My grandmother died the day I went to the dentist. My dad called me right as I was putting on some coffee. In three days, I was sitting in an airport, waiting for a delayed flight back to New York, trying not to cry. Then I was in a car with my brother and his boyfriend driving down to Long Island.
I did three things once I got off the phone: finished making coffee, told my girlfriend, and smoked a cigarette. It was strange to think about how, as the hygienist’s hands were in my mouth, flossing out the tar and the leftovers from the last six months, my grandmother was deceased. The banality of collecting death.
In order to make sense of it all, I turned to a book. Specifically, to a scene in Claudia Rankine’s Don’t Let Me Be Lonely. In the passage, the speaker is narrating their friendship with someone diagnosed with Alzheimer’s. Early on, as the disease progresses and his memory atrophies, the friend writes on a chalkboard: “This is the most miserable in my life.” Crucially, the ‘I’ is missing from this statement. It’s not, “I’m the most miserable in my life” but, “this.” His statement articulates the way misery can break us, how fragmentation afflicts the grammar of living and effects a change in the language used to narrate the self. It’s a statement of profound loss, for as the ‘I’ fades, all that is left is this.
My grandmother was old; 92 to be exact. She had outlived both my grandfather and my oldest uncle, and she was tired. i feel like a burden. When you can barely hear, walk, or care for yourself, what else is left but the world around you as it moves forward? What, indeed, but this?
Once in Long Island, my brother wanted to go to the beach. We often went when we visited my grandparents because what else are you going to do with kids? Walking the boardwalk, we would of course do the forbidden thing and feed our fries to the seagulls, scavengers of human memory who thrive on the pillars of salt we leave behind. Boogie boarding in the waves one summer, I got to know what it was like to go with the flow, letting my body be carried away from the anchor of my family in the sand. I imagined I was a seagull, my perspective along the horizon of land and sea turning the present nostalgic, the sun sharpened colors of my grandparents becoming vague suggestions of a once upon a time as I licked the salt from my eyes.
My brother also wanted to go because my grandmother loved the sun; she used to warn me to wear sunscreen by telling “horror stories” about all the tanning she used to do on the rooftops in New York City (to my ten-year old, suburban ears, this sounded awesome). The plan was to collect shells. Since I currently live in a landlocked state, the idea of treading along the shore seemed romantic. As we were walking, he made it clear he only wanted whole shells. A whole shell is a beautiful thing; you might find one that is iridescent and glows in the light. Or, you might find one that is solid black, reflecting the depths from whence it came. But I really love to find fragments of shells, ones that are maybe overlooked or discarded when unearthed because of their flaws. Fragments are funny in that way. Since they seem incomplete, it’s easy to assume their irrelevance or lack of value simply because something is missing.
I like to think my brother will keep the sleek black shell I found and handed to him. We don’t give each other much nor do we give it often, but handing him the singular, unbroken shell felt like a promise or maybe a pact. The same kind of pact, perhaps, as that which the seagulls playing in the waves seemed to make: that although the most valuable thing can sometimes be to fly into the current, it can sometimes be okay to let the wind carry your back to shore.
My grandmother and I only knew one another in fragments. We talked occasionally— about my studies, about who I was dating, what we were reading at the time, how we’d like to see each other soon. Inasmuch as we knew one another, really knew the other, through these bits and pieces of our lives we’d share, she never made me feel like I was irrelevant or that I was missing something. She loved my pieces as though they were the whole. There are so many things I sometimes imagine she knows about me now that she’s gone, as though heaven might actually be a form of hindsight, as though dying makes us alive in new ways to the pain others bear and to the joys they are too afraid to disclose.
I always knew my grandmother would die, and in fact, I think I found closure around her passing preemptively. Last summer, I flew to Florida to visit her. One day, she suggested we go see a movie playing at the theater in her retirement community, The Leisure Seeker. It sounded interesting enough. Turns out, it’s a movie about a husband and wife, the former an English teacher with Alzheimer’s, the latter a housewife dying of cancer, who have decided to go on a cross country road trip to Ernest Hemingway’s house in the Florida Keys in their old RV named: The Leisure Seeker. What you don’t know until the end of the movie, however, is that after they have reached their destination, they intend to commit double suicide, the thought of being this without them all too much. By dying on their own terms, together, they remain for one another the people they always were and do not have to suffer the grief of watching the other fade. This is not a movie I would have knowingly picked to watch with my then 91-year-old grandmother. The women behind us said it best: “What a movie to show old people!”
After, as we shared our disbelief while eating cold chicken salad in her kitchen’s neon lighting, I realized this was going to be one of the last times I saw my grandmother. But even then, we could not bridge the gaps between us and in a way, I’m okay with that.
The last thing my grandmother ever said to me was, “I want you to have a happy life.” This has been hard to do as I feel so miserable in these months since we buried her. There are no seagulls or seashells in Iowa. About a month after my return, a friend pointed out to me the beauty in the swarm of birds rising off the empty fields as we drove back from Chicago. The corn and soybeans long since harvested, their collective movement reminded me of how seashells make their way to shore: synchronous chaos, the unifying pulse of the swarm.
What I mean to say is: I’m okay with the fragments. I’m okay with it because I know that my grandmother and I were both there for one another at points when we needed each other most: when I graduated from high school and college; when her husband, my grandfather, died; when she sat in my uncle’s living room and cried; when my ex and I broke up; when I gave her my gefilta fish my first Hanukkah away from home. What I mean is: I’ve found a shell.
Rachel Walerstein is currently finishing a Ph.D. in English at the University of Iowa. Her dissertation examines literary representations of masculine crisis in American modernism. She also sometimes sings songs about her cat.
featured photo: “Plume” by Joy Belonger