“Great Grandma Died. She Got Better”

My wife’s grandmother died in the winter of 1990 after a slow decline. Our daughter, Annie, was a few months shy of her second birthday.  Judy and I brought her to a small, dark church in Reading to meet relatives who’d never had a chance to see her in the flesh.  We figured that Annie wouldn’t understand the proceedings and be affected, and that the sight of her might dispel some of the gloom.  Relatives filtered in before the service began, and I attended to Annie as folks made their introductions and chatted together in small groups.

I took Annie back to Judy’s parents before the minister made his appearance as we didn’t think that she could make it through the service without causing a disruption.  Annie rarely made a commotion in public, but liked to socialize with anyone sitting near her.  She peeped over the tops of booths in restaurants and once charmed a complete stranger into handing us ten bucks.  He told us to buy a gift for our little darling.  Judy and I imagined her crawling along a pew to canvas mourners for their time and attention.

We had a snack and played on the carpet with dolls and stuffed animals. Judy and her parents came home, and Annie seemed unfazed by her glimpse of death and bereavement.  But she must have absorbed some understanding of the seriousness of a funeral.  A few days later she asked Judy, “What happened to Great Grandma Alma?”  Judy told her that Alma had died.  Annie grew somber and quietly asked her mother, “Are you going to die?”  My wife made a quick decision.  She knew that Annie’s understanding of time, at that stage in her development, probably stretched forward about two weeks.  She could understand and anticipate upcoming events only if they occurred within a short span.  So Judy said, “No, Annie.  I’m not going to die.”  Then she asked, “Am I going to die?”  “No, Annie, you’re not going to die,” my wife reassured her.

That spring we drove to Judy’s parents for Easter.  Judy’s other grandmother, Lily, attended the family dinner.  Someone must have told my daughter that the elderly woman with white hair was her great grandmother.

Annie had developed considerable language skills by that age, but did not know that “great grandmother” could refer to more than one person.  During a lull in the conversation, Annie got her mother’s attention and pointed at Lily.  Annie said, “Great Grandma died.  She got better.”





This winter shapes up to be a season of mortality. This year’s flu is particularly virulent, and other causes have separated several friends, relatives, and acquaintances from their dear ones.

A colleague died of brain cancer two weeks ago, and a mutual friend reported that Jackie remained calm as she faced the end. Although she was an atheist who believed that the lights went out permanently after she drew her last breath, she declared that she was unafraid of death.

My viewpoint shifts on the issue of mortality, but, for the most part, I’ve concluded that dying is a bad idea. I usually reach certainty on that point when thinking about my own demise. Wouldn’t the world be a sadder place without me? And wouldn’t my erasure from existence leave an unfillable void? And am I not a unique specimen and thus somewhat precious?

Those other folks who slipped on the Cosmic Banana Peel and slid over the edge into The Great Whatever must not have been as special. And while I regret their misfortune, I can’t help feeling that my continued efforts to remain breathing must have some blessing from the fates. I’m still here for a reason. I hope, for the time being, that my mission requires a lengthy amount of time to work itself to a conclusion.

I adopt other mental stances to push back the creeping dread. I cling to the guarantees of my faith. I recall the assurances I received from my grandfather and sister shortly after their funerals: they visited me in dreams to let me know that they were all right. My wife felt the presence of her father for a year after his death. These communications from the other side comfort me, but fear remains a stubborn companion. I am a coward, unlike Jackie, when I stare into the abyss.

I feel just like I did as a boy when I sat on top of a tall slide at the NCR swimming pool. My fingers and toes tingled in anticipation, but the height made me dizzy. The water looked way too far away, and I doubted it would cushion the end of my descent. And, as someone behind pushed my shoulders to encourage me to go, I recalled two things: I’d reached a point of no return (no way to climb through ten kids down the ladder); and I couldn’t swim two yards.

I pinched my nose and took the next inevitable step, and as I rushed downward I told myself that the water was only three feet deep. The bottom of the pool was slippery, but I hadn’t managed to drown just yet. I might make it after all.






All About After

I don’t care for the aftermath.  Taking action feels a lot more powerful, and living in the moment offers less time to consider one’s regrets.  After is an ugly guy who comes for a visit, sleeps on the couch, eats up all the food in the fridge, and won’t tell me when he’s leaving.  But After gives me an opportunity to arrange recent events in a framework that makes sense.  Then I can move on.  Then I can make peace with What Is.

My Daily After is the butt end of a day, and I’m the last two inches of a smoldering cigar.  While I’m in the middle of teaching a class I’m usually caught up in the process of communicating with students, evaluating their work, giving advice and planning ahead for the next exercise.  I sometimes teach Drawing I and II simultaneously and have little time for a breather.  When a class is over I answer follow up questions and tidy the studio before making my exit.  On the walk to the parking lot I download the emotions I’ve pushed aside in class.  (An instructor must create the illusion of self composure at all times.)  As I trudge to the car my adrenaline fades, and my books and equipment feel heavier the longer I carry them.  Then I discover how much effort I’ve expended.  My mood dips, and I relive each mistake just made in class.

