In May of 1994 I graduated from Art Center College of Design. My whole family was there that sunny day in Pasadena, sitting in folding chairs in the grass behind Art Center's long, dramatic, steel and concrete Bauhaus building.
After the ceremony, I joined my parents, step-parents, boyfriend, and grandparents, near the steps up to the building. I know they were all very proud of me graduating with honors from the school I had yearned to attend after I grew disillusioned with state university and wanted to focus more intently on art.
Both of my grandmothers were especially proud: Grama Mary because she had always encouraged me to follow my dreams of being an artist, and Grama Geri for the same reason in part, but largely because she had paid for it.
For the four years I went to school in Pasadena, and the year before that at Long Beach State, Grama Geri paid my rent and my tuition, and gave me additional living expenses. I supplemented that with part-time jobs. I had applied for scholarships a few times but never got them, since I couldn't prove sufficient need. As long as she didn't mind supporting me, I was happy to let more needy students win those scholarships.
After I graduated and started my first full-time design agency job, Grama no longer supported me. I was able to pay my own rent for the first time in my life, and buy all my own food and clothes. But Grama Geri was still my go-to for certain things, like medical questions (since she had done some nursing and was knowledgeable about many symptoms and illnesses), and sometimes plain old moral support; so we still spoke on the phone frequently, and I still occasionally spent weekends visiting her at her house in Camarillo, where I had lived with her for 3 years.
Her boyfriend Bill (AKA Fifty Dollar Bill) had moved into my room by now, and it reeked of cigarette smoke, as did the family room. But he still liked to slip me money when Grama left the room, so I let the offensive odors slide. And he seemed to make her happy.
Six months after my Art Center graduation, my other grandmother, Grama Mary, whose health had declined precipitously the past few years, appeared to be near death. I had visited her and my grampa Fred at their house in Woodland Hills, just thirty minutes' drive from Pasadena, every Sunday for a year or so while her health was in decline. I wanted every chance to spend time with her while I could.
One Sunday in November, she was especially ill. My dad and stepmom had come from Fresno at my grampa's request, and we all had a nice evening together, until after dinner when Grama became too weak to continue socializing. She retired to bed, but not before reaching across the dining room table, taking my hand, and whispering to me, "You're so special." A whisper was all she could muster, she had no breath left that night.
After she went to bed, I came and sat by her for a few minutes. I was afraid I'd never see her again. But after a few minutes she asked me to leave, saying, "I can't breathe with you there." I felt sad, but told her I loved her and left the room.
With her asleep, I said goodnight to my grampa Fred, my dad and stepmom, and drove home to Pasadena.
The next day at work, I got a call from my aunt Trink.
"Grama Mary died last night," she said.
"No! No!" I was in disbelief… "I just saw her last night!"
"She died after you left. Early in the morning."
We finished the conversation as my throat tightened and my eyes were burning with tears. I put the phone down and ran to the bathroom and cried as hard as I could, for as long as I wanted… work could wait.
I was excused to go home after that, and spent the rest of the afternoon and evening on the phone with family, and crying.
When the phone conversations had died down, I sat on my bed with no more tears left, wondering how I could ever live without my soul mate, my biggest supporter, my inspiration, Grama Mary. My boyfriend Peter came into the room to try to soothe me; he put his arms around me for a hug, but it was too much - my heart hurt more than he could ever know or possibly even help. I pushed him away, and this was representative of where our relationship was at that time… distant, distrusting, and lonely. I've always regretted pushing him away when he came to give me his support. He loved her too; pushing him away meant I wasn't there for him, either.
There was a nice funeral for Grama Mary, and each of her four living children came up to the podium to speak, one after another. She was such an incredibly loving person who touched everyone's lives deeply in different ways. The same way she made me feel special, she made everyone feel special. I went up too, to tell about how, when I was little, she would point out a sink faucet and ask if I could see the dragon head in the curved spout and the two knobs pointing out like horns. And how she would give me beads, or paints, or pencils and paper, and urge me to create. And how she always made me feel special, of value, and important.
It was actually a very joyful funeral.
When I was growing up, I was close to all four of my grandparents in different ways; but I knew I would lose each of them, in turn. Judging from their health histories, ages, and genders, I figured I would lose Grama Mary first, then Grampa Bill, then grampa Fred, then the irrepressible, spritely Grama Geri last. I was already wrong; Grampa Bill died when I was 14. Grama Mary had gone second, a decade later. I still had Grampa Fred, and Grama Geri - the opposite partner in each of the two couples. Each was now a widow.
At Grama Mary's funeral, Grama Geri confided to me that she had started feeling tired a lot, and that walking back up her short, steep driveway from fetching the mail winded her.
