Uncle Herman. My great uncle Herman was deaf, as was his brother Julius. He lived in Cleveland and I saw a lot of him as a child when we would go there to visit my grandmother. He used to play billiards with me and he taught me to sign the alphabet. He and my grandmother had their own special language, including hand gestures and sounds, that no one else quite understood. It wasn’t ASL, it wasn’t quite lip-reading, and it sounded strange and a little scary. Herman could wiggle his ears, and could raise his eyebrows independently of each other and to several different levels. He had a big heart. I seem to recall being told of his death while on an airplane. There was never any funeral, or formal remembrance of him. He was just gone. I don’t think I was more than 8 or 9 years old.
Ricky. I rode a pony in high school named Ricky who went suddenly blind at the beginning of my sophomore year, and a decision was made for him to be put down (I’m still not sure why this had to happen). I took him out for a walk on his last day to the apple orchard, fed him an apple and let him graze freely. Then I brought him back to the barn and went down to my house, where I sat with my dormhead’s dogs and cried while the vet put him to sleep and they buried him under the manure pile. I wrote a maudlin poem about the whole experience which appeared in the high school literary magazine.
B.D. My father’s father died at Christmas-time when I was 16 years old. The funeral was in New York. I never was very close to my grandfather. We would talk on Sundays when I was home and he would ask me how school was going. He was remarried to a flamboyant French Jew, Sonia, who used to take me to Neimann Marcus when we went to visit them in Miami Beach. I flew down to New York and spent the day comforting my step-grandmother, who was quite tearful especially at the gravesite. My grandfather’s children weren’t overly fond of her, so the comforting fell to me. This was my first funeral as a quasi-grownup. It was a full-on Jewish funeral, too, with a rabbi. There was no sitting shiva, however. The whole thing was bizarre, considering how very secular that side of my family is. I got to see the family plot in Queens, including the grave of my grandfather’s sister, for whom I was named. It’s a little spooky, seeing your own name on a gravestone. Coming back I had a strange conversation with a Boston cab driver which I turned into a short story and which – surprise! – turned up in the high school literary magazine.
Mona. Mona (pronounced Mah-nah, yes I know that’s stupid) was my first pet. She was a fantastic Siamese cat who took no crap from anyone and had pretty much all of us at her beck and call. A real princess. She had been a stray who showed up at our back door one night and never left. She was my most precious companion through the separation and divorce of my parents, through all the moving, through all my mother’s boyfriends, through all the rockiness of pre-adolescence, always on my bed, always letting me cry into her fur. When she died I was devastated.
Gaga. Gaga was not my mother’s birth father, but he was the only grandfather I ever knew on that side. He was funny, kind, gentle, smart, tolerant, and wise. He kept my traditionalist grandmother and my rebellious mother together through the rockiness of the 60s and 70s, and all the years that followed. He always had a smile and a bear hug for me. When he was diagnosed with cancer everything moved very quickly. I went down to Florida to stay with them for a couple of weeks, shepherding him to doctor’s appointments. He was in a lot of pain, and I heard him swear for the first time at one of these visits, letting out a very weak “oh, shit” when a catheter was installed. My grandmother fell apart before my eyes during this visit, suddenly forgetting to turn off the oven, gazing out the window, crying, and asking me “is he going to die?” Gaga was furious at himself for getting sick, furious at her for not coping well, furious at the unfairness of it all. Jack is named for him, and I think he inherited his stubbornness, as well as his humor and good nature.
Grandma Lil. My father’s mother. We knew each other well, as I spent a year living with her when I was 18 years old, in Cleveland. Amazingly enough, she lived through that particular experience. Eventually, though, her heart gave out. She died as she lived, in a completely controlled fashion, under her own terms, at home. She had gone out to dinner with friends, come home, gotten ready for bed, and then had a heart attack and died very quickly in her own bedroom. I miss her still. She was smart and strong and fiercely independent, a fantastic role model for me.
Uncle Julius. The circumstances under which I was not allowed to know Uncle Julius until I reached my late teens are stupid and petty and mystifying. Thankfully, eventually, he came back into the family and we all were able to enjoy his company before he finally died. He loved me and spoiled me, always taking me aside to give me extra money, or special things that had belonged to his wife, whom I never met. He was mischievous and funny, and very sweet. Not as bear-like as his brother, but just as deaf. My sign language was a little better by the time I got to know him, so we were able to communicate fairly well. He put me through college, an act of tremendous generosity considering the way he had been excommunicated from his family for so long.
Emma. My sweet kitty, who turned into a raving monster during the last few years of her life. You couldn’t pet her without a wild look coming into her eye and the teeth coming down on your hand, but I don’t think she meant it, really. She was all grey, a very pretty cat. I picked her up in college and kept her with me through all that moving. She came down with diabetes and kidney disease, and managed to sneak out of the house just before we moved away, presumably to go off and die somewhere quietly. I was overwhelmed with a 2-year-old and a newborn, not to mention unbearable financial stress and what amounted to an eviction from our apartment, so I never quite processed this departure.
Bampi. My mother’s mother was the quintessential cookie-baking grandmother. We never quite connected, but I knew she loved me and I loved her back. She lived for years in a nursing home and I felt tremendous guilt about not spending more time with her. The day she was dying, the nursing home called my mother, but she could not or would not go to her side. My cousin Janie and I met in her room – I had baby Eli with me in his little car seat. We sat in the room and told stories and just waited while Bampi, already heavily dosed with morphine and unaware of her surroundings, slowly melted away. She was 98 years old.
Harpo. Harpo was our angel cat who only lived three years before being hit by a car in Salem, Massachusetts, outside my sister’s house where we were house-sitting for the summer. The best cat EVER, was Harpo. Smart and funny and much too young to die. We took him up to my dad’s house to bury him in the garden, and a local Episcopal priest actually agreed to come out and perform a funeral with us. We sang “All Things Bright and Beautiful” and I buried him in my favorite sweatshirt. He was a love.
Polly. My stepmother died on May 30, 2001, just a few weeks after being diagnosed with a brain tumor. I’m not sure I can write any more about this today. No single loss has been so hard as this one.
Lee. I found out about Lee in the middle of labor. Whatever it was that prompted me to answer my cell phone while trying to cope with a 9 pound 4 ounce baby making its way through my vaginal canal found me standing naked in the hallway clutching that same phone and crying hysterically while my friend David delivered the news. He died too fast, and too meaninglessly, shutting himself off from his friends, refusing to reach out to any of us, and refusing the treatment available to him which would have allowed him a much longer and healthier life for years if not decades. Instead my idiotic, wonderful, sweet college friend died very, very swiftly of AIDS. I got in the shower, cried some more, shook it off, grabbed a towel, and went back into my bedroom to push out a baby, after first propping up a picture of Lee on the nightstand. I think maybe there’s a little bit of Lee in Javier.
Dee. Brian’s grandmother fought valiantly against heart disease, coping all the while with shingles and plenty of other aches and pains. This went on for all the years I knew her, and she held up like the Texas broad she was – always gracious, always perfectly coiffed and manicured, even in her hospital bed. I loved Dee, she was a straight-shooter, with a wicked sense of humor and a sharp tongue, although she was very kind and welcoming to me. She died at home in her chair last January, and we buried her ashes on the ranch, next to her son and her first husband.