My Rejection After varied during my dating years.  Sometimes a girlfriend dumped me long before I was ready to call it quits, and my feelings for her lingered painfully for a month or two.  Other break ups left nothing but a sense of relief and freedom.  Time and reflection sometimes gave the realization that I had been mercifully spared.  But in one case it took me three years to figure out that the object of my desire had treated me badly and always would.

The Grieving After:  My sister suffered a long decline as she died from ALS.  During a visit I presented an even tempered demeanor.  I reminded myself as I talked to my parents, brother and sister that my emotions were not the most important thing. Time spent with my family was not about me.  My true state of mind asserted itself on the plane ride home.  I took an upgrade to first class if the ticketing agent made an offer, and I ordered a complimentary whiskey before the plane took off.  I felt no shame as I gulped my drink even if the morning sun had just crossed the horizon.  As we flew south I stared out of the window at the passing clouds, and a heavy sensation filled my chest.  On the trip home from Orlando International my wife drove, and I sobbed.  I became functional after two or three days passed, but during the down time spoke little and kept to myself.  I found it difficult to adjust to the concrete realization, reinforced over and over during my visit, that dying is a process of losing everything.

My father in law died in 2008.  The kind and solicitous representatives from the funeral home drove us from the grave site to my mother in law’s house.  The man riding shotgun opened the door to let us out of the limo and quickly turned away without saying anything in farewell.  I realized that the funeral directors had finished their work, and any compassion shown at the viewing, service and interment had been part of a contract just ended.  We were on our own.  My mother in law drove us to her favorite local restaurant for lunch.  It had rained hard at the cemetery, but now the clouds scattered and weak sunlight brightened the wintry hills of eastern Pennsylvania.  The crowded dining room hummed with conversation, and the checkered table cloth and vase of artificial chrysanthemums made our table insistently cheerful.  Our group said little at first, but after the food arrived we chewed our salads, ate our bread, and told a few stories about the man we had buried an hour before.  We even laughed at a few jokes.

The A-Mortal Life: The Endless Years

golfing reaper

I recently came across a startling passage in the book “Sapiens” by Yuval Harari, a historian with a PhD. from Oxford.  He predicts that by the year 2050 we will become a-mortal, that we will live indefinitely as long as we manage to avoid a catastrophic accident in an isolated location.  Our limbs and organs will be periodically replaced, and our minds rejuvenated;  Death will lose it’s capital D status and will no longer be the determining factor in our life choices.

I won’t live long enough for this to happen, but my children and grandchildren might.  Their ideas about purpose and meaning will be radically altered if this sea change actually occurs.  The main problem of being alive will shift.  Now we worry about making our lives meaningful in the short and uncertain time that we have been allotted by fate.  Then our descendants will have to choose what to do to fill up the abundant time given to them.

Contemplate an endless stretch of years to work, love, and play.  Would we have to make over our lives every fifty or seventy years out of sheer boredom?  When we have our major organs retreaded every half century will we trade in jobs, dismiss spouses, and search for new locations?  Imagine walking into a strip mall medical facility and ordering an all-in-one special:  “I’ll take the liver transplant and brain defogger along with an educated, leggy brunette and a move to Seattle.  Wait, wait.  I’ve been hetero for a little too long.  Give me a short, blond guy, kind of butchy.  I feel like being dominated for a while.”

What if we become intensely bored with accounting but have few other talents?  We can become reeducated and take up archaeology or linguistics, but what if we’re lousy at them and fail constantly?  Personal economics might force us to return to our “home field of endeavor”, and we would be doomed to learn tax law and fill out forms indefinitely.  We’d never be able to retire as our golden years would never arrive.  And even if we are gifted with many talents, won’t they be exhausted if we live long enough?  “I’ve been a painter, a writer, an actuary, gambler, judge, architect and a scientist.  Geez, what’s left?  I haven’t tried dog walking and male prostitution yet.  Hmmmm.  I more of a cat person, and I look hideous in spandex….Decisions, decisions.”

Traditional religions would most likely fall to the wayside.  Most trade on the question of whether there’s life after death, but that issue will lose a lot of potency if the fatal moment no longer looms.  Buddhism might be the exception, but I wonder if the attraction of living in the moment might fade when there’s a nearly endless supply of moments.  Funerals will be sporadic, exceptions to rule, and the mourners will be preoccupied more with judging the deceased’s folly than in wondering what will happen to his spirit now that it’s left the a-mortal coil.  “What was Bob thinking when he tried to milk his pet Black Mamba for venom while driving his sports car at 150 mph on the Blue Ridge Parkway in the middle of a sleet storm?  He was just asking for it.”

