21 years to the Day: A Wave of Remembrance

As phenomena, “Fire” and “space travel”  go together about as well as “angry dragon” and “napalm”. So 21-years to the day from that my grandmother died, I forgo tradition a bit for the sake of safety. Sitting beside an electric candle, I try do what it is we’re supposed to on the anniversary of someone’s death: remember them.  Remembrance is a bit like opening a drawer full of bric-a-brac: old photographs; scratched CD mixes; a borrowed scarf that was never returned. Every time I approach this particular drawer, I pause as I reach the handles. There are things in there, probably even things I could use, but I’m not a fan of looking inside.

Funny how a generation can pass by and still, still some  things never quite settle. For this one, even my own advice – the same thing I’ve told many families after declaring their dear ones departed – doesn’t stick.

Here’s the nuts and bolts of the declaration. When it comes time to declare a patient deceased, the loved ones stand by. The first thing we (doctors) are supposed to do when someone may have died (and revival is not an option) is apply some “simulation” to the patient to see if they’ll react. I usually put pressure on a soft point like the earlobe. At the same time, I call that person (that former person’s) name. When he/she does not respond, I turn to the faces of the people who loved this sister/brother/best friend and report, “Your neighbor/high school buddy/brother-in-law is not responding.” The rooms stands by breathlessly while I check for breathing. When there is none to be found, I check for pulse. Finally, after a long pause, I gently day. “Your father/mother/child does not have a pulse. I am so sorry. Your loved one has died.” I wait a moment, turn off any machines that might still be on, and ask if there is anyone – spiritual/family/funerary – I can call. The required paperwork comes shortly thereafter.

If I have the chance to take the death certificate to the family myself, I’ll relay the only peace of advice that has ever helped me begin to feel better when someone passes: It has often been said that gratitude is the cure for grief.

Gratitude has gotten me through losing four friends my own age to accidents and natural causes. My first friend to pass, JL, gave amazing foot massages, for which I will ALWAYS be grateful. To say he was “a scraggly dude” misses the mark by orders of magnitude. The man had no sense of fashion whatsoever, to the point where he quite enjoyed dressing like an indigent circus performer. He hated cars – ironic, since one would be the source of his demise at the age of 22. He would take the N Juda light rail to the beach in San Francisco, and back, cold and wet, without complaint. JL’s smile was a masterful work of art hung on a wall 30 degrees off-center. It’s easy for me to sit here and list the things I miss about JL, the things I lost on the day he passed. I can do the same with HT, DC, and VV. It would take me a while. Hours, maybe a whole day, but I can pin down the things I am grateful for about each of them individually and collectively. Perhaps it’s because of this that I’ve made my peace with some of these deaths, and started to make my peace with the others.

That sentiment has yet to see me through Grandma Ida’s passing , and, for the first time, I think I understand why: with her, I cannot begin to quantify my gratitude

It’s not that I’m not grateful – quite the opposite. It’s that the magnitude of my gratitude is so vast that it’s overwhelming. It’s like those 40-foot north shore waves on Oahu, Hawai’i. When I say 40 feet, that’s the face height of the wave. That measurement does not include the base or the crest. With this wave we’re talking about a literal building of seawater, several stories tall, and getting taller all the time.

When I watched surfers paddle in, it was like watching a person ride an escalator made of churning foam. Down, down, down they would slip on their boards, as if the water were made of ice, not liquid. Then, up, up, up they would be lifted, riding the thinnest of fleeting rails, flying almost, along the giant, continuously collapsing, several-ton gray facade.

One day, I brought a friend from Japan with me to the north shore. He sat on my left, shaking his head, back and forth, pausing here and there to chant, “I can’t believe that they are doing that. I can’t believe it,” as if the phrase could ward off evil spirits. As if by invitation, a waterlogged surfer ran up from the shoreline and half-collapsed just to our right. I was about to ask him if he required medical assistance, when he turn to me, grinning, and said, “You two forgot your BOARDS, man!”

That’s it right here: the gratitude I feel for her – for the person that I am and the life that I lead – is a giant freaking wave on the shore of my existence, and I forgot my board. Come to think of it, in terms of being grateful for my life, I may be just learning how to swim.

There’s no GOOD time to take off the water wings, is there? So here goes: I may be like my parents in terms of intellect and physical appearance, but I am like my grandmother in terms of character. The old lady was a tough nut to crack. You know those people who are opinionated? Very opinionated? So opinionated they remind you of a backhoe loaded with TNT cruising down the highway at 100 mph? She would have been going 110. Grandma Ida as quiet with her opinions as a big rig going over gravel. She had a mind. It would be spoken. Anyone not appreciative of this tendency was at liberty to depart.

This attitude is hilarious to a seven-year-old. You know what’s even funnier? Having a grandparent send you to New York City by yourself at the age of 11 to see a show. My parents found out, of course. When they called to inquire in a manner less than entirely polite why their not-even-teenage daughter was loose in Big Apple with $40 and a ticket to Les Miserables, she laughed “like hell” and hung up on them.

Now that I’m approaching the age my mother was when she made that call, I cano see why she didn’t think it was so cool.

But man, it was so cool.

In addition to being apologetically if quixotically bold, Grandma Ida was indefatigably loyal. When it came to what she believed you could achieve, reality took a backseat to her will, and, occasionally, her whim. A perfect example: after my grandfather died, she became a volunteer at an activity center for old people, the vast majority of whom were younger than she. One day, I witnessed her casting A Midsummer Night’s Dream from among the wheelchair-bound. She marched up to one man made small by the weight of time, sunken in on his cushions, and, handing him a massively magnified photocopy, highlighted in vibrant yellow, declared, “Today, YOU ARE KING OBERON!” He grinned, and, in some strange way, he was very regal.

Grandma Ida believed in the people around her so fiercely that she compelled you, with the efficacy of a torpedo being propelled from its compartment, to believe in yourself. Brandishing the phrase, “You aren’t dead yet, so quit acting like it!” she repeated this performance for the Queen, who leaned upon a cane when she stood, and all the lovers, who held their parts in shaking hands.  In her presence, a shuffling mass of walker-dependent was transformed into a capering band of faeries, pixies, and bedazzled teenagers – and one bedraggled teenager hammered into sturdy enough shape to survive nearly anything that came her way.

My grandmother ordered me to be true to everything I felt was important; to value sanity; safeguard my integrity; to quit only after all cardiac function has ceased, and not moment before. On her gravemarker in the temple it says, “Reason Above All.” She valued utility highly – very highly – but not so much that beauty, particularly the kind espoused by honest and talented people, was lost on her. When her time finally came, she called everyone she loved. She wished us well, climbed into her bed at home, and passed away in her sleep.

With her dying breath that woman shot me out into the world. I landed a very, very, VERY long way away. 21 years later, I am exactly where she would want me to be. By no small coincidence, I am precisely where I want to be. I’m not sure that you can climb a wave of gratitude that immense. Not without a motorboat powered by rocket fuel and a running start.

Maybe someday I’ll be able to list all the things about her that I miss. Maybe it will take a week. Maybe a month. Maybe then, the gratitude will work its magic upon the grief – transform the painful, face-first crashes on the shore of memory into a long, peaceful wake. I would like that. A generation of mourning seems like long enough. And I know that not riding this wave to the end is the one thing I’ve ever done that would earn her disapproval. So there’s no way around it. Like the man said:

I need my board.

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