My grandma died 20 years ago today. I hesitate to call her my favorite grandma, but she was definitely the grandparent I was closest to, both geographically and emotionally. Both my grandfathers had died when I was pretty young, and my other grandma (my dad's mom) lived way off in Colorado, and we saw her only once every three or four years. Two of her kids and their families lived near her, so they could take care of her as she got older.
One of the reasons I was so close to the grandma on my mom's side was because she lived only two hours away and was openly involved in our lives ... and she eventually lived right in our house the last few years of her life. My mom was an only child, so there was nobody else to care for this grandma—and there was simply no way we wouldn't take care of her as a family as long as we could before we'd put her in a home.
So before I even started high school, we partitioned off the family room with a huge curtain and moved in a bed for her. (I distinctly remember watching early MTV videos—like "Thriller"—sitting next to her on that bed.) There was a half bathroom on that floor for her to use for sponge baths, and as she got weaker and weaker, Dad and I would carry her up the stairs on a chair every other day so she could use a bathroom with a shower. Other than that, she had everything she needed on one floor ... and a busy social life delivered right to her curtained door.
Since the family room was right off the living room and our house was usually filled with visiting friends, Grandma was always a part of everything that went on in our lives. She'd sit in her housecoat with my friends and me when they came over to study or play games, she joined me every morning at 4:00 as I rubber-banded newspapers in our front hall, and she's smiling in every picture of every party or picnic or cozy night in front of the fire that we had in the early '80s.
As I recall, she got sick enough to move into a hospital only a short while before she died -- and while she was there she had a steady stream of visitors including her personal friends and all the friends of our family who'd gotten to know her.
As you can imagine, these events taught me VOLUMES about compassion and sacrifice and love and the importance of family—all invaluable lessons to imprint on the mind of a young teen-ager. That my parents would arrange their lives around the comfort and security of a sometimes cantankerous, sometimes terrified, sometimes exhausted old lady ... that my grandma would do her best not to be an imposition in our home and in our lives ... that our friends would welcome her with open arms and include her in their social plans ... these are the living examples I remember and try to follow to this day.
Obviously, Grandma's death devastated me. It was the first profound death-related loss in my young life. (So far, the only other deaths of that life-changing magnitude have been the stuff of Greek tragedy: four friends died in a plane crash Easter morning of 1988, another friend was murdered by the bomb that blew Pan Am flight 103 out of the sky over Lockerbie, Scotland, in December 1988, and a family friend's mother was brutally beaten in the basement of the apartment she managed in 1990—and I have never been as pro-death penalty as the day I helped clean up the murder scene.)
But you survive. You move on. You cherish the memories. You carry on the examples. You honor the lives. I was sad when my dad's mom died four years ago, but by then I had a greater understanding of death as a closing chapter in a long story, and I looked at Grandma's death as more of a celebration of her remarkable life.
But sometimes death touches you and leaves nothing.
In the last couple months I've been hit by a steady parade of deaths of people I knew only marginally, if at all. It started in June with the suicide of the young Chicago magazine editor who'd picked me to be profiled in the Top 20 Singles issue. I'd spent a thoroughly enjoyable afternoon with her only a month earlier at my photo shoot, and she was so fun that I left hoping to develop a friendship with her—even going so far as to keep a clever email correspondence going between us.
Two more suicides followed in quick succession: the brother of one of my family's oldest friends (though I'm not sure I'd ever met the guy) and a distant cousin I was only vaguely aware I had (though his mother—a crusty old broad in the best sense of the word—and I always enjoyed an easy rapport whenever we saw each other).
Then, in the last couple weeks, two members of the Chicago Gay Men's Chorus died. The first was a guy I'm sure I'd seen a hundred times in rehearsal, but I didn't recognize his name and I didn't recognize him in our photo directory. Apparently everyone else knew him, though; the email and blog tributes posted in his honor were quite touching. The second was a guy I'd talked to a number of times but never really befriended. I'd always thought he was just quiet, but I'm learning now he was always sick.
And I'm caught in a weird limbo. I'm obviously saddened by the pain that these people suffered and by the pain their deaths brought to their families and friends. But, on reflection, that sadness is mostly academic. I'm sure part of it stems from the fact I had no real emotional connection to any of them. But I worry that I may be becoming jaded. Am I numbed by the bombardment of death in the news and on TV? Have I become self-absorbed to the point that I don't care about other people—even in death? Is it too easy to distance myself from someone I had no real emotional connection to in the first place?
Or—perhaps—my concern over feeling nothing in the face of a loss that isn't even mine to feel is proof that I actually do have the compassion I was taught by my family so long ago when Grandma and I watched videos together from her bed in our family room.