One Friday, Noél texted me with the news that her grandfather was admitted to the hospital. I said I’d visit her the next day—she was in Hershey where he lives, a short drive from Lancaster. Up’pa is her maternal grandfather, and although we’ve been at many of the same family dinners and events, I am always introduced to him, and he is delighted to meet me every time. He communicates mostly by signing in ASL, which I do not know, so our conversations are brief.
I didn’t end up going to Hershey; Noél needed to drive, even a few miles away, so she came to Lancaster. We went shopping for clothes, books, whatever, and bought nothing besides groceries for her mom: resorted to dinner at that Asian buffet on Fruitville Pike, eating really too much altogether but especially her with all that gluten hiding in the sauces, ignoring the threat of it closing up her throat. Sipping on hot tea with a stack of plates, we laughed: this is all we ever do: shop, just to browse, and spend all our money on food. Afterwards, we stopped at the liquor store: something for her and her mom: a bottle of champagne: because why not?: it was Sunday: a long week: a diagnosis of cancer.
My grandfather also has cancer—he was diagnosed the same week that his wife died. It didn’t look good for him; we were crossing our fingers for Thanksgiving, Christmas, the New Year. Now it’s March and he says he’ll be there at my graduation—the best present.
Up’pa is not the closest thing Noél has to a father but he is blood: he is not allowed to leave yet, at least not until after her graduation. She said this to me on the elliptical at Planet Fitness. We went to the gym (burning off the calories from the massive amount of food we eat every time we’re together), both forgot headphones (yes, yes, we know); we were those people bobbing up and down on the ellipticals, trying to have a full on conversation, albeit staccato and breathless:
I want to go to grad school.
Where do you want to go?
I think maybe in the South.
I think I want to too.
But only in the North.
And then: we talked about the hardest parts of the last several years. Upcoming graduation means celebration: means the anniversary of her father’s death: means there can be no crying for her grandfather too. Noél was frustrated at the prospect of not having her father at her high school graduation or her grandfather at her college graduation—no, not frustrated—perturbed, irritated at her grandfather’s body for daring to consider leaving her: she needs him there.
Noél’s grandfather and my own—both of them with cancer in their bodies: in the brain, in the pancreas—willed to live for their granddaughters’ graduations: see how far we’ve come, from when you held us as infants. I don’t know if they feel obliged to May 9th or 18th, our respective graduation dates. Maybe they just want to be with us for as long as they’re able, but not for those dates in particular. They are just other days, but they will be the biggest days in our lives so far, and our grandfathers will never live to see us engaged, or married, with children, or our dream jobs: those things they want for us, those things we wish they were here for.
My grandfather is doing better. He’s lost almost all of his hair but is playing his band jobs again (he’s in a folk duo; he sings and plays guitar). He says he’ll be at my graduation. I am glad of this for many reasons, but namely because he has paid for my college tuition and I feel so inadequate at saying thank you. But maybe seeing me walk across the stage to receive the diploma I worked for will be enough, and he will know how grateful I am because I’ve tried so hard to do well.
Noél’s grandfather is not doing better; I ask how he is, and she says, “he is not doing well at all,” and I don’t want to ask any more questions because maybe if I don’t ask them, maybe things won’t get any worse. But I ask anyway, and she says, “I don’t know, I just know he’s not doing well”: because she doesn’t want to ask any questions either.
It’s a routine type of relationship between the dying and their loved ones: in between the absence of questions are commands, refusals to die, attempts to guilt them into living, saying, “Hold on. Don’t you love me? If you love me, you’d hold on.” Maybe these strategies work in some cases, adding another few days, weeks, even years of breathing.
I want to look up the statistics for this, to give this claim more validity, but I don’t know what or where to search. No, that’s not true; I could figure it out if I wanted to. What’s really stopping me is the fear that begging people to stay doesn’t really work—it doesn’t make them stay. Because while I don’t feel right about guilting the ones you love to stay for you, I know that at some point in my life I will be on the giving or receiving end of these sentiments. But who am I to attempt to refuse someone’s body from relinquishing itself? It is unspeakably selfish, an adaption of unregistered godliness, when we pretend to have the power to prevent the natural cessation of breath. But we all do it, we encourage a few more labored inhales just to assure ourselves that they aren’t gone from us yet.
