Just last week the whole clan got together in Las Vegas to celebrate my Grandma’s eighty-ninth birthday. My Mom and my Aunt asked me separately to make a toast for Grandma. I take such responsibilities seriously. I’d seen too many movies with poignant toasts to say something lazy or haphazard. But I couldn’t think of anything clever so I just said how it was a testament for what a great person she was that she could fill a room with people who’d travel far distances to spend time with her. I was disappointed with what I said, but I figured next year I would find more perfect words.
I suppose it’s the height of hubris to take for granted a ninetieth birthday. But Grandma had a lot of life in her. If you mentioned pickles or Andre Agassi (who she never forgave for bringing a mullet to the game of tennis) she’d give you the stink eye that matched the energy of a pissed off teenager. She needed help walking a far distance, but the way she acted and looked last weekend was not very different from my childhood memories of her.
So her fatal car crash five days after I last saw her really took me by surprise. To make it almost eighty-nine years and to die accidentally seemed terribly unfair. It seems cruel that my last conversation with her was on a cell phone where she got frustrated that she couldn’t hear me and me ending it by telling her I’d talk to her soon. But not many people get to be surrounded by their entire family five days before they leave the world.
The whole family agrees Grandma shouldn’t have been driving any more. But I tell myself if she lost that license it would have been a slow death. She relished her independence almost as much as she relished her family. Selfishly I’d rather she was still around to resume our conversation, but I suppose it’s better that she had eighty-nine good, happy years than three more painful ones.
Below are two snippets from the last time I sat next to her at a Las Vegas restaurant she didn’t particularly care for.
“Grandma, I’ve been watching this show I think you’d like.”
“Everybody Loves Raymond?”
“No. Mad Men. It takes place in your era, 1960. I can’t believe people used to smoke that much.”
“I used to smoke.”
“Not as much as these guys. It’s ridiculous.’
“I smoked four packs a day.”
“And then in 1970 it took me to the hospital. I was sitting in that room and I knew I had to quit and I never smoked another cigarette since.”
“David, do you remember when I visited you in college?”
“Sure, you and Sam came down on your drive from Chicago to Miami.”
“We visited Sam’s grandson in college before you. Sam was so disappointed what a mess his apartment was. It was a sty. And he had a cleaning lady that came once a week. And then we saw your room and it was so clean. I was never more proud of you.”
“I’d like to think I’ve had greater accomplishments than that.”
But by her contented smile my freshman dormitory might as well have been the apex of human civilization. “The whole drive South Sam kept saying what a clean room you had.”