My grandmother was sixty-five when she died. She had been battling cancer for years and over time it infected her lungs and ate away at her body until she passed away in a hospital bed in the living room of the house she and my grandfather shared. I kissed her chapped lips there as she lay on that foreign bed and that was the last time I saw her. She hardly knew who I was then, due to the pain medication her doctors had put her on, but when I tried to kiss her cheek, she moved her mouth towards mine and our lips met and I cried later that night in bed because that was the first and only time we had ever kissed. They had lived in that house forever. The decor was the same as it had been when they purchased it together in the sixties and it smelled of dust and mildew. Orange shag carpets, mustard-colored couches, heavy curtains, the hallway walls full of framed photos of my family. My mother grew up there, my uncle grew up there, my sisters and I stayed the night there countless times when I was young in the room where the wall was covered with paintings of soldiers and horses my family never knew but my eccentric grandmother adored for reasons beyond my comprehension. It had once been my uncle’s old bedroom. My grandfather still lives there, but has since redecorated. The vinyl floors replaced with smooth wood, the photos on the walls taken down to reveal a plain, white paint, the shag carpets ripped clean out. My grandmother used to leave all the doors and windows open, regardless of the weather, and the house was always freezing. It’s warmer now with all the doors and windows shut, but it’s lost it’s familiar charm. I now know that she left the house open to the elements because she would smoke in the garage but she didn’t want anyone to know. And nobody did, not even my mother. I would give anything to have it feel like that again, though; I see my grandpa every Christmas but I haven’t been there in years.
It wasn’t until I sat in the pews between either of my sisters and stared at her closed coffin in front of me that I realized how important she was to me. How selfish, how disgusting! But sometimes, that is the human condition. I am no exception. It wasn’t even until this most recent Christmas that I learned how physically beautiful the woman who taught me to use chopsticks and loved classical music and waited for hours on a lawn chair in the backyard with a few peanuts in the palm of her hand until a bluebird would swoop down and perch on her outstretched arm and eat a few nuts and never wore shoes and collected porcelain dolls was. I had never asked to see a photograph. But that was just the outside. I continue to learn something beautiful about her every time I see my grandfather or my mother. I just wish I’d had the capacity to ask her myself when I was younger.
She died when I was sixteen and in high school. I didn’t cry. I didn’t feel anything. I didn’t process it because I knew that it would happen very soon from the moment I saw her at our house at Christmas a few months before. She and my grandfather had just finished a tour around the United States in an RV they purchased. Her hair was very short, post-chemo and my mother clung to her the way a small child would cling to their mother’s side. She was afraid. But my grandmother smiled and chatted and I think it was because she had finished what she wanted to do. My grandparents purchased the RV as a final wish of my grandmother. And then she ended her life in the living room having traveled the continent and seen all the sights. The very same room I had spent so much time in as a child watching Fieval Goes West and Strawberry Shortcake cartoons on VHS. Except for this time I was watching a woman shrink under bleached white sheets.
My cousin in front of me sobbed and my mother to the right of me wiped silent tears from her cheeks in an unfamiliar church as my uncle got up in front of a meager crowd of older couples and my cousins and I to make the first and only speech at the funeral. No one else was strong enough. The story my uncle told that day was actually the most beautiful love story of all time. It was short but it was sweet and it was real. It belonged in fairy tales. I had not yet experienced love from someone that wasn’t family before. I had not even had a boyfriend. I had not even been touched by a boy. But I heard the story of Jack and Darlene and how they met and knew that I would have one too, if I was so lucky.
My grandparents had not known each other until much later in their lives when they met in the late fifties, although they lived in the same city. They had no friends in common. They probably would have never met ever, if it wasn’t for pure chance. Or was it fate? I am not sure yet if I believe in fate, but if anything were to point to it’s existence as more than just a concept attributed to those who also believe in astrology or God, it would be the meeting and subsequent solid marriage of my grandparents.
My grandfather was driving on the 101 freeway. I don’t know the day or the time or the weather or his destination, but I know that in the distance, he saw a strange car stopped on the side of the freeway and a woman standing outside of it all by herself. According to the story my uncle told, my grandfather Jack, pulled over to the side of the road where her car was and got out to help her because it was the gentlemanly thing to do. Cell phones didn’t exist at the time, obviously. The problem turned out to be a flat tire and the woman turned out to be the most beautiful woman my grandfather had ever seen. He changed her tire, discovered that her name was Darlene, and almost let her leave. Almost. But before she did, he had to ask her out for dinner. She agreed and that very same night, they had dinner together and later were married. They stayed married until Darlene’s last day of life.
The story is short, but at the time it hit me so hard. Great love stories like that continue on in my family. My parents had one and I had one once, although the end was far from beautiful, but it was something I’ll always remember. Ultimately, as I sat next to members of my family that day, I learned to not let another life pass me by without knowing who they were to the best of my ability. I know if I had asked my grandmother anything she would have given me hours worth of answers. I’m not upset, though. The passing down of stories is almost more magical and surreal. As of recent I’ve learned that Darlene owned a duck, decorated for nearly every holiday, and loved to plan and throw parties. She made every costume my mother and uncle wore for Halloween by hand. She never put on makeup unless she was going out. She had the tiniest waist of any woman I’ve ever known. And if I ever need a good love story, my grandfather is always near to tell me of how they met on the side of the freeway.