Do you realize
That you have the most beautiful face?
Do you realize
We’re floating in space?
I couldn’t help looking across the aisle at the two UMs. They were not traveling together, but because they were UMs they were, of course, set right next to each other. I wondered if they were going from one parent to another parent. Or maybe they were going home from their grandparents’ house. I looked at their quiet faces and the big, awkward UM tags the airlines still hang around their necks. It seemed somehow perfect that I was flying from LAX to SFO, still Unattended, though no longer a Minor, going home from my Grandma’s house for the last time.
How many times had I made this flight, back in the day on PSA, with my UM tags? There would be no way to count. Every summer practically from birth I found myself in The Valley with my grandparents. I think I started making the trip on my own when I was five or six. I continued to go throughout my college career and beyond. But this weekend I had not flown down to The Valley, I had gone to Santa Fe. And this was a different kind of visit. I did everything I could to try to get to Santa Fe to see my Grandma Joan. But I was too late. Or maybe I wasn’t. It is so hard to tell sometimes.
Do you realize
That happiness makes you cry?
The entire weekend was temporally elastic, rubbery, vague, anachronistic… much like the entire experience of Alzheimer’s in many ways. Not all bad. But sad. Sitting in the airport in Albuquerque with my Uncle Patrick and my Aunt Kay today we could not even remember what day it was. When had we arrived? When had we heard? How long had we been here? It was all so surreal.
Only January 17. Just seventeen days into the new year and so much has happened.
When I think about it in one-dimensional terms, 2011 has started out in a way that might make you go “Hmmmm…” I began the year with MRSA. Yes, that is penicillin resistant staph. Yes, it is totally fucking gross to even think about. And yes, R called me Staphanie for days because of it. Then there was “The Great Fall of 2010.” That was an incident that involved sober me, a fantastic cocktail dress and a dozen concrete stairs. Suffice it to say, I won; but not without a fight. We are all still wondering how it was that it worked out like it did. When I told R about it he said, “Be careful, stuff happens in threes.” I raised my eyebrow. Then I got a nasty case of bronchitis that seemed to really want to be laryngitis, but I wasn’t having it. When I went to yoga, my teacher said, “Oh Amanda…” and he was sympathetic in a way that seemed misplaced, or at least unnecessary. I thought maybe R was right, and this was the third thing.
And then I got the news about my Grandma.
Do you realize
That everyone you know someday will die?
With a day’s notice I was on the road to try to see my Grandma. But on the day that Martin Luther King, Jr. was born, my Grandma left us. Somehow, it seems like perfect company because I am not sure I know anyone who embodied the kind of compassion and grace that is supposed to underlie the teachings of the Christian faith than MLK and my grandmother. Everyone who knew my grandmother loved her.
As I watched the sun come up from above 30,000 feet en route to my family I thought of all the things I could about my Grandma. The mental list making was comforting. I thought about her cooking – always cooking – tabouleh, hummus, bagels and lox and those sweet onions she loved. I thought about the soundtrack of her life – Old Blue Eyes, Sarah Vaughn, Billie Holiday, Tony Bennet, Miles Davis, John Coltrane and how she hummed along to them all in her own little scat style. I thought about all those summers in the Valley, the place she chose to move to after watching the Rose Bowl in Detroit and seeing all these people in shorts and shirt sleeves in January. I remembered the amusement parks (every one!) Dodger games. How she just loved Magic Johnson so much. I remembered how there was not a question she could not answer in the Entertainment category in Trivial Pursuit. I thought about how she would watch me and Grandpa play cards and backgammon and how she would laugh when I would run in and announce that I had “skunked Grandpa again!” And her smile when I finally asked if Grandpa had been letting me win all those years. I thought about all those Sundays in church, rewarded with strawberry waffles at IHOP. I thought about the Mission at San Fernando and all the questions it always brought up for me. And how I was so worried for a time that she thought I might go to Hell because I had not been baptized or confirmed. I thought about her laugh. Her poker playing skills. Her sweet tooth. Late nights with Johnny Carson. Late mornings with the LA Times and her passion for politics. I thought about her kindness. Her love for my Grandpa and her family. Her signature on all the cards and notes she sent me over the years. I thought about all the lessons she taught me: It’s only money. Be kind. Don’t sweat the small stuff. Count your blessings.
And I realized that the reason that I never even entertained the idea that this year has been anything but alright is really because of the way my Grandma taught me to think about life. I could always opt to be one of those whiners and become a victim of my circumstances. But then again, that is just one option, and there are so many more from which to choose.
And instead of saying all of your goodbyes
Let them know you realize that life goes fast
It’s hard to make the good things last
You realize the sun doesn’t go down
It’s just an illusion caused by the world spinning round
My Grandma was so unusual in so many ways. She was an unusual beauty. She was an unusual Catholic. She was an unusual mother-in-law. She was an unusual political activist. And she was the best grandmother that there ever was.
The gifts my Grandma gave me are innumerable and invaluable. But after an unplanned weekend in Santa Fe, there is one gift that was right there for me to appreciate. My momma, all of my aunts and uncles and cousins and the extended families that came together because of Grandma Joan. As one of my most special friends said to me in an email: “…to everyone in your lovely family. They all began with Joanie.”
JOAN ROSE BARICKMAN
July 31, 1917 – January 15, 2011