Philosophers and theologians have been fond of pointing out that death gives life its meaning.  It’s like the sidelines and goal lines in football.  The game makes no sense if there are no boundaries to focus energy and action.  Death forces us to make choices, to measure the current worth of our lives, and motivates us to improve our life’s value.  Our time here is a precious quantity, and we can’t waste it.  Death also offers us a respite from endless worry and suffering.  Freud’s Death Wish is really the hope that the shitstorm of living will finally end.

Some will argue that suffering will end once death no longer holds sway over mankind.  What is there to fear once the Grim Reaper is forced into semi-retirement?  Any injury or malady will only be a temporary discomfort.  Life will be a paradise….

But consider the possibility of having ten mother-in-laws roaming around trash talking you behind your back, or several fatal attraction-esque former mates stalking you and demanding your attention.  “I will not be ignored!  Ignored!  Ignored!”  Imagine the tangle of children and grandchildren, some of whom you like and enjoy, but others you wish to avoid for a very long time.  They’d find you eventually and demand money, gifts and favors.  There would be no escape.

I predict that a new death cult would arise.  It wouldn’t be one that dealt with the inevitability of death, but one that would tempt it.




A Tale of Two Grannies (Part II)


I don’t know much about my Grandma Schmalstig’s early years. She was born into the Bettinger family in northwest Ohio. In early pictures she is seldom seen smiling because her teeth were in  disastrously bad shape. She eventually had most of them pulled and happily wore dentures. She met my Grandpa at a dance. John Schmalstig played trombone in a group that traveled from small farm town to small farm town. They performed dance music at Grange Halls on Saturday nights. I don’t know any details of their courtship, but they chose wisely and had a happy marriage.

My grandparents had nine children who all survived into adulthood. There were five boys and four girls. My mother reports that when she was dating my Dad she came over for visits and was struck by the informal, countrified feel of the house on Haynes Street. Meals were served in huge platters that weren’t passed politely around the table. Folks reached and grabbed to make sure that they got their fair share. An old hound dog left its hair all over the furniture. My grandfather had converted the half acre back yard into a vegetable garden and cherry orchard. My mother was used to the practice of a more genteel set of manners, but believed that she was treated with greater kindness and respect at the Schmalstigs than she was at home.

When I was little we visited with my grandparents once or twice a month. My grandma was shy and quiet and often held her hand over her mouth when she laughed as if she still had a mouthful of teeth that embarrassed her. I once asked her when I was about five or six if she would draw me a bunny. My Mom and Grandpa Reger could draw, and I assumed that most adults had the knack. Grandma S. blushed at my request, but picked up a pencil and a piece of paper and drew me a stick figure rabbit. I realized that I had put her on the spot, but was touched that she had made the effort. I thanked her for the drawing and she seemed relieved that I liked it.

Some friends of theirs came by unannounced on a Saturday night when my family was over for a visit. I had never met them before, and these strangers were loud and uncouth. A man went out to kitchen to help himself to some popcorn, and when he came back to the living room he ignored the trail of spilled popcorn he left on the rug when he carelessly tipped his bowl. They also spilled their beer and soda on the carpet and did nothing to wipe out the stains. They left before we did, and my grandparents’ living room looked like it had been hit by a tornado. I asked my grandmother why they hadn’t cleaned up their mess. She just laughed and said, “Oh, they’re like that.”

I spent an afternoon alone with her one day when my parents were busy running errands. She let me play outside in her yard for a long time, and then called me in for a snack. We sat at her big oak kitchen table and played cards while I worked my way through a plate of cookies and a glass of milk. We played War, and she smiled at me when I won a game. I noticed that she was happy to spend time with me, which wasn’t normally the case when I stayed at the Reger’s house.

When I was nine Grandma Schmalstig was diagnosed with cancer. It started in her kidneys and had metastasized throughout her body by the time she went to a doctor. Her daughters and daughters-in-law pitched in and took care of her as she lay dying in a hospital bed in her living room. When it was my mother’s turn to help out she left my brother, sister and me on the broad porch that ran the length of the front of the house. We played with the other cousins who were similarly marooned.

Most of us were too young to fully understand what was going on inside the house, but one day we found out  when  we were ushered into the living room. We stood in a row beside Grandma’s bed and waited for something to happen.  Grandma seemed to be lost in her thoughts and didn’t greet us right away. I was shocked by the change in her appearance. She had gone from pleasantly plump to emaciated, and there were deep lines and grooves on her face. I was frightened by her transformation.

She made a great effort and sat up and turned to us. She looked like she was in pain. But when she gazed at us her eyes blazed with intense emotion. She smiled fiercely, triumphantly at the sight of her grandchildren standing before her.  I suddenly realized that here was someone who passionately and unreservedly loved me and everyone else in the room whether we deserved it or not. It hit me like a thunderbolt.

She lay back down exhausted after a minute or so, and we were led back out onto the porch. I never saw her alive again, and to this day I still miss her.