A week before it happens, I buy a mini crème brûlée on Christian Street, in South Philly near the Italian Market. It’s not something I do often—normally it’s a dessert reserved for special occasions, one I split with my grandma. The rest of the family likes chocolate; she and I like the vanilla cream, cracking the sugar crust with little spoons, feeling the sweet burn in the back of our throats. When I buy the dessert, I don’t yet know that my grandma’s body is manufacturing a crush of white blood cells, cells that will become the enemy instead of the defender, clog her marrow and veins, ravage her body with a terrible speed. Neither does she.
On Wednesday, she goes to the doctor for a regular appointment. The doctor, worried about her blood pressure, sends her to the ER.
It’s cancer, the ER doctor says. Leukemia.
My grandpa protests: She just had bloodwork. She was just fine.
Months, the doctor says. Weeks, maybe.
When my mother calls with the news, she assures me I can visit tomorrow, after they admit my grandma to a private room. Once she stabilizes, we’ll bring her home. Instead, I drive north to them as fast as I can. My parents and grandpa are already there; my uncle and sister arrive soon after.
We have no explanation for why we’ve rushed to the ER, where visitors are not even allowed, but when we do, my grandma wakes for a moment and says:
Oh good, you’re all here. That’s so important.
Then she looks to the corner of the room and says something to my Uncle Jack, her firstborn. Jack, now dead 18 years—bladder cancer. I know then why we’ve all come, that there will be no time for hospice. That she won’t leave this place again.
“In Acute Myeloid Leukemia (AML), the myeloid stem cells usually become a type of immature white blood cell called myeloblasts (or myeloid blasts)….Leukemia cells can build up in the bone marrow and blood so there is less room for healthy white blood cells, red blood cells, and platelets….This type of cancer usually gets worse quickly.”
—National Cancer Institute, “Adult Acute Myeloid Leukemia Treatment”
People have expectations of one another’s grief, an algorithm based on the immediacy of relation and the age of the dying person. But my grandmother defies mathematics, and before she is even gone, I can tell the profundity of her absence will surpass appropriate levels of sadness.
In the coming days, I’ll try to adjust expectations by referring to her as “my grandma, who helped raise me.” With that phrase, I hope to invoke a motherly figure—much higher value on the grief scale. In reality, she was better than that: all the wisdom of a parent and none of the judgment. She took pure, unadulterated pride and pleasure in my everyday accomplishments. I cannot remember a major life event for which she wasn’t present. I can barely remember a small one that wasn’t validated by my relaying its every detail back to her, each conversation an affirmation.
At home, she sleeps with a copy of my novel on her bedside table. Every few days, she checks in for updates about the new project. When others ask, it is a dreaded question, laden with pressure, expectation. But when she asks, it is an outpouring of excitement so pure it is contagious. I have written, I am writing—to her the act is a success in itself, far beyond her wildest dreams for her children and grandchildren. The algorithm cannot factor in how impossible writing will become without this encouragement. Neither can I.
The algorithm also does not account for the breadth of my grandma’s presence—her voice, her smile, her perm, all filling the space of two people. She is sequins and animal print; cigarette smoke and Calvin Klein perfume; acrylic nails and thick, matte lipstick; obscenities and dirty jokes and costume jewelry; she is four weddings, three divorces, and zero apologies, starched whites and pressed seams, secret recipes and grudges and malocchio hexes and fierce, overprotective love, all cramped into a five-foot frame.
The family calls her Gaga—a nickname that long predates the pop star, though the comparison in attitude and wardrobe is apt. That first night, my sister’s partner and my husband go to move the cars, disappear for a while.
What happened to you? We ask when they resurface. They were stuck at the security desk because they didn’t know Gaga’s real name.
I always thought she was just the single name, like Cher, one of them says. And this sounds, to all of us, completely reasonable.
The next day, Thursday, I go to work. I check in constantly, regretting that I left. My mother says that my grandma is asleep, that she has been asleep most of the day, that once she woke to say to her dead son, “Sit down, Jackie. You’re making me nervous.”
I get home late, sleep for three hours, head north again before the sun.
That week there are two blizzards, both unexpected this far into spring. The first, that Friday, knocks out the power at the hospital. The second will cancel her funeral.
All day we sit in the dim room, emergency LEDs along the floor and the glaring white outside our only light sources. Across the hospital, alarms have been triggered by the outage, and the nurses run through the ward, resetting switches and transferring machinery to the generator-powered outlets.
At some point, a priest floats into the darkened room to perform last rites. His robe, floor-length over his shoes, obscures all evidence of a human form. He is well over six feet and stolid-faced, so hulking it’s impossible not to read him as a symbol of the night to come.
