Death is not convenient. There are always so many “I should’ves” and “Why didn’ts.” My aunt, who had been vigilant and by my grandmother’s side at all times during her final couple days, hadn’t been gone ten minutes on a quick trip to the store when it happened. And it seems that nobody answers their phones when it matters most.
Death is not romantic. There was no point during my grandma’s final moments at which she gazed at me or my mother. No point at which she offered wise, comforting parting words. There were no meaningful words for me to utter, either. There was no fade-to-black, no curtain call, no thunderous applause. Only tears from my mother — and speechlessness from me, her son, a man of twenty-three years who had never witnessed death and lacked the savvy to cope with it as it occurred before his very eyes. Effectively a child, I struggled with processing this event, all the while not knowing how to console my weeping mother and trying to pacify my sister’s whimpering and trembling small dog, whom I was holding.
Several hours later, I watched as two strangers from the funeral home hauled the corpse that once housed my grandmother onto a wheeled contraption and strapped it down. They pushed it outside and loaded the cold, lifeless body into their van as everyday luggage.
Death is awkward. Death is matter-of-fact. It cares not where you happen to be or what you happen to be doing at the time. And it does not wait till you’re good and ready to face it.
My grandmother was born Elena Ceci (pronounced “CHEH-chee” or “CHAY-chee”) the tenth of August, 1933 in Rome, NY to first-generation Italian-Americans. Like her siblings, her name was Anglicised, hence “Helen.” (My Uncle Alex was born “Alessandro,” my Uncle Vinny “Vincenzo,” Louis “Luigi” and Angelo – well, “Angelo.”) She and her brothers represent the last generation on my mother’s side whose first language was not English.
Through my many conversations with her, I can say with great confidence that there is at least partial truth to the popular Central New York axiom that, in those days, all the Italian-American families in the area knew each other and were likely at least distantly related to each other.
Helen did nothing to subvert the stereotypical notion of an Italian-American grandmother, with her unrelenting enquiries about our states of hunger as well as her unbeatable family recipes, which included meatballs and a seemingly infinite repertoire of baked treats, but also her warm heart that never stopped caring about the welfare of those around her.
She always seemed to put others before herself.
I remember numerous sick days off school passed at her former residence on Bedford Street. My stepfather would drop me off there on his way to Rome Free Academy because both he and my mother were working full-time, and I couldn’t be left home alone. On such days, I would either watch cartoons or play a dice game with my grandma — a game our family calls simply “Dice.” But never Monopoly.
Fast forward to May 2014. My mother, my brother and I were living together in a section of a Utica house, but we were splitting up. My mom had decided to move in with her then-boyfriend in Oswego, and my brother was moving in with his father. I still had an Associate’s degree to finish at Mohawk Valley Community College, so my only real option was to move in with my grandmother in my birthplace, Rome. And she welcomed me with open arms.
This was when I feel I really started to connect with my grandmother. By then, I had reached my early twenties. I had matured a bit. I was no longer encumbered with the brattishness of childhood and was past the hormonal deluge of adolescence. In essence, I was finally able to sit and converse with her. Instead of itching to return to my video games and get to the next level or worrying about impressing women wherever I go, I learnt to enjoy her company and become her friend.
It was not uncommon, especially in my first year of living with her, for me to join my grandma in the living room for dinner in front of the TV. Whenever I was around in the evening, I made sure to warm up a couple chicken patties and pour a glass of milk or juice in time for Wheel of Fortune at 7:00, followed immediately by Jeopardy! It was a pretty nice routine. And emptying the dishwasher, taking out the trash, grabbing things just out of her reach, occasionally helping her prepare food and running errands for her was a measly price to pay for living so comfortably.
I count myself fortunate and honoured to have lived with her these past two and a half years, being her helper and friend. I loved hearing her stories of how suave and funny and diligent my grandfather was — or of their travels to Spain and how they used Italian to converse with the locals through limited mutual intelligibility — or how she was ridiculed in school for not being able to remember the word doorknob and having to substitute the Italian word for it.
In the summer of 2015, during my first season with the Sterling Renaissance Festival, my mother and I received terrible news that my grandmother had been diagnosed with cancer in the mouth. She had survived breast cancer roughly fifteen years prior, but doctors weren’t so optimistic this time. It had spread so much that a goodly portion of her tongue would need to be removed and surgically replaced — and her first medical consultant told her that she could not survive such an operation. She ended up going through with it, but at the cost of her speech and feeding faculties. Her new, makeshift tongue lacked muscles, making swallowing and the formation of certain consonants nigh impossible for her. My mother would return from Oswego to live with us in Rome and tirelessly play nurse for Grandma over the next year.
