Room 76/shutterstockAs we crossed the Triborough Bridge into Queens, I’m suddenly gripped with this terror that I’m going to die one day. I’m going to see my grandma Ruthy.
Growing up, I would spend weekends with my grandparents. They’d pick me up on Friday nights, and I’d have these long, adventurous days with Grandma Ruthy that felt like she was trying to pack all of the world’s knowledge into one 12-hour period.
We’d wake up early, drink coffee with lots of sugar, and then she’d give me a trillion vitamins, and then we’d head into the city. We’d start at the Central Park Zoo. She’d teach me about marsupials and pandas. Then we’d go to the MOMA, and it was Monet and impressionism. Then we’d walk downtown past all the shops to Sweet Basil in the West Village, where we’d see Doc Cheatham play trumpet. Then Chinatown, where she taught me how to use chopsticks.
Finally we’d go back to her place. And she’d teach me how to lose at rummy. She’d wait for me to reach for one more card, and then she’d slap my hand and say, “Rummy, kiddo!” She’d throw her cards down and laugh. She wanted me to know that it’s not enough to beat your grandson at cards; you have to squeeze every last little drop of joy out of beating him.
But I’m not thinking about that as we cross the bridge. We pull up outside of their apartment building, and I walk in to see my grandmother sitting on the couch. Where once she would have been, like, the loudest person in the room, now she can barely move. And where once she would have wrapped me in this huge bear hug, now it seems like the couch is going to swallow her alive.
And I know that I’m supposed to go and sit at her feet and hug her and kiss her and hold her hand and say goodbye. But I want to run. I don’t want to see her like this. I don’t want to even make eye contact with this woman that I loved so dearly, because if I do, maybe death will reach out from over her shoulder and touch me too.
She says, “So where are we going for dinner?” I look at my mom with horror because I don’t know what food goes with dying. And my mom says, “What are you in the mood for, Aaron?”
I say, “Well, we could just call the local Chinese restaurant and I’ll go over and pick it up.”
And my grandmother, dying of ovarian cancer, pulls herself to the edge of the couch and straightens herself up and says, “My grandson doesn’t eat take-out food with me.”
And that’s how we end up carrying her off the couch, down the steps, into the car, and driving 30 minutes to the closest Japanese restaurant. And we sit in a booth by the window.
When it comes her time to order, we all kind of hold our breath. She hasn’t managed solid food in weeks, and she can barely do a sip of water because of the pain. But she looks at the waitress and she says, “I’ll have a Sapporo. In a mug, please.”
“I’ll have a Sapporo. In a mug, please.”
And we eat and she drinks half of her beer. And she tells us about the time that she and my grandfather went to China, and how they traveled through Siberia on the railroad and all these incredible stories—and for a moment, there’s no death. There’s no cancer. There’s “We’re all immortal. Time stretches out forever.” There’s a moment like that in every meal, if you pay attention. It’s there, where oblivion is replaced with infinity.
And then we go home. And it’s time to do that thing that I’ve been dreading. Saying goodbye. We do it outside her building. And she hugs me and she kisses me and she cries a little bit. And then we do it—we say goodbye. And I’m waiting for the dread, the icy cold hand of death on my heart, but I don’t feel it, because she’s built this shield around me. The meal has been this shield.
A few days later, she’s sitting on the couch next to her son and her husband, and she says, “It’s time.”
And they help her to the bed, and she says, “Do you think there’s a heaven?”
My grandfather says, “I don’t know. Are you scared?”
And she says, “No.” And then she closes her eyes and dies.
When it gets too much for me, my therapist, Karl, told me I’m supposed to look over my shoulder and say, “Hello, Death. Nice to see you again.” My therapist is a genius samurai warrior poet with an MSW, but he’s wrong.
The last lesson my grandma Ruthy taught me is that when I stand on the edge of infinity, it’s that it’s not enough to say, “Hello, Death. Nice to see you again.”
You have to say, “Hello, Death. Nice to see you again. Listen, before we go, I’m going to have one more beer.”
Courtesy Aaron WolfeAaron Wolfe, 40, is a filmmaker and a writer. He lives in Belmont, Massachusetts.
Told live at a Moth show at the Music Hall of Williamsburg in New York, NY