You can get used to almost anything. Fifty hours in, I am accustomed to the smell of antiseptic and piss and rot, and resigned to the threat of germs. I’m familiar with the labyrinth of the hospital’s fourth floor, the bereavement waiting room—the size of an icebox and just as cold—and the withering “Get Well” balloons abandoned there. At some point I lay down on the cot the nurses brought for my mother and me when they realized we weren’t going to leave. I feel the race of my pulse, the nausea, and realize I must have been having a panic attack for hours.
I am used to not eating—or eating exclusively cheese curls—and to the coffee that does nothing to abate the exhaustion now seeped into my own marrow. I cannot concentrate. My capacity for focus has shrunk to the seconds between my grandma’s breaths.
My grandma still hears us, so I keep talking. I read her the first chapter of my new novel manuscript. I play her Andrea Bocelli on YouTube. I pretend I am doing these things for her, but really, they’re for me. I need to keep her tethered to this world a little longer.
Late Saturday night, my mom, sister, and I climb into my grandma’s hospital bed for one last snuggle—a pile-up, she used to call it. We stay there for hours, the metal railing digging into my spine, and I watch her throat for signs of breath and pulse. A minute between inhales is another thing you can get used to.
She waits until my sister and I are asleep, just like when we were small. Then, in the darkest place between night and morning, she goes.
There is talk of obituaries, mass cards, eulogies. Everyone assumes I will write these things, including me. The eulogy comes out in a single breathless draft, my love for her always running near the surface and easy to tap. The obituary is harder—it’s difficult to ensure that others truly see her. When the newspaper arrives with her death announcement in it, my father holds it out to me and says, look, you’re a published author. He means it as a joke, but neither of us laugh.
We decide to dress her in silk pajamas. This is what she’s told us to do; this is how her mother was buried. But long-sleeved silk pajamas are harder to come by than they were in the ’70s. We are looking for an ivory set, but the only ones we find have a pinkish hue. The color, the package says, is crème brûlée.
I’ve been to many funerals, and there’s nothing exceptional about this one, save that it has been rescheduled due to freak blizzard number two. My childhood best friend arrives with a bottle of vodka and a Ziploc bag of lemon slices in her purse, and my family and I follow her to the back bathroom, take shots. This, too, we’ve done before. I think of the future, of my friend and me toting alcohol to the memorials of one another’s loved ones, a family tradition as we amass the casualties of aging. The grey mundanity of the day, its total failure to capture the rarity of the spirit it’s meant to honor, is the saddest part.
Throughout it all, there is no one I want to talk to more than her. To tell my grandma something was to unpack it, to verify its value—and mine. She carried my secrets, my dreams, my half-baked plans, my mistakes. At times I feel like the past few weeks hadn’t even been real, so integral was chatting with her to the process of understanding my world.
If a tree falls in a forest—
My husband, sister, her partner and I stay at my parents’ house for the rest of the week, where slowly I retrain my attention span—pull it, taffy-like, from single breaths back out to reality TV. Soon I can last through all of My Cousin Vinny. Then I begin to read again. I steep in The Year of Magical Thinking, the liner notes from Sufjan Stevens’s Carrie and Lowell, The Bell Jar, for company after everyone has fallen asleep.
“Survivors look back and see omens, messages they missed….They live by symbols. They read meaning into the barrage of spam on the unused computer, the delete key that stops working, the imagined abandonment in the decision to replace it….One day when I was talking on the telephone in [John’s] office I mindlessly turned the pages of the dictionary that he had always left open on the table by the desk. When I realized what I’d done I was stricken: what word had he last looked up, what had he been thinking? By turning the pages had I lost the message? Or had the message been lost before I touched the dictionary? Had I refused to hear the message?”
—Joan Didion, The Year of Magical Thinking
My husband and I return to our apartment. I see the crème brûlée in the fridge and try to ignore it. My husband holds it out to me, smiling, thinking of it as a nice surprise. I wave it away.
Later, alone, I untie the red and white-striped pasticceria twine and open the box. The berries are wilted and I pluck them off. The crème has shrunk away from the sides of the tin. I try to reanimate the crust, soggy from condensation, with a lighter—it doesn’t work. I dip below and take a bite of the custard. For a moment it tastes good, but after, when the sugar stings the back of my throat, it goes sour.
Dutifully, robotically, I return to grading student work, begin to close the gap in my ignored emails. But I cannot write—my novel manuscript is unfathomable, not even a journal entry. I don’t know what can possibly fill the page after the eulogy.