Alas, as we all know, cancer is never fully eradicated from the body. Just a couple days shy of Halloween 2016, she needed to be rushed to the hospital. The cancer re-emerged and had made it to her lungs. She was discharged after a week, but this time with an expiration date. She received hospice care throughout November and into her final days before checking out at 11:13 yesterday morning, the sixth of December.
If nothing else, my grandmother was astonishingly physically resilient. That’s for sure. And I might add that, had she given up on life a year ago (a fair choice that was absolutely on the table), she would have missed all my accomplishments. In buying one more year of life, she saw me graduate from community college, she saw me depart for the summer to live my acting dream at Sterling and she saw me land a steady, gratifying job this fall. I’m glad she was able to live long enough to see some closure to my efforts these past few years. She passed with the knowledge that I found some success in my life. For her, joy came from perceiving others as happy, so I know that she was content when her time came.
Helen was a devout Catholic. I may not be a Christian myself, but I need to respect her resolve. Even past the age of eighty, she was making efforts to attend mass at St. John’s and frequently made donations to the church. I do not know what happens after death — or whether the “soul” lives on — but I do know that she drew her last breath with the sincere belief that she would be reunited with her husband — my grandfather — who died nearly twenty-five years ago. And that is an oddly comforting thought.
In my life, I have been fairly shielded from the deaths of loved ones. My aforementioned grandfather (and namesake) passed mere months before my conception. I’m not acquainted with my father’s side of the family, so any deaths thereof are meaningless to me as well. None of my friends from school and elsewhere has died. The worst I ever experienced were the losses of pets and distant relatives. But this one, the death of my grandmother — it hits, and it hits hard. I have, through the years, observed helplessly as so many of my friends suffered terrible losses and commenced periods of mourning and grief. All those things had always been foreign concepts to me. But I no longer need to imagine what they’re like.
I’m not asking for your sympathies or your condolences. I’m simply honouring my grandmother’s memory. There aren’t many things I believe in, but I do believe in respecting the dead and their wishes. The departed have no voice, but we can ensure that they’re not condemned to oblivion by reminding others of their existence — by talking about them and sharing stories about them. The ancient Egyptians had the notion of a “second death” — approximately seventy years after your corporeal death — when the world forgets you ever were. This blog post is but one small effort of mine toward this end of allowing my grandmother to live on.
Normally, I wouldn’t share a loss like this on Facebook. Like, ever. I know all too well what happens. I’ve seen it too many times to count. Somebody makes a heartfelt post about how “the world has lost a beautiful person” and that the person “had such a positive effect on me,” blah, blah, blah. Invariably, the post receives a slew of likes (or other reactions). Most people will see the post pop up in their news feeds, think, “Oh, that’s so sad,” and resume scrolling and view some funny videos and memes that their other friends shared that day. Maybe they’ll leave a comment with their regards. But most of them are the brief, shallow, unoriginal cookie-cutter reliables like, “I’m sorry for your loss,” or, “My prayers are with you and your family.” As if they are trying to express concern in the most efficient manner possible so that they can escape the guilt of not having said anything and still quickly get on with their own lives. I don’t mean to sound cold, but don’t waste your time or mine with them. Such condolences are about as mindless as the knee-jerk reaction of telling an armed forces veteran, “Thank you for your service,” and chances are that I will respond to your comment with as much sincerity and enthusiasm as you took to type it.
Yes, I am sad this week. But hark! I, Joseph Scott, the bereaved, hereby absolve you of any imagined obligation you may have to wish me your sympathies and/or condolences.
If I truly were looking for attention, you’d know. Trust me. After spending an entire summer pretending to be an impoverished, hungry beggar, I think I know a little about the art of making people feel sorry for me.
But I’m not. Because I’m not doing this for me. I’m doing this for my grandmother.
I recall a conversation I had with her some time ago regarding old age. I offered that many older folks are just young people wondering what the hell happened. They’re trapped inside bodies that weaken every day, and they wish they could reclaim the physical capabilities and attractiveness of their youth. I asked for her opinion on the matter.
She proclaimed, in the proudest, most indignant and resolute tone of voice, “I EARNED these wrinkles.”
What a champ.