October 17, 2000
Strong on the Outside
 


 
The night my grandfather died, I was afraid to call Grandma.

"I have no idea what to say to her," I said, as my husband drove me -- barefoot and weeping -- to a nearby phone booth. (This was during the very earliest days of our marriage, when telephones -- and shoes -- were more of a luxury than our teeny-tiny budget would allow.)  He had gotten the call at the box factory, where he was working the swing shift, and he had driven straight home to bring me the news.

I hadn't seen either of my grandparents in months ... since long before Grandpa's illness had robbed him first of his quick and lively mind, then of all basic motor function. I'd been too wrapped up in new marriage and daily life and preparing for the baby to do much more than send the occasional "Thinking of You/Can I Borrow $40?" Hallmark to the grandparents who had raised me. 

And even the Hallmarks had become few and far-between, in recent weeks.

Now, as I stood trembling in a phone booth with a stack of quarters and a lukewarm can of 7-Up in front of me, preparing to make my calls, I felt suffused with sorrow, guilt ... and terror. What do you say to someone who has just lost her spouse of fifty-plus years? How on earth was I going to comfort her? My experiences with death and grief were extremely limited at that point: a family pet, a high school classmate, a boyfriend's uncle. I felt ill-equipped to help my grandmother with her loss. As I listened to the phone ringing on the other end, I imagined my strong and capable Grandma suddenly incapacitated by grief ... sobbing hysterically into the phone, begging me to come home immediately and help her deal with this terrible tragedy ... and me, standing there in a phone booth, vomiting warm 7-Up all over my bare feet.

I expected this to be the scariest, most intense, most important phone conversation of my life. And it was.

But not for the reasons I expected.

Not only was my grandmother NOT weeping, or wailing, or igniting the funeral pyre ... she was downright calm. Serene, even. As I stood there fidgeting in the phone booth, awkwardly trying to express my sorrow, and my regret over not spending more time with the two of them, and my desire to offer comfort to her, she cut me off in mid-schpiel -- I swear I could almost hear her shrug, long-distance -- and she said "Well, what can you do? Life goes on."

I was shocked. Had I dialed the wrong number? Was I misinformed: was Grandpa actually upstairs in the attic at that very moment, playing his guitar? Was Alan Funt going to walk out of the 7-11 next door and instruct me to smile into the camera? 

And then I was frightened. Was Grandma going insane? Was she having a stroke? Should I hang up and call 911? I even felt a molecule or two of anger. "Well, what can you do? Life goes on" ?  What the hell kind of reaction was THAT? My grandfather had just died, forcryingoutloud. Where was her humanity? Her compassion? Her sense of widowly duty?

How the fudk was I supposed to comfort somebody who didn't need comforting?

I was a married woman, twenty-three years old, seven months pregnant ... but I think my childhood ended, that night in the phone booth.


      *      *      *      *      *      *


It has taken me a lot of years -- and a lot of twists and turns in the karmic road -- to understand that Grandma's reaction on the phone that night was probably a lot saner and a lot more human than my twenty-three year old self could have possibly comprehended.

In later years, she told me that that had been the worst night of her life. "But you seemed so strong when I talked to you," I said, and she replied, "I only felt that way on the outside."

That's my grandma for you.

Grandma could see things that Twenty-Three Year Old Secra couldn't see. (Like the fact that Twenty-Three Year Old Secra was totally full of shidt, and wasn't really calling to offer comfort: she was calling to BE comforted.)  Grandma could see further ahead -- and further behind -- on that karmic road than I could. She could see that life goes on.  And she could see that someday I would probably get to the place where I would understand some of this stuff. 

Or at least take a stab at understanding it.

At twenty-three, we just don't *get* the fact that life is filled with passages, one right after the other ... and that if you get hung up on one of them, longer and harder than you should, then everything else that comes along afterwards tends to bottleneck. The next thing you know, you're forty years old and sitting alone in a crappy little apartment in Oregon City, drinking cheap chablis out of a box, trying to blot out the big lumpy knot of bottlenecked crap in your heart.

I have a long way to go before I begin to reach Grandma's level of wisdom and acceptance. I have a long way to go before I feel strong on the outside.

But I'm working on it.


      *      *      *      *      *      *


Jaymi's pregnancy ended suddenly this morning.

I must tell you that the news was not entirely unexpected. There have been warning signs all along. For the past few days we've all existed in a state of emotional/emergency preparedness ... not wanting to write about it on the website, not wanting to discuss it, not wanting to think about it too much ... not wanting to do anything much more, really, than simply be here and be available and be ready to offer comfort, or to wire money, or to hop on an airplane, if need be.

Now that it's over there is sadness, of course. And some of that dumb impotent rage we always feel, whenever Fate deals us a lousy hand. And resignation. And relief, now that the unknowable has become the known, finally.

And that weird little dance of Who comforts who?

I spoke to Jaymi for a long time on the phone last night, and then again briefly this morning. Later tonight I will call her again, after she's had a day to rest and recuperate and allow Joel to wait on her hand and foot.

She seems to be worried, more than anything else, that she has disappointed me. ("You were so excited about it on the website," she says.) I hope to immediately disabuse her sweet, silly, muddled head of that particular notion. For one thing, there pretty much isn't anything she could do to "disappoint" me ... short of marching down the aisle to a Kenny G tune, maybe. She is a warm, wonderful, intelligent, beautiful young woman. I feel incredibly blessed to have her in my life.

For another thing, this is SO not about me, or about the way I feel, that it doesn't even bear discussion.

And for another thing, I think I can see a little farther down that karmic road, right now, than she can. In both directions.

And I have it on very good authority that life goes on.



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