Grief and Absurdity

You have to laugh or you’ll cry — and then you’ll laugh at that.

Grandma died three weeks ago. I went to work today.

It’s a funny thing, grieving. It doesn’t really work in any discernible pattern. I mean, there are obvious, universal signs of grief: crying, irritability, black clothing and the like. But those are surface matters. The actual act of grieving is something entirely different. It’s something I’m not sure I grasp yet.

Everyone says the same things to you. The things they say are clumsy, and the responses I form are even clumsier.

“I’m sorry for your loss.”

And my response is supposed to be … what? “Thank you”? I don’t see why I should be thankful for such a thing. So I’ve taken to saying, “It’s okay, you didn’t do it.” That has stopped a few people cold, uncertain whether I’m serious or joking. The answer is that I am both. But mostly I’m just feeling awkward and uncertain.

My friend V. lost his brother Chris to a heart attack back in March. He seems to have cornered the market on snappy responses to perfunctory showings of shared loss by friends, coworkers, and acquaintances. At the viewing for Chris, he would walk up to each person individually and boisterously greet them with a “Hey, how the hell are you?” It’s hard to follow that up with the typical “Just fine, and you?” response when there’s a cadaver three steps to your left.

Grandma is not the first person I’ve known who has died. I can remember going to funerals for distant relations as far back as my early pre-teen years.

When I was 15, I went to the viewing for a kid in my aunt’s family who had accidentally shot himself while playing with a gun. He couldn’t have been more than 11. I remember thinking I might get sick when I saw the body, but instead I was just fascinated by how unreal he looked. His skin looked so strange, like it had been manufactured out of rubber. This was not the kid I remembered wrestling with in the backyard at family cookouts.

When I was 18, my father’s uncle Jack finally succumbed to the various lung conditions that had been plaguing him for the preceding 15 years. Uncle Jack fought in World War II, in a submarine somewhere in the Pacific. When we went through his things, we found lots of pictures of him in uniform, a cigarette in one hand and a girl in the other. The cigarettes are what killed him, of course. But he had one hell of a ride. When they prepared to bring his coffin out of the church, they draped it with an American flag. I remember Uncle Jack’s son-in-law saying, “That’s what it all comes down to right there. Jack is proud, wherever he is.”

I remember thinking, That’s what it all comes down to? Seventy-some years of living for an hour with a piece of cloth draped over you before they pour on the dirt? Hardly seems a fair trade.

But then again, what could I know of death at 18? Eighteen-year-olds are invincible. Ask anyone. The idea of a looming mortality is about as remote as the concept of studying Einstein’s most dense equations on a Saturday night. Neither death nor physics seem appealing at that age. Both are best not thought about.

Damien died a week after Uncle Jack was laid to rest. He had been in my graduating class from high school. He had overdosed on heroin. I didn’t know him particularly well, only well enough to know that he was sort of an asshole to some of my friends. But I was a friend of his sister Meaghan, so I went to that funeral, too. And I remember the stunned faces on everyone — his friends, teachers, parents. No one could believe that he was dead. I could believe it, though. What I couldn’t believe was that everyone else was still alive. His parents and his sister would have to live on. That’s the raw deal. Living with the absence.

All of these deaths meant something to me. All of them changed me in subtle ways that I can’t begin to describe. But Grandma’s death is different for me. And I’m not sure why. I suppose part of it is that she was closer to me than anyone else I’ve known who has passed. But I don’t think that’s all of it.

Grandma has literally always been there. From the moment I was brought home from the hospital, Grandma was there, ready and willing to help guide my parents through those fragile first weeks. One of the first times she tried to change my diaper, I peed right in her eye. She laughed, much to the astonishment of my mother. But the revelation of this event to me years later was not surprising. Grandma was always there to support me, to challenge me, to help me find a way to carve my own values instead of just accepting those that are handed to me. And when I would screw up or do something silly, she’d laugh — and that would somehow make the moment easier to swallow.

There are a lot of things that I can thank my grandmother for. She supported me fully in my pursuits as a writer and a musician. She was audacious and full of good humor. She was psychologically astute and profoundly empathetic. I have inherited these things from my mother who inherited them from her. Most significantly, my grandmother had a well-developed sense of and appreciation for the absurd. She reveled in the incongruities of life, the daily ironies that go by unnoticed by most people. For better or for worse, I have found myself engaged daily in the same kind of revelry. It is her legacy to me.

Despite my sadness at her loss, Grandma’s death is not a tragedy. Not the way that so many other deaths I’ve seen have been. Chris was a few days away from turning 38 when that heart attack consumed him. He had never been sick a day in his life. “We have to trust,” the priest said at his funeral, “that God has a plan and that God would not have taken Chris from us if God was not certain that we were ready to deal with the grief of his loss.”

With all due respect, that’s a crock of shit. I’m a praying man. I believe in God and I trust in God. But I was angry with God the week Chris died. There is no good reason why his two toddlers should have to grow up without a father, or why his wife should have to replay those last moments over and over again in her mind, or why his parents should have to bury another child, or why his brother should have to think up more and more small talk to bat around with the well-wishers. There are no deep lessons here. It just sucks, and that’s the end of it.

But Grandma is a different story. She was 77 years old. She lived a good, long life. She was far from perfect or without regret. She did some stupid things in her time, and some things she wasn’t proud of. But overall, she saw life as a blessing and she seized as many of its moments as she could.

Grandma will live on in the attributes and the values that she passed down. She’ll live on in the laughter and the indignation that have come to me in the mix of genetic soup that organizes my cells. She’ll live on in eyes and voice inflections. She’ll live on in that massive Quandt family nose that she had, which also belongs to my mother and her brother, and which is starting to develop on my own face and will only get bigger with every passing year. All of this we will carry with us. These things may not have Martha Quandt Lambert Patrick written on them explicitly, but that signature is undeniably there.

Perhaps even V. and his family can have some comfort when they look at Christopher Jr. and Rebecca and see their father’s squared head, those angled movements, that drive to mold the world instead of being molded to it.

My grandmother died in Florida and was cremated. But her ashes were not ready when my grandfather left to meet us in Maryland. And so Grandma had to be FedExed to us. When she reached Maryland, my aunt called to inquire about when she should be home to receive her mother-in-law’s remains. The FedEx employee, sharp as a marble, told her that FedEx was not allowed to ship human remains because of the liability that could be incurred. And so, said FedEx genius shipped my grandmother all the way back to Florida, only to be taken and put back on a plane and flown back up to Baltimore-Washington International Airport (the people at Delta seemed more than happy to help Grandma reach her final destination). All in all, my grandmother logged in more than 2,700 frequent flyer miles during her final adventure.

A week after Grandma died, I told the story of her FedEx mishaps to a co-worker. She was quite surprised to see me laughing so close to when my grandmother had passed. “But you have to laugh at it,” I told her. “It’s just too absurd not to laugh.”

And when I heard myself say that, I smiled. I knew that Grandma was somewhere laughing at it, too.

Wherever she is now, whatever may come of her spirit and her bones, Grandma’s laughter will always be there for me now, just as she was always there for me in life. Her laughter is the soundtrack of my future. Her smiles are the treasure of my memories. I still don’t think I’m any closer to knowing how to grieve for the loss of her. But at least I’ve figured out how to celebrate her life.

Article © 2003 by Jonathan Ratican