Italy, and, hardly less exotic or inconvenient for practical purposes, San Francisco, Mississippi, Charleston, home we all came. I came from New Hampshire, on the long Amtrak that wends its way through what seems like every one-horse junction in New England, stopping, until New York, every 20 minutes.

The snow was thick on the ground and ice on the rivers. I had brought books and paper, and could not quite understand why I never opened them throughout the eighteen hour ride, instead alternating between bouts of weeping and staring out the window at abandoned mills and rusted water wheels. It is permissible, someone might have told me, to cry for your grandmother; more than that, it is natural: did you not cry, it might be a sign of a disturbing internal calcification.

I knew this, but nevertheless something in my grief, or my surprise, required parsing.

I loved my grandmother, and I know she loved me, but the 17th grandchild is not a position that admits much intimacy. Scolded, shushed, threatened, kissed, cooked for, sharing houses and relationships cramped with other people, I might as well have tried to develop a unique and individual rapport with the pope in Rome.

Besides, my grandmother was already a larger-than-life figure before the lens of her matriarchal presence in my life rendered her so to me. Her funeral would be perhaps the perfect occasion for a stranger to get to know her: from the eulogy to the boozy, teary, late night reminiscing, mourners hammer and shape the raw material of a thousand disparate stories, until a narrative emerges, strong and inflexible enough for immortality. And she was a woman whose life naturally settled into the grooves of a narrative: the firecracker personality that made friends from highschool speak of her, 60-odd years later, with the gleeful disbelief proper to encounters with rockstars; the power-couple marriage; the nine children; the innumerable charities; the coups; the wisecracks; the parties; the insistence on the faith and the Church, the bishops alternately courted and put in their place.

I loved my grandmother, and she loved me, but there was never any chance of the secret and exclusive claim on her that, to my mind, made grief real. I had heard stories of her my whole life, but like those of Medicis and Caesars, they dealt with roles and exploits and a web of relationships—her individual subjectivity, her person, always casting a shadow, but as difficult to grasp.

But I was grieving.

At the wake, it became easier to understand. The privileges of bereavement in these situations belong to the children; as grandchildren we were mostly deputies, patrolling the long line up to the casket, thanking strangers—or the stranger-than-strangers who met you as children and remember a version of you that you have long since put to sleep—for attending. Your job was to let them talk to you, to help them strengthen the ties of blood or parish or experience by reciting their memories of Roseanita, or by offering solicitude to you, Roseanita’s granddaughter. Roseanita was dead, but you, they asserted, still belonged to them. Death had not disrupted everything.

Half of a wake is prayer and condolences, and the other half is beer and hilarity. People piled up everywhere in my aunt’s house as the night trailed on—on floors, on couches, in laps, reminding each other not only of Roseanita, but of childhoods spent and families clustered in the invisible edifice of which she was both the creator and center. That time a cousin got stuck in the laundry chute, that year 15 girl cousins got head lice from one sleepover, that party—or was it the one after?–that time, that time, that time: as the hypnotizing refrain repeated itself, the stories took shape, gaining an official clarity that memory still lived in, still capable of being built upon and refined by new information, cannot. It was clear why my parents’ generation had wanted to bring everyone back. Although there would be more weddings, more parties, more children growing up in each other’s schools and shadows, something had been irretrievably lost to us.

Of course, a narrative, by definition, cannot be all-encompassing or precise. A story-telling family either breeds big egos or develops in response to them; but each moment in the spotlight comes with a humbling chorus of correction. No, you’ve got it wrong, it wasn’t that year, it wasn’t that uncle, it wasn’t like that at all. You’re exaggerating, you’re mixing things up, I’ll tell you how it really happened.

It can be a daunting gauntlet, and if you bring a friend to a family event, it is quite possible that they will leave with the impression that nothing you tell them about your life can be trusted.

But over time, a harmony becomes apparent. The self-deifying process of monologue is actually a back-and-forth, a strophe and antistrophe. The challengers are not denying your account as much as they are asserting their own rights to the story of a shared life; you must jostle back and forth with them, both in it and over it.

