I wrote this shortly after my grandmother died in February 2008. There aren’t enough examples of non-religious grief on the Internet, so I thought I would post it again. Some recent events make this kind of thing seem appropriate; more on that in future posts. (The version below is edited for style.)
I didn’t cry at Santiago’s funeral because he was furniture as far as my emotions were concerned. He was a fixture of his surroundings—a cantankerous old man, but neither a blood relation nor someone I knew well. He appeared in my life whenever Maria did, being her husband, and was someone I pitied more than honestly loved. He suffered greatly in that role due to her steady insanity, but he had his ways of getting back at her, and this exchange of covert hostility in the midst of whatever inspired their marriage seemed to keep them alive until his kidneys failed him.
It was obvious to all of us that Maria wouldn’t last long without him. Theirs was a strange symbiosis, and each kept the other safely on the ground when they weren’t at each other’s throats. If Maria was unhinged before, she declined inexorably with Santiago’s passing, and it was all Dad could do to keep her from ruining herself in her final months. She still managed to change clinics without warning and replace her furniture a few times, though.
It was a few heart attacks arrayed around a stroke that did her in. It is fortunate that the doctors decided against excising her stone-filled gallbladder, discovered at the same time, or she would have died then and there. She was aged, but vigorous, known the block over for her raucous efforts to prevent leaves from touching the ground. Much as yardwork instinctively repels me, I have to respect that kind of dedication.
I didn’t expect to cry at her funeral, and my first reaction on hearing the news that her heart had finally given up on her was a sort of relieved thrill that Dad could finally rest, not having her dire health and her dementia grating on his emotions. (Just as importantly, Mom told him on occasion that, if she had ever had to live with us permanently, it would probably have caused their divorce. She and Maria couldn’t stand each other.) I went to the vigil expecting rather the same thing I found at Santiago’s: a few hours to catch up with family members I don’t see very often. That much did not fail me.
When I looked at Santiago’s body I was impressed mainly by how dead he looked. There was no sense of peace or grandeur to his body. He was simply gone, reduced to his graying preserved form so that we might remember him.
Maria was much harder to view. Perhaps it was merely that I knew more of her and thus her passing hit me that much harder. She did not look merely dead. There was a sense of final, ineluctable tranquillity that Santiago’s body lacked. Where to Santiago’s husk I could intone in my mind, over and over, “You meant well,” to her I had a bit more to say.
Your heart was in the right place, most of the time. That much is true. Whatever your crazed dementia had you doing to yourself or to Santiago, your heart was mostly in the right place. Even if you knew not what you were doing, you at least had a vague grasp on why.
I am told that her death was graphic. After her stroke, her muscular control was no longer functional, and she went into spasms. Within the night, she had another heart attack and perished soon after. It was inevitable that, faced with her strangely tranquil corpse, I would ask that impossible question: Why?
As we of the materialistic persuasion all know, there is no why that could satisfy the capital question, Why? There is no Why. There is only the why that looks and smells like how, the one that is so obvious that it isn’t worth answering. Why was her death so graphic, she who had done much with little and made it through serious illness in years past thanks to the unswerving devotion of her only son? Why couldn’t she go quietly?
The sheer finality of it tore at my eyes and throat. I could not restrain it all for long, and in my efforts I permanently damaged my TMD-therapy retainer. It was almost a conscious choice to let myself cry rather than holding it all in, which felt just as natural. There was no shuddering sob or wail, just a fitful stream of water in between the priest’s reminding us all to take advantage of the time before us, which might be shorter than we imagine.
Looking at Dad, I saw him keeping his eyes dry for a few moments longer. Many envy my strength, but in that moment, I envied his.
I had an epiphany rather like the Martian’s in Stranger in a Strange Land, when he watches monkeys in a territory battle at a zoo and has a sudden flash of all-encompassing insight, in that instant coming to a complete understanding of the human race. “I grok people!” he stammers between maniacal, choking laughter, he who had been unable to laugh at all just seconds before. It was here, lodged between fruitless Whys, crying softly, that I understood something. This, this moment right here is what drives people to religion. The emptiness, the vacant, desolate meaninglessness of death: this drives people to notions of immortality. The wracking tragedy of a dear loss creates incessant demands for Why, for there to be some reason for the universe to permit it, demands for a Supreme Being and a heavenly paradise to explain and thus mitigate the horror. Religion is, as none other than Karl Marx once said, the opiate of the masses, in this analgesic sense.
Knowing that the meaning sought by the rest of the room would never be found was not sufficient to stay my grief. I hardly knew Maria, I never liked her, and I never felt that I comprehended anything about her being except in the context of her progressive dementia, but the idea that she had to suffer so before finding final cessation of nervous activity was too much. It was a criminal accident. Second law of thermodynamics notwithstanding, something felt absolutely wrong about that.
But more so, I cried because I saw others cry, people like my grandfather, who divorced her acrimoniously, and my father, easily the strongest person I have ever known. He was her only son, and he kept her alive for her 79 years, more than anyone else. Knowing the loss he had sustained was orders of magnitude more heart-rending than the spasms in my own throat and watching him barely complete the hesitant eulogy he had prepared was too much for me.
Many envy my strength, but in that moment, I envied his.
Goodnight, Abuela Maria.