Gone: lost, dead, empty, absorbed, infatuated, past: all of these in gone. We feel lost, empty, absorbed by the fear that we are now dead in some sense, too, infatuated with the past when they were still whole, when they were alive, existent, existing, extent, living. Here. Still. Enduring. You’re either one or the other: no sense in trying to bridge them.
On the other hand, maybe some people do live longer when they are pressed to do so, given a convincing enough argument to continue pumping blood. And maybe living a little longer is what they really want; or maybe they live out of guilt of leaving. How sad, or, how beautiful that we sacrifice death for each other. But in due time, we will all die.
Everyone is cremated now; we go out in flames. And our loved ones will hold onto our dusty remains, which they, too, will become. So precious and so indistinguishable, both invaluable and valueless—what is the difference between my box of ashes and yours? The placard on the front? The veining of the marble? The sentiment attached to it? The chemical composition of the ashes? Ashes less tangible than bodies, less overt in their decay: more liberating from the body and more ignorant of it: sanitized, all the sickness and the tumors burned away.
My grandmother’s death was a bit of a scene. No one told my great aunt that her sister had died until days later. Then, she wanted a funeral for her sister, but my grandfather refused. My grandfather said that his wife hadn’t wanted a big fuss after she died, and he took that to mean no funeral, no memorial service, no burial. My father, her son, agreed. My aunt, her daughter, disagreed. My mother, her daughter-in-law, disagreed; she said that my grandmother had spoken to her several times about what was to happen after her death, and she had never given the impression that she didn’t want her family to have a service for her. Despite the outcry of the women in the Rhodes family, nothing happened. As the husband of the deceased, my grandfather had the last say.
In January, the nursing home where my grandmother had stayed gave a memorial service for all those who had died in the last year. Six months after her death, there was finally a memorial service. My grandfather invited us, but I didn’t go; I was away at school, and it was too late.
All that is to say, even after the memorial at the nursing home, my grandmother was never buried, at least not to my knowledge. Her box is somewhere in my grandfather’s apartment, collecting dust on the top of her ashes.
Last week, I woke up with the horrible realization that I had no idea what people meant by “being in love”, and I’d probably be unable to recognize it even if I was. So I walked through the cemetery—the one where Thaddeus Stevens is buried—to get my head back on, to realize my own mortality, to regain the freedom to call love whatever I damn well please. But as I sat with the gravestones, I realized that I was not just there for me, but for them. I wanted to honor the strangers buried there that day; to sit with them, to be with them outdoors, in the nature they have become. But all they said was:
stop overthinking things, do you think we do that?
if you want to makes sense of love, lay down and join us; it’s going to take a while
I think that’s what my grandmother would say too. But I can’t go sit with her in that cemetery or any other. My mother would say that even so, we’ll see her in heaven. But I don’t know anymore if there’s a heaven or that we’ll all end up there: this might be it. I might be imagining the voices of the graves.
Where are you, voices from the graves? Where do you speak from? Delaware County Christian School did not prepare me for this: what is the use of apologetics class now? I cannot give a good enough argument to defend my faith to myself. My grandfather is not religious; mom asks me and my brother to pray for him. But she’s stopped asking me to say grace at holiday family dinners, which I am thankful for, and also saddened by. I feel like I’ve lost something I never had—my faith. Real, imagined, missing: I do not know.
Neither do I know what my grandfather does or does not believe; its not something we talk about; it doesn’t matter to me, but I have been told that it should matter. Approaching old age, the need to know exactly where the soul will be after the body gives up increases. My faith is aging, so quickly: our bodies age, our spirits age, our souls age, our faiths age: all in different ways: all at different rates: these all happen. It will be okay, I tell myself, it is already okay. I imagine that is what my grandfather tells himself too.
My grandfather and Noél’s grandfather are going to die of cancer, of old age, of an accumulation of life: we have been preparing our whole lives for this: we are preparing our own lives for death too: this will happen. It will be okay, though it is difficult.
Noél messaged me: “I am so tired of hospitals”: In again with her grandfather. We’ll never cease to be tired of hospitals; and we will never tire of grandfathers, though they grow tired.