Three and a half years ago, my grandmother died.
She was 92 years old when she passed a few days before Christmas in 2008. I cried when I found out, but for the most part, I was able to keep things together. I told myself all the right things to justify why it was OK.
She had lived a full life. She was a beautiful woman, inside and out, and I never knew anyone who said a negative thing about her. She suffered from dementia in her declining years, but that was when her true spirit showed. While others might become irritable or paranoid when their mind fades, my grandmother remained warm and affectionate to those around her.
The second to last time I saw her alive was at the 50th anniversary celebration of when my grandparents moved to Chicago from Kingston, Jamaica with my mother and my mom’s five younger siblings. Even though my grandmother only vaguely recognized me, we spent half an hour on her couch holding hands. With her memories and mind stripped away, her warmth and undying love to those around her remained.
The last time I saw my grandmother alive, she was barely the woman I recalled cooking Jamaican dishes in my house and laughing along to The Little Mermaid during my childhood. She laid in a hospital bed, barely able to speak or eat. But when she was asked what her favorite song was, she perked up and sang along with my mother, sister and me the hymn “God’s So Good To Me.” When the song was over, she said “God IS so good to me, me child.” I kissed her on the cheek and told her I loved her. She told me she loved me too.
With her last fading sparks of life, Grandma emanated love.
The next time I saw my grandmother was in her coffin at her wake.
I thought I was prepared. I wasn’t.
It wasn’t her in the coffin. Sure, it was the body that used to hold my grandmother, but the person I remembered was so far removed from the dressed up corpse that it was jarring.
I don’t cry often. Less than once per year, I’d guess.
At my grandmother’s wake, I cried harder than any of the 40 or so people in the room.
My dad taught counseling for four decades. A specialty of his was grief counseling. I asked him to talk with me in the lobby of the funeral parlor and I asked him why I was so uncontrollably upset. He said that sometimes the pain doesn’t hit until you see the body.
My sister wondered if my doubts about the traditionally accepted afterlife where “we’ll see her again” might have contributed to the finality of the event in my mind.
It’s been three and a half years since my grandmother’s funeral, and I still haven’t figured out exactly what happened to me that day.
My mind goes back to what I told my father while fighting through my tears: I am acutely aware of my own mortality.
With that awareness has come a few realizations:
1) The way you treat other people matters.
At the end of the day, it may be the only thing that matters.
People generally won’t lie to cover up the bad person you were at your funeral. They just leave out the bad. They won’t badmouth you, but the people who know you will recognize what the eulogy leaves out.
There’s a difference between having to find enough people to deliver eulogies at a funeral and having to limit the amount of time each person has because of the number of people that want to speak. My grandmother’s funeral had the latter problem. And when people went long, nobody minded. You could sense the truth and emotion behind each person that spoke.
What Grandma left was how she made the people around her feel.
2) People don’t talk about your accomplishments unless that’s all there is to talk about.
My grandmother had a small business that she ran from her home in Chicago. She saved up a good deal of money from it, enough to always have, and enough to have left a good amount behind when she passed.
I didn’t learn about this during her life, despite the fact my grandmother lived with my family a good amount of time during my childhood.
My memories of her were her ability to make pancakes out of whatever ingredients were in the kitchen (she called it her “mix-up, mix-up”), her free laughter, how gentle she was with me and my sisters, how she was always humming a hymn while doing housework, how she folded my socks up into little balls, and how the closest she ever came to cursing was when she kept saying “Blessed assurance!” after our dog got into her knitting yarn.
I nod along in agreement when I hear things like “money doesn’t buy happiness” and “no one wishes they’d worked more on their deathbed.” Then I go right back to working long hours and amassing physical possessions and telling people I don’t have time to hang out. I am pretty certain at my funeral that no one will mention my LSAT score, my salary, the kind of car I drove, or anything else I have given way too much attention.
My grandmother focused on the people she loved. When it came time for people to focus on her, there was no shortage of people willing to help out, spend time with her, visit with her, and finally, speak about the life she lived.
3) You are either a net positive or net negative on this planet.
I got to speak briefly during Class Day at my law school graduation (the privilege had nothing to do with my grades, trust me).
I chose to talk about what I called my Alien Perspective Theory™.
My theory assumes that there are aliens watching humans from miles above the earth, tracking our every move. They don’t know our language. They don’t understand our culture or traditions. They don’t know anything about us except what they can see on the surface.
Without the benefit of any of that knowledge, I believe the aliens can still tell who the idiots are.
What I mean is this:
I think that you can tell with little effort which humans only take from their surroundings and which ones give.
I think from a high vantage point, you can tell who is productive and who is destructive.
I think we are like ants in an ant farm. You would notice which ant traveled all the way across the entire environment of its enclosure. And you would also notice which ants stayed in the same place, barely moving at all.
It’s been a little over 10 years since I gave that speech at graduation.
I just realized I’m a boring ant.
At some point, the guy who gave that speech died, and in his place is a guy who drives to work past the same traffic cop for the zillionth time, and wonders if the traffic cop looks at him and thinks “There he goes again.” At the end of each day I drive back home, not knowing if the world is a better place because of what I did that day. Many days I don’t know if I give as much as I take.
My grandmother gave. She gave her time, her money, herself. She left this earth with a ridiculously high balance in her give column.
At thirty-six years old, I don’t believe I have given as much as I have taken. And I have no idea how much time I have left to change the balance.
4) You will be dead soon.
I am very lucky. My grandmother is the closest person to me to die. I have both my parents, all three of my sisters, and as of this week, a niece.
The day will come when everyone I know is dead. My parents, my sisters, my children that don’t exist yet, will all be dead. So will I. You will be dead too.
What do I do with this knowledge? I only see two options.
The first option is to deny it.
Focus on the here and now. Treat the news of the day with utmost importance. Watch 35 hours of TV per week. Do things that feel good regardless of whether they are good. Avoid looking at myself naked in the mirror. Obsess about other people’s lives. Tell myself I’m better than others. Keep up with the latest trends. Stack up possessions I can’t take with me. Spend money in ways that impress someone else for a split second. Sweat small stuff. Never leave my comfort zone. Hope I am never made fully aware of the meaninglessness of my banal existence. Repeat until I die.
The other thing I can do with the knowledge of my impending doom is use it.
Embrace my fear of death. Act with a sense of urgency. Love my friends and family as if one of us will die tomorrow. Respect the one body I’ve been given that must last me the only life I know. Obsessively seek to improve others’ lives. Ignore sensationalist headlines and the daily buzz. Allow my expenditures to reflect my priorities. Focus on things that matter. Do things that matter. Live. Give. Love.
Regardless of what happens after death, I am determined – No – desperate to have my life mean something. In that I don’t think I am alone – I believe that is behind the vast majority of people’s motivations. We want to make a difference, to make a small dent in the universe before we’re forgotten.
In her death, my grandmother taught me the key to immortality.
The way my grandmother lived her life has changed me: I aim to be as loving to others as she was to me. In this way, her spirit lives on through me. The people that I am able to touch will touch other people. My future children will touch even more people.
One flap of my grandmother’s wings creates a wave that will ripple on into the future indefinitely.
Three and a half years after my grandmother’s death, she has taught me that she still lives.