There are details that did not make it into my grandmother’s funeral story, because they weren’t quite right, did not quite fit. You can be very good, and more than good, dazzling with generosity and fearless energy, and yet fail those closest to you in the most intimate of ways. You can build an edifice of love and faith that sustains everyone lucky enough to be born in its shelter, and create patterns of hurt that persist for generations, redounding back upon you in strange and twisted ways. Neither is more true than the other, though when you try to tell it, you will find that one facet over another emerges as the heart of the matter, the balance by which all else must be judged; and inevitably, a voice from the chorus will answer “You’ve got it all wrong. That wasn’t how it went at all.”

My grandmother lived the last years (Five? 10? 15? With no one around to answer back, I can’t be sure I’ve got it right) in wretched pain. She spent her life exerting the force of a gigantic strength of character upon everything and everyone around her, and one day, just like that, her tiny trigeminal nerve decided to exercise its power over her. Tic Doloreux is, by many accounts, one of the most torturous conditions to which people can fall victim. Before treatments were available, it was not unheard of for sufferers to lose their minds or end their lives in frenzies of agony. Even with treatment, my grandmother was subject to long hours spent lying in bed, staring at the ceiling in a silent spasm; as if her body had been possessed by mute and hostile spirits, she seemed to become a different person. Then came vertigo; then a fall; then she lost the ability to walk unaided: one by one all the privileges of self-possession and agency failed her, and sickness stripped away in layers the persona known to the world.

Almost all her powers failed her—sitting in a chair by the fire, she could still correct her progeny, pausing from the rosaries that made up more and more of her day with a half-sharp, half-teasing “offer it up.” Offer-it-up, the infuriating, unanswerable variant of “shut up already,” which like nothing else breeds monsters of resentment in the hearts of Catholic children, took on a wry softness now. She was suffering, and inviting you to suffer with her, in however comparatively little a way. From the dark world in which she now mostly lived, she offered a bridge: if suffering was all there was left, suffering was at least something shared, something to clasp hands over.

Then finally, her wit left her. Sometimes she could follow the threads of conversation, sometimes not. Some grandchildren she could remember the names of, some she could not. Mostly, she sat smiling at us. Whether the long, cruel removal of her personality had infused her character with gentleness, or merely revealed what had always been there, is impossible to say. In the end even the smiles required too much, and she merely sat. Until the end, though, her children took turns sitting with her, driving to my aunt’s house on their appointed night of the week.

All of my grandmother’s children love her. Some have memories of, and relationships with her, that are complicated in the way that only those involving parents and children can be. I do not know if anything was resolved in the final relational intensification wrought by complete dependence; even if I did, it would not be my story to tell.

What I do know is that the soft and helpless smiler of her children’s middle-age was as much my grandmother as the hard-edged diamond of their youths. Neither woman is more real. You can say, if you like, that the true Roseanita was the one who existed before debility made her strange to you, but that premature rupture is a choice: the safety of a familiar story over memory still alive, still capable of being shaped and reshaped by new truths that grow on each other without break or differentiation.

No one story can be comprehensive, and the story of my grandmother’s funeral was of a compelling woman’s rich and fruitful life. The embalmers, like illustrators, accordingly colored her sunken cheeks and dyed and curled her wispy hair, and dressed her in a hot pink dress she might have worn to one of her daughter’s weddings. “She looks 10 years younger,” floated up wondering whispers. “She looks like Mom from back when.”

My aunts and uncles and some cousins had stood around my grandmother’s bed when she died, but I had not, and it was not till I saw her frozen in a moment of past triumph that I understood that she was dead, and understood my own storm of sobbing. Her story was being sung because it was over, and that included a part of her children’s stories, and a part of my story, that would permit no more revisions, explanations, additions; whatever changes time might work on my own feelings about it, the substance was complete, for better or worse. A casket is a book, and it closes.

The privacy I had attributed to death, which made me feel as though only a similarly private intimacy was entitled to grief, was non-existent. We end and die a little with each of our fellows, and death is both the universal point of human solidarity and the challenge to its ties. Everyone dies alone, and no one dies alone.

I was crying for my grandmother but also for myself, and for my father: not merely in the sense that death waited for us too, but because a part of ourselves had already now succumbed to its call.

Still, only a part—I learned new things about my father, and his memories, and my memories of him, as we each in different ways participated in his mother’s long death. Our relationship is complicated in the way that only those between parents and children can be. I hope—I believe—it will change and be changed as we slowly die together.

Clare Coffey writes from Philadelphia.



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