My grandmother died at between 7 and 8 p.m. on New Year's eve. I remember it because we got the news in my car while we traveling home on Interstate 95. I think we were in North Carolina. I know it was dark because I remember looking at my wife in the glow the dashboard lights and saying, "My grandmother just died." I was confused because I felt absolutely nothing at all.
Gabriel, my seven year-old leaned forward into the glow and said, "Wow. She didn't even make it to the new year." I thought for a second that his comment was inappropriate, but I didn't say anything because I couldn't summon any emotion of my own.
But Gabriel didn't stop. He got a weird half smile on his face and he said something as if he had just mulled it over and decided it.
"I'm not gonna die. I'm gonna live forever."
And then I felt something. I desperately, devoutly wanted him to be right.
One of the CDs we listened to that night was "The Black Parade", an album from a band called "My Chemical Romance". As you might expect, the CD is a melodramatic, gothic affair and it owes more than a little to Queen and Pink Floyd. My wife and I love it because it's an album written for kids who think that adults don't understand them. It's an album for climbers lamenting the long trip up the mountain and not the climbers who fear the quick fall down.
The title song, "Welcome to the Black Parade" is four minutes and 39 seconds long. Even the band acknowledges that the song is melodramatic, but that's exactly what I liked about it before I heard the news about my grandmother. Afterwards, I liked the song even more because right in the middle, apropos of nothing else, it has the words:
"Sometimes I get the feeling she's watching over me."
I liked these words even though I didn't feel that way at all. I just desperately, devoutly wanted to feel that way.
I'll tell you why my grandmother was cool. When she was 48, after years as a Navy wife, she dropped everything and went back to college. Nowadays, fifty year-old women go back to college all the time, but that wasn't the case nearly 40 years ago. My grandmother summoned the courage to go back to school, earn her teaching degree and then begin a whole new life teaching children. She taught children so well that she was interviewed by the newspaper more than once. She worked on something every day, though I never realized it back then.
I'll tell you why my wife is cool. While we were in Florida over Christmas, she borrowed a skateboard from some little kid playing in the cul-de-sac street where my in-laws live. I don't know why she did this or what impulse overtook her. She rode the kid's skateboard until he had to go home and the next day we began searching for a skateboard for my wife.
We found it at a Quicksilver surf shop - a purple longboard with the elephant god Ganesh emblazoned on it. It's a beautiful skateboard and I felt a tiny stitch of jealousy when she bought it. I don't think I was jealous about the skateboard. I felt jealous because she wanted to skateboard.
Earlier that day, while we were looking for the skateboard, she had had this conversation with a skateboard salesperson:
"I'm looking for a skateboard for a beginner," she said.
"How old is the child you're getting it for?" asked the guy on the phone.
"The child is 34," my wife giggled.
It wasn't until the memorial at the funeral home that my grandmother's death really hit me - and I wasn't the first to feel the grief. I could actually see the grief traveling around the flowery, faux church chapel, jumping from person to person. At first it reminded me of a lit fuse sparking its way toward its conclusion. But after it hit me and I started crying, I recognized it for what it was. It was an elaborate knot untying itself, decades of ravels, snarls and braids coming undone.
I was driving today when that unraveling feeling hit me again. I looked around at my family and the feeling left me. My skateboarder wife sat beside me. In the back seat, my two year-old daughter was sleeping with a skateboard helmet on her head - I don't know why. My seven year-old was playing with his Nintendo DS and my four year-old son was earnestly singing along to his current favorite song in the world.
So paint it black and take it back
Lets shout it loud and clear
Defiant to the end we hear the call
To carry on
We'll carry on,
And though you're dead and gone believe me
Your memory will carry on
You can probably guess what song it was. It's melodramatic, but that's just how we like it. We are making knots here and the job requires big, loud singing. It requires kids who want to live forever and mothers who never stop trying new things. The best people never have the biggest funerals. Instead, we honor them by tying knots.