Over the past few months, as I’ve been working on a challenging new writing project, I’ve found myself thinking about my grandmother. Grandmother Olive (my mom’s mom) was the kind of lady people refer to as “a character.” She had some weird mannerisms and beliefs.
My mom always laughs when she tells about her own mother’s fervent conviction that cockroaches travel in pairs. Apparently, if my Grandmother got up in the middle of the night and happened to spot a roach on the floor, she would tear apart the kitchen—throwing open cupboards and pulling out drawers—in search of the elusive second cockroach. My mom and aunts still love relating how they’d wake up in the middle of the night to the clanging of pots and pans as their mom chased roaches around the kitchen while screaming, “Die, dammit, die!”
Back when my grandfather was alive, he and Grandmother Olive were always in charge of making the hamburgers for family gatherings. Granddad’s patties were huge, hand-pressed, and only “cooked” in the sense that they had spent a token amount of time on a hot grill. “Carry the meat slowly through a hot kitchen”—that was Granddad’s motto. The best part of any Pace family cookout, though, was watching my grandmother try to eat her burger. She would load the still-mooing patty onto a bun and dress it up with condiments. Then she would pick up her burger and turn it around and around in her hands. This could take minutes. She would turn and turn, like she was looking for the elusive corner on the round burger, a toehold to get her started. I was just sit there and giggle. Eventually, she would just take a bite.
My grandfather died soon after my family moved to Hawaii. After that, Grandmother Olive would often come and stay with us for weeks … and sometimes, months. One of the most shocking moments of my teenage years came in 1985 (yes, I’m really that old), when I brought home a copy of David Lee Roth’s just-released solo album, “Crazy from the Heat.” I unwrapped the brand-new cassette and popped it into my boom box. My grandmother sat and harrumphed through his cover of the Beach Boys’ “California Girls.” (She didn’t approve.) When we flipped the tape over, though, I can’t describe my shock when Grandmother Olive got up and danced around the room, actually singing along with “Just a Gigolo.”
Of course, I had no clue the song had been written in 1929, and that Roth was actually covering Louis Prima’s 1956 medley of “Just a Gigolo” and “I Ain’t Got Nobody.” All I knew was that this kooky old lady in a muumuu knew the words to a David Lee Roth song before I’d even heard it.
Sadly, this proud woman spent too many years at the end of her life as a blank slate. The cause: Alzheimer’s disease.
I happened to be with my mom when we found out Grandmother Olive’s life was about to end. I ended up driving her to the care facility, where we were soon joined by my mom’s two sisters. By pure coincidence, I was the only grandchild who sat vigil as she died. I’d been living in another state, and I actually hadn’t seen my grandmother (or what was left of her) for several years. I felt almost like an intruder, lingering with my mom and aunts as we waited for the family’s matriarch to draw her last breath.
It’s hard to describe what it’s like to watch someone die. Grandmother’s mind was already gone, but her body was still fighting for every lungful of air. I learned the meaning of the term “death rattle.” Grandmother would gasp, then stop breathing for a while, then start up again. This happened over and over. The medical people at the facility had told us the process could last for a few hours. We settled in and waited.
Twelve hours later we were still huddled in that tiny room, hanging onto every gasp. By this time, our conversation had all but stopped. Grandmother’s body kept repeating the endless cycle: breathe and stop, breathe and stop. The periods of silence were getting longer, though, and I don’t think it’s terrible to say that we were all hoping it could just be over. After one pitiful, sighing gasp, Grandmother was silent for what seemed like minutes. We all looked at each other, hopeful. Then my grandmother’s chest heaved as her lungs started working again.
Into the deathly silence, my mom leaned over and whispered to her mother: “Die, dammit, die.”
We all got the giggles, and none of us could stop laughing for twenty minutes.
So what do my grandmother’s eating habits, her familiarity with old song lyrics, and her lingering persistence in death tell me as a writer?
First, I think a lot of writing projects start out like my granddad’s hamburgers. Hefty, meaty and maybe just a little under-cooked, we know they’re going to be good, but we’re still not quite sure where to start. As writers, we turn these stories around and around, looking for the right angle. Sometimes our hesitation can border on the extreme.
But outside of Wendy’s, hamburgers don’t have corners. There’s no perfect first bite. (Anyway, most experienced novelists will tell you that the first chapter of any given first draft isn’t likely to end up as the first chapter of the finished book.) The lesson here is obvious: sometimes you have to start at random just to get started. You can’t proceed to the business of perfecting your story until you get your sentences and paragraphs and pages banged out.
Second, something that seems new to one audience might actually be old and familiar to another. And that’s okay. There’s nothing wrong with my grandmother foxtrotting to a David Lee Roth recording if the song she’s dancing to also excites the teenager in the room. Covers—the musical analogue of literary retellings—work when the source is still fresh and fun and relevant.
Third, you can find humor in almost every situation. Out of context, the very thought of a grown woman encouraging her own mother to die sounds callous and horrifying. But in context, it was one of the most loving—and hilarious—things I’ve ever heard somebody say. It was only funny if you knew the back story, of course. And it was entirely loving if you understood that my 90-year-old grandmother had lived a full, wonderful life right up until Alzheimer’s robbed her of her larger-than-life personality.
My mom told the cockroach story again several days later, when she gave the eulogy at her mother’s funeral. She didn’t, however, tell the crowd what she’d said to Grandmother Olive as she lay on her death bed. You kind of had to be there. Luckily, I was.
David Baker is an author, playwright, marketing professional, blogger and freelance editor. He has ghost-written several books and authored dozens of published articles on such topics as business technology, the insurance industry, marketing and data security. He writes both YA and “grown-up” fiction and is actively querying several projects. He also edits the monthly journal of a national trade organization. In his spare time, he runs marathons, volunteers with young people, cooks curries, paints shoes and builds things. He has an A.A. in theater, a B.A. in English and an M.A. in linguistics. Born in Arizona, raised in Hawaii, currently living in Utah, David is actively involved in theater. His stage play, Inside Al, won the Henry Fonda Young Playwright Award and premiered at the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, DC. The play was subsequently published by Samuel French and has been in near-continuous production for more than two decades, with hundreds of performances across the US and Canada. You can find his personal blog at blog.bakerdavid.com.
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