Thoughts on life after the PhD
My paternal grandmother died at around 3 in the morning on Sunday, August 8. She was ninety-two and had been mostly immobile and non-verbal for months. There was sadness in her death, but I would be lying if I said that there wasn’t also a sense of relief.
I would also be lying if I claimed that I’d always been close to her. In the last ten years we had seen each other once a year at most. In the last five years her communication abilities had declined rapidly, and she had lost most of her short-term memory. She remembered my name, but would often forget exactly how we were related. At one point she tried to set me up on a date with my own father and / or uncles, going on and on about how handsome and successful they were. I suppose some people might have found this tragic, but I just thought it was funny—and knowing how proud she was of her sons, I was more than a little flattered.
My most vivid memories of her are, naturally, from my early childhood. I remember endless hours spent playing in a house full of boxes of many-colored buttons, of fabric scraps that became clumsily-made clothes, of books with pictures of semi-precious stones that my sister and I never tired of looking at, pronouncing each exotic word carefully before we could read the letters ourselves. My grandmother was there as we turned the living room coffee table into a fort of bedsheets and books. She sent us to the bath with a wonderful pile of saucepans and metal kitchen utensils to bang and splash with. She cooked crisp brown bread covered in a mix of butter, cinnamon and pecans, a breakfast I have always wanted to recreate but have never tried to, for fear that it would simply never measure up to my memories. She tucked us into bed in the White Room, the reverently named guestroom where the curtains, walls, and duvet covers were gleaming white.
Much of her life was a mystery to me until she was dying. I never knew that she had three sisters and a brother and grew up poor in Austin. I never knew that the sisters all made a pact that they wouldn’t marry and would instead go to business college to get jobs to support the family and take care of their ailing mother, and that one of them would become an outcast when she broke the pact and moved away.
Going through my grandmother’s small pile of clothes, photos, and a large collection of classic movies, I found an unopened letter mailed to her in July 2009 from that outcast sister. It was written with a typewriter, in short sentences. “I have been wanting to have a long visit with you. We had some hard times. There was no money and there was the war. I know it was hard for you when I left and you had to take care of mother. I know it was hard because Gene (my grandfather) had a breathing problem and Favian had a drinking problem. He died at 60 because of it.
“I live in a nursing home now. There is nothing much to do. I hope you have a TV. That helps.”
The letter ended with an address and a request to write. I wondered if my grandmother had by then been too disoriented to open her mail, or if she had purposefully ignored it. Part of me felt bad for opening it myself, but it seemed like the sort of letter that needed to be read.
I helped my father write the obituary, learning that it’s impossible to write obituaries without sounding clichéd, but that clichés can still have meaning.
Though my grandmother spent the last years of her life in an assisted living facility, my father and uncles were there regularly to feed her, chat with her, and move her back and forth from her bed to the dining room. One night I watched as they took her back to her room, undressed her, put her in her nightgown, picked her up like a small child, and covered her with a blanket. These small acts, done repeatedly as she grew frailer and frailer and more ghost-like, taught me a lot about who they were.
At the end of her life it amazed me that someone who had filled my childhood with her bigness could have become so small, her tiny body barely filling a third of the equally small bed where she slept. But of course she could never really become small. In memory she would always be a presence beyond the human, everything she touched somehow transformed from the mundane to the sublime. Death could not reduce her.
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tales of travel, research, and life
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