Grief Envy

            The weeks my mother spent in hospice, I discovered—probably too late—that our family was not good at dying. This came to me as I watched the other people on our floor, whose lives now intertwined with ours every day, who were much better at it than we were.

            In this hospice (at least before the pandemic) there was a lot of room for creativity as you mourned and waited. I guess the sentiment was: Hey, you’ve got nothing to lose. I could see that the other families had made up their minds to send their loved ones off with panache. We sat in Room 312, frozen, making small talk, pretending it wasn’t happening. If you can be jealous of the way people grieve, I was.

            The family in Room 310 brought in one or two of their pets every day. The silence in our room was often punctuated with a lusty bark or the anguished meow of a cat who clearly thought it was at the vet. One morning, I passed by their open door and heard a parrot saying (repeatedly), “I love you, Gram.” And once they got off the elevator with a pot-bellied pig on a leash. We chatted about that—how could you not? His name was Pinky. They seemed surprised that everyone didn’t bring their pig to hospice. How much they didn’t know about us.

            On the other side, in Room 314, the family was Italian. Their noisy room was packed with people laughing and crying, and the smell of garlic. Their Nonna had stopped eating a while ago, so they were just waiting. And while they waited, they cooked. They brought in an electric frying pan and made meatballs and sauce. “We want her to remember how her kitchen smelled,” her son told me.

            Priests and ministers and rabbis came and went, smiling at us politely as they passed in the hall. The sweet hospice chaplain knocked and came in one day, just to sit and chat with my mother. He may have been too used to patients who were making peace with their God, though. My mother treated him as she might a timeshare salesman, and I could see this didn’t happen to him very often.

            Like Nonna and Gran, my mother had plenty of happy memories and a family who loved her, but she wanted nothing to do with the outward grieving that was taking place in other rooms—pets, culinary, or otherwise. So, we sat by her bed and took her lead.

            Three days before my mother died, my favorite nurse and I were talking in the coffee room. She said, “I saw your mother do the rope thing last night.” I had no idea what she was talking about, so she pantomimed it for me—raising both arms in the air over her head, looking up, and moving her hands as if she were climbing an imaginary rope. She didn’t think it was a religious thing, she told me, just the person getting ready to go. She said, “Some people do it and some don’t. You wouldn’t believe how many ways there are to die.”

          I’d spent my weeks feeling bad we weren’t doing it the right way, and all along, my mother was just doing it her way, as she had done life. She didn’t become a 1950s housewife like every woman on our block because she had a career. She didn’t go to church or play Bridge or cook worth a damn because she had other things to do. She was loved and she loved, but at the end, there were no squawking pets or meatballs simmering. She did the rope thing. There was something waiting on the other side, and she was impatient, as always, to see what it was.

A Small story

I watch too many YouTube videos for a person my age. I’m prone to following Twitter wars from the sidelines and staying to see the bitter end. And—okay—I once went on a Facebook search for someone who took me to a school dance. In 1968.

To ease my guilt, I remind myself that I don’t watch anything violent or completely useless. I’ve never fallen down a conspiracy theory rabbit hole, or “done my own research” on vaccines. But I waste too much time, the one thing I really can’t squander. Once in a while, though, I find a gem online, and I’m forgiven. That’s what happened today.

He is a Black man, about 30, telling his camera what happened as he was driving alone in his expensive new car with temporary license plates. As soon as he heard a siren and saw the police officer behind him, he pulled over. “No big deal,” he says, “happens all the time.” He means, of course, that it happens to people who look like him, but not to the white woman who is about to enter his story.

He’s told to wait on the sidewalk while the cop finds out if the man really owns the car. This takes a while, and as he looks idly around, he spots her.

She’s a gray-haired woman who’s parked across the street, holding her phone up, recording from her side window. He and the woman make eye contact, and she gives him a thumbs up. But she doesn’t move and she doesn’t put her phone down.

“It came to me all at once,” he says in his video. “I have an ally! That old lady over there is watching out for me. She wants to make sure I’m okay.” When the officer finally tells him he’s free to go, he waves to the woman and gets in his car. Only then does she pull away.

It’s a small story, I agree, but these days little stories have a way of taking on much more, often without warning. I watched his video twice and wondered about myself, if I had been that woman who just happened to be in that place at that time. Would I have done that?

I come from a long line of people who paid a premium for staying in our own lane. My grandmother was famous for telling me, “Mind your own business, and for God’s sake, stop trying to change the world. It doesn’t work.” Now I’m as old as she was when she gave me that advice. She would have called it courtesy to avert your eyes. Today, it’s just the opposite.

Maybe, for a second, as that woman pulled her car over and hit record, she thought twice about intruding on a stranger’s life. Maybe she worried the situation would escalate and she’d be in danger. But she did it anyway.

Darnella Frazier was taking her cousin out for snacks that evening in Milwaukee. She could have kept walking when she saw George Floyd lying on the ground. The cops even yelled at her to stop recording. She did it anyway.

Maybe my chance will come, too. I’m sure I’ll hear my grandmother’s voice in my ear, whispering, “You can’t change the world.” But I’ll do it anyway. Because you never know anymore.