“Pain into power,” I have told my students. But I cannot make power; I cannot make fiction. I can’t make any meaning at all.
I try to leave. I go to Miami for the weekend, force-feed my pleasure centers with Cuban food and drag shows, salt air and rum. It works, for a while—until I want to call her up and tell her about it.
Instead, I become obsessed with craft projects. The first, on Friday, I don’t think of the project as a replacement for our conversations, or for writing; I don’t think much at all. I know only that I have an overwhelming desire (and a coupon) to make a succulent terrarium. The class meets at a bar, and I end up wildly drunk with a fishbowl full of cockeyed cacti. But they are an effort completed, and they are alive.
“Since I was old enough to speak I’ve said it with alarm / Some part of me was lost in your sleeve / Where you hid your cigarettes / No I’ll never forget / I just want to be near you
Still I pray to what I cannot see / In the sprinkler I mark the evidence known from the start / From the bed near your death, and all the machines that made a mess / Far away the falcon flew / Now I want to be near you
What’s left is only bittersweet / For the rest of my life, admitting the best is behind me /
Now I’m drunk and afraid, wishing the world would go away / What’s the point of singing songs / If they’ll never even hear you?”
—Sufjan Stevens, “Eugene”
I keep getting lost on my way to work. Once, I forget to exit the expressway, arrive dazed at Atlantic City International Airport. The next time, wary, I get off too early, turn the wrong direction, and end up on an unpaved road, one running parallel to where I need to be.
I attend two BYOB painting classes, get blitzed, and wind up swigging sparkling wine from the bottle on a patch of grass in the median. I learn how to use an electric sander and a nail gun, to connect planks together into a single, smooth surface. I hot-glue twine on mason jars to make wedding centerpieces; I spend a weekend coloring myriad tchotchkes in my house with a set of metallic Sharpie markers. I make necklaces from seashell fragments; I again take up knitting; I paint three sets of shelves yellow, buff them with wax. Each project is a frantic attempt at something I still cannot pin down—self-expression or faux-productivity or a brightening of my world, if only superficially, if only for a moment.
My grandma dreamed of a return to Italy. Last summer, I went on her behalf—six weeks at an artist’s residency at Civitella Raneiri, a castle so picturesque it took most of the trip to convince myself it was even real. All the while I collected prayer cards and cathedral trinkets and postcards to send her. I showed her my room, inlayed in the castle wall, on Skype.
On our last residents’ excursion, we went to Bomarzo, to Sacro Bosco (Sacred Forest), or colloquially, the monster park.
In the 16th century, the Duke Pier Francesco Orsini lost his wife and best friend to the Great Wars of Italy. Debilitated by grief, the prince commissioned the architect Ligorio to construct a grove of monsters reflective of his anguish. Ligorio pulled gods and mythological creatures and all manner of the grotesque from the bedrock: Hercules and a hydra, Pegasus and Ceres, unnamed giants and giant fish, leaning watchtowers, and crooked temples at precarious angles. The placement of statues is disorderly, the greenery alive but unbeautiful. There is no governing order. At the height of the Enlightenment, the sculptures were out of fashion, a blatant pushback against the symmetry of traditional Renaissance gardens, against rationalism that no doubt shriveled in the face of Orsini’s pain.
One of the sculptures is the head of Orcus, god of the underworld, mouth open wide enough to accommodate a human. Across his lips is written, in red, “all reason departs.”
A cruder translation of the phrase is “all thoughts fly,” interpreted as a reference to the cavern’s acoustic marvel—even the smallest whisper is magnified a hundred-fold and flung back into the forest.
Inside Orcus, there’s a bench and a table cut into the stone. When I sat there in June, I had been giddy, brimming with the beauty of Italian art and food and of the Umbrian hills, and the talent of the other residents. I don’t remember testing the echo, but if we had, my exclamation would no doubt have been one of joy.
What words would I send back from the underworld now? What echo would I push up through the god’s gaping mouth? How can I shape such monsters—gnarled, hulking creatures in which a stranger might find beauty?
“I took a deep breath and listened to the old brag of my heart. I am, I am, I am.”
—Sylvia Plath, The Bell Jar
In April, we go out to dinner for my mother’s birthday—my parents, my sister, and me, my aunt and uncle and younger cousins and grandpa—nine of us, when for so long we’d been an even ten. My uncle and dad tell stories of their childhood. My grandpa, who’s growing out his beard, orders a scotch. My mom, sister, and I get a crème brûlée for dessert, split it three ways. I come home and write it all down.