"Well, what do you expect, Grama… you're old!" I joked back. I think she was 76. She looked at least a decade younger. This was true my whole life.
"I guess so," she chuckled good-naturedly. For all of our disagreements over the years, she always let me tease her a little bit.
Four months later, in March of 1995, I got a call from my mom saying Grama Geri had been diagnosed with cancer.
"Well, what kind of cancer?" I asked, sitting down on the foot of my bed. Surely not the fatal kind; this was Grama Geri we were talking about, the healthiest, most energetic, most youthful grandparent of all time!
"They aren't sure, honey," my mom answered. "It looks like it's in a few different places, maybe started in her lungs, but has moved to her liver and some other organs. I don't really know."
This couldn't be as bad as it sounded. Grama smoked about four cigarettes a day. People like that don't get lung cancer, I reasoned to myself.
"Well, what are they going to do? What's the prognosis?"
"I need to talk to her doctor again and find out for sure, but I don't think they can do anything."
"What do you mean?"
"How long does she have?" I asked, beginning to worry.
"Maybe about six months."
I put down the phone in horror. This wasn't supposed to happen.
Three weeks later my mom called me again saying things had progressed rapidly. The cancer, it turned out, was throughout the right side of Grama's abdominal cavity, in nearly every organ; and the organs were beginning to fail.
On Friday night after work I drove an hour down to Camarillo to meet my mom and stepdad, who were staying at my Grama's house while she was bedridden. Fifty Dollar Bill mostly stayed out of the way, worriedly chain-smoking in the living room with the TV on way too loud.
My mom debriefed me: Grama is taking medication to improve her appetite, but was really only able to eat vanilla ice cream and some oatmeal. She was on heavy morphine for pain, but otherwise was not being treated.
I went alone in to Grama's room. She was lying in her bed, where she used to listen to the radio at night with the lights out, smoking a cigarette, when I lived there. Back then she always had on a sexy camisole nightie, her ample bosom held fast in a nude bra underneath, the cherry of her cigarette glowing as the AM radio played music quietly. Grama always thought you should sleep in a bra to keep the breasts from sagging. She had theories about everything physical. Back when I was living with her, while watching TV on the couch at night, she'd stroke her face upward with her fingertips, from her mouth to her temples, for about 10 minutes every night. "It fights gravity," she'd say. Anything to prevent aging.
Once when I was doing some yoga in her living room, hanging upside down at the waist, she looked at my face and said, "I think that's bad for you. Your skin looks weird."
Still upside down, I turned my head to her and said, "How can it be bad for me? It's going against gravity. I thought that was good."
"Huh," she said, looking at me, apparently not sure what to believe. She turned and left the room.
But now she lay in her bed, lights on, with her eyes closed and mouth agape. I don't remember if she had on a sexy camisole nightie or something else.
"Grama," I said, gently climbing onto her soft bed, next to her. The bedspread had blue watercolor flowers on it and felt like a fine polyester weave; the pillowcases were a soft buttercup yellow. These were the same as they'd been when I'd moved out eight years prior, only sometimes the sheets were pale blue instead. Everything at her house was always clean and tidy, and she always kept dryer sheets in between the pillowcases in the linen closet to keep things smelling fresh. She hated when sheets smelled like "person", which they do sometimes, even when they're clean.
She opened her eyes and turned her head groggily.
"Hi, sweetie." She sounded like her mouth was full of cotton balls.
"How are you?" I asked.
"Oh, I'm ok," she said, smiling a little.
"Do you want some oatmeal?" I asked.
"I could try, " she said.
"Ok, I'll be right back."
I went to the kitchen and made some oatmeal. My mom and stepdad were watching an old episode of Ironsides with Fifty Dollar Bill, trying to stay as far from his cigarette smoke as possible.
"Be sure and put in some milk," my mom said over her shoulder. She had been feeding Grama like this for a week. "Okay," I said, adding in some of the low fat Lactaid Grama always kept in the fridge.
I brought the oatmeal back to Grama's room, at the other end of the big ranch style house. I sat down on the edge of her bed and helped her prop herself up on pillows, and started feeding her oatmeal from a spoon. She opened her mouth, and moved her lips to chew, but seemed to have trouble swallowing.
"My mouth is so dry," she frowned. "Nothing tastes like anything."
"Would you rather have ice cream?" I asked.
"Okay," she said, her weight be damned. No use watching her figure now.
I went back to the kitchen and got out a new bowl, and scooped out a little bit of vanilla ice cream. Grabbing a fresh spoon, I walked back to her bedroom.
I sat at the edge of her bed again, this time spooning a small bite of ice cream into her mouth.
