It has been one revolution around the sun since we had Gram with us, and in the most auspicious way, her death was magical.
December 12th was a normal day, sitting on reserve in Chicago at home. I had planned to meet my friend Bryce on his work trip in Seattle, my newly decided future city. But as any plans go, a wrench had been thrown in the mix: work called for a last-minute turn to Madison. As it happened, I ran into another friend on the train to O’Hare for his first day at United Airlines, starting his first Initial Operating Experience trip on the 737. And wouldn’t you know, his first flight was the one I had wanted to take later that night to Seattle— but because of the time I was to arrive back in Chicago, I would have missed it.
Until we got back, and the United flight to Seattle had been delayed for several hours. I sat in the jumpseat, with Eric’s approval of course, and watched him soak up all the knowledge that the amicable check airman spewed.
Once in Seattle, I finally met up with my Pookie (Bryce), and we caught up briefly before going to bed around 1:00 a.m.; we had planned a day out in the city, surveying my soon-to-be neighborhood. But it was around 6:00 a.m. when my mom called and told me to come home. I busted my ass to the airport and caught a Southwest flight to St. Louis, where I took a shuttle to Columbia, and my neighbors picked me up there— it truly takes a village.
As I entered the hospital room, Gram was not conscious. My mom, aunt, and I caught up for a few moments when my aunt left to smoke a cigarette. My mom encouraged me to talk to Gram, but I thought it a bit weird since she was out of it. Nevertheless, I approached her bedside and said, “Gram! It’s Rahbet. Are you col’? Lemme feel your fahred.” (The backstory is that Gram’s Northeastern accent gave her gems of pronunciation, like my name, Robert. And cold. And forehead. And various other “r” words.) As I touched her head, she twitched. She heard me. As I turned to say something to my mom, my aunt came back in the room and looked at Gram. She said, “Is she gone?” And, in fact, within those few seconds, after she heard me, Gram passed. She waited for me to travel all the way across the country and see her one last time before making her earthly departure.
I’ve been fortunate to be in the room when my paternal grandfather died, and also when Gram passed. Regardless of religious affiliation or spiritual inclination, there is a surreal peace that blankets the moment and area when someone leaves this realm. The calmness and ceasing of suffering lightens the circumstance.
We all had a healthy cry as we alerted the nurses who performed their duties. They gave us as much time as we wanted with her, while we made our calls to family members and the mortuary. And as we left for the last time, I rubbed her foot and said what Gram had said to me many times saying goodbye: “Night and Go’bless you.”
Leaving the hospital, I remember an incredible sunset giving way to the biggest, brightest full moon I’ve ever seen.
Gram didn’t want a funeral or any services. The meeting we had with the mortuary was comical to say the least; my uncouth and loud family was seated in this luxurious boardroom with the stoic and professional staff as they went over services that we might want: memorial services, obituaries (written by yours truly), and did we want to attend the cremation? (Absolutely not, but some people, as we learned, are adamant to be present). We mostly joked and told stories about what a riot Gram was, and their work was made so easy, as she only wanted to be cremated. Nothing more, nothing less.
We planned a celebration of life party in Rhode Island, where we would spread her remains alongside her mother and sisters at their burial plots— where it is, allegedly, illegal to spread remains at a cemetery. But Gram was a rebel in and of her own right, so we did it. And, despite the circumstances, we had a blast. My cousins from all over met up, sharing stories about “Gram” or “Aunt Judy” as they knew her. Amidst the festivities, it showed me that death can evoke real connection, revealing the power of love.
Of course, I still think about her, every single day. She was my Gram. The Boss of the Moms. Jude. A terrible driver (we still call driving faux pas “Jude Moves”), but witty and wise. Maybe she had odd tastes, like peanut butter and tuna sandwiches. And we will forgive her of that one time she stole a fire truck— it was returned without harm to person or property.
There are so many things I could go on about: stories, jokes, and how I came out to her while watching The Ellen DeGeneres Show. But most notably, I realized some months ago that Gram fueled my passion for airline travel. I recount below.
I watch the drinks wiggle on the tray table, not quite slopping over the sides but making for quite the liquidy dance. A piece of the conversation I had with Gram came back to me after all these years. The topic was turbulence, and I asked her if it scared her. She said, “I don’t mind it, just so long as it doesn’t spill my coffee.”
And then it struck me. A large part of my love of flying comes from taking Gram to and from the airport every year, when she would make the trek back east to see her sisters. It was a family affair— the two-hour car ride, leaving well before a buffer of two hours needed for airport security, just in case. Gram would check her ticket no less than five times in her purse, just in case. She was a woman with a PhD in worrying.
Driving eastbound along I-70, there’s a certain point when the air traffic control tower at Lambert International comes into view, marking your arrival into the airport.
It was always a little bit sad, giving Gram a hug goodbye; but she’d always be back in a week’s time, bringing home gifts from various casinos— and SkyBars.
Aside: I’m not ungrateful. I was always appreciative of the knickknacks gram would bring back, even if it was a neat coffee stirrer from Mohegan Sun. But Gram would bring back a native east coast candy bar, one not available in the Midwest (probably for good reason). Skybars have several different flavor compartments surrounded by low-grade chocolate: dark chocolate, coconut, vanilla, and god knows what else. At first, I was a naive child who would devour any sweet delectable. But as a grew older, I started to understand why the SkyBars stayed in the freezer in various quantities: they’re disgusting.
It went unsaid for many years. Gram would always come back with yummy treats like Portuguese chouriço or sweet bread— and those damn Skybars. No one would eat them, until we broke it to her one day.
“Oh,” she said with a slight pout and folded arms.
So, maybe I disliked the candy. But I savored every last bit of what she brought back, even down to the peanuts from her Southwest flight. While she was gone, I’d scream at the sky, claiming each one was a “pumpkin plane!” like the one Gram was on.
It seems odd, coming home to Missouri without seeing her. Leaving her house was always a feat, because she’d want to give me every last bit of food in her fridge (it was nice to go grocery shopping there, though).
You also can’t tell me that this world isn’t cyclical. Maybe with meaning, maybe without. But today, I’m in Missouri to be with my family. Bryce, as it happens, is on business again in Seattle. The Universe puts us perhaps not in the place that we want to be, but always in the place we need to be. Cancer sucks, but suffering is worse. She put up a valiant fight, but she also knew when to bow out gracefully.
Always and forever, night and Go’bless you, Gram.