"Mmm," she said. "That's nice."
I fed her a bit more, and a bit more, recalling so clearly the times when I stayed at her house when I was little, and was kept up at night with a cold. She would hear me coughing, and come to my room with a dainty glass bowl of butter and sugar mixed together, her own coughing remedy. I don't know where this remedy came from, but it was delicious; and when she came in and turned on my bedroom light, and sat in her nightie and robe on the edge of my bed and fed me butter and sugar from a dainty bowl with a little spoon, and cooed sweetly to me, I never felt more loved in my life.
Now here I was feeding her, hoping I could make her feel as loved as that.
She ate the whole bowl.
"How do you feel?" I asked her.
"Well, they're giving me morphine, so I don't feel too bad," she said. "But my mouth is so dry, and I feel so tired. I don't feel like doing anything but just lying here." She looked at me, her eyes half-shut, and frowned. Lying around was not her style.
"I wish I could just… disappear." She spat out the last word emphatically, as best she could.
"Just disappear? What does that mean?" It sounded scary.
"Just, poof. Go away."
She wants to die, I thought.
I felt a little relieved to hear this, because, I thought, she is going to die. But I felt sad at the same time; I wasn't at all ready for her to die.
I took her ice cream bowl back to the kitchen and washed it, and then went back to her room. Again I crept onto the bed next to her, and lay down next to her.
"Yes, sweetie?" through cotton balls.
I took a breath, thinking.
"When you die, do you think you'll see Grampa Bill again?"
"I know I'll see him again."
"You do? How do you know?"
"I see him all the time," she answered. I sat up.
"Yeah." She spoke slowly, her eyes closed. "He comes and visits me often. I know I'll see him."
"Yes, sweetie?" So patiently.
"When you die, will you come visit me?"
She chuckled through cotton balls, her eyes opening a crack.
"Sweetie," she said, enunciating every word just like she used to when she really meant something, "I will, if I can."
"Okay," I said. I hoped she would.
I stayed the night and went home on Sunday. My brother called me and said he was going to visit her the following weekend.
"I don't think you should wait that long, Davey… I'm not sure she'll be alive next weekend."
My brother had been caught off-guard by Grama Mary's death; he lived in San Francisco, and had not been able to see her before she died. I didn't want that to happen to him again.
David flew down the next day and spent Monday and Tuesday with her.
On Wednesday, I got the call from Mom.
"Grama died," she said, exactly the same way she had said, "Grampa died," when she'd gotten the news about Grampa Bill thirteen years before.
She told me that David had left Tuesday night, and in the early hours of Wednesday morning, she was awakened by Grama Geri shouting her name.
My mom uses crutches, having been partially paralyzed by polio at a young age. She heard her mother's calls, got up and put on her leg brace as quickly as she could, and grabbed her crutches; but when she got herself to Grama's room, Grama had already passed. Apparently in her last moments, she called out her daughter's name; maybe to see her face, maybe out of fear, or confusion. This I'll never know. I always wonder what she was thinking, if she knew she was dying.
When Mom told me this, it reminded me of the time I lived with Grama, and there was a big earthquake one morning. When the room started shaking, I sat up suddenly in bed and shouted, "Grama! Grama!" And she'd rushed into my room and held me while the room shook, ignoring her own fears. Her only thought of coming to me when I called her.
Per Grama's wishes, there was no funeral.
A few months later, I was getting ready for work in my bathroom in Pasadena. My bathroom had a big window over the sink that opened out with a crank into the side yard. There was a huge, prolific lemon tree outside, and big jurassic ferns. It always smelled of lemon blossoms and earth.
I frequently thought of my two grandmothers passing away so close together… the healthiest and unhealthiest of my four grandparents died four months apart. Now I only had my grampa Fred, the rocket scientist, who was already dating a woman his age named Marge. They were engaged to be married. He hated being alone.
I remembered Grama Geri saying she would try to visit me if she could. I knew Grama Mary would, if she could; we had such an amazing connection that I used to think we were the same person, born in different bodies at different times.
As I got ready for work, the scent of lemon blossoms drifting through the summer morning air through the open window, I heard a mourning dove coo in the lemon tree. Then a second dove cooed in reply.
I hung the wash cloth on the towel rack, and leaned forward, looking through the screen at the lemon tree. There was one dove sitting there looking at me. Squinting, I made out another one on a branch nearby.
They cooed at me. I looked at them. They were visitors.
"Hi, Grama, Mary," I said." "Hi, Grama Geri." We looked at each other for a while. I was going to be late for work. "Thank you for visiting me."
I smiled, and, turning the crank, closed the window.