Month: January 2010

Flying Machines and Goodbye Sake

The night of my grandmother’s funeral, I dreamed I saw something I couldn’t name fly overhead in the night sky. I was with a friend, a beautiful friend, and we both looked up at the flying machine, long and dotted with lights along some of its edges. It looked like fireflies moving in formation. My friend and I were on my old college campus, climbing steps in a building with a roof that somehow opened up to a hilltop. Nothing like that exists on that campus, but you know how dreams are. There at the top of the steps, we watched the craft, almost as dark as the sky, float over us. The only sound I remember were our quiet comments. I was so awestruck by the sight I had to sit down, right there on the concrete.

My grandmother had died two days before, early in the morning on Christmas Eve. At eighty-seven, she had been frail and in declining health for some time. That accelerated after a fall during Thanksgiving which first sent her to the hospital, then to a rehabilitation center, or in her condition, a nursing home. There she wrestled with the visions, notions and pain that come when the body and spirit are preparing for their respective journeys to the hereafter. Sisters that had gone before her visited. White lights danced outside her window. Family and staff conspired against her.

She was in the last, spiraling moments of a goodbye journey that had started two years earlier, when my mother died a few days before Christmas. There’s an oft-cited observation that a parent should never have to bury a child. That’s exactly what my grandmother did that holiday, and it took every bit of the toll implied by those words.

There were good days during those two years, times when she laughed with us. There were warm conversations and quiet moments together. She even cooked pork chops with me on a couple of occasions. Those two years deserve every bit of the cherished remembrance as earlier years spent with her. Still, I believe my grandmother grieved as much on her own last day as the day of my mother’s funeral.

In the end, it was impossible to reconcile the gaunt, fragile person she had become with my memories of the lady that my cousins and I once called “Athletic Granny.” We had come up with the nickname as a tribute to her enthusiasm in joining us for spirited dead-end street kickball games.

She was always right there with the grandchildren when it came to hobbies, interests, obsessions. There was almost something magical in the way she encouraged our childhood passions. More than once, a jar of caterpillars waited for me when I showed up for a summer weekend visit. During my praying mantis phase, her keen eye spotted a hatching brood of baby mantises on her porch. Very little was discouraged. I remember some cryogenics experiments involving her freezer, aluminum foil, a 6 volt battery and grasshoppers – further details of which I would rather not discuss.

But in the rehabilitation center, those summers had long been morning coffee memories. Now my grandmother couldn’t even leave the bed, much less kick a ball. She was exhausted, body and spirit.

One day, my aunt and I were watching her rest when we heard a loud voice somewhere outside the room. Someone was singing. At first, I thought it was from the room across the hall. We walked to the door to investigate. In front of a nurses’ station at the intersection of four hallways, an elderly gentleman stood with his eyes closed, belting with every bit of his heart and gut Hank Williams’ “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry.” His voice was strong and clear; he was a very good singer. A passing nurse told us that he sings for extra soda money. At the chorus, his “So” and “Lonesome” met to share an “o,” so the line came out “I’m so’nsome I could cry.” My aunt and I watched and listened until he finished. Then I applauded as if that would buy anyone a soda or make the song less true.

Less than two weeks later, my grandmother was gone. That morning, Christmas Eve, the family went to the funeral home to make arrangements and pick out a casket. Outside, the wind blew like March. It was gray and rained on Christmas and by the funeral on the 26th, clear skies added a chill to the wind that had an extra bite at the top of the cemetery hill.

After my cousins and I carried the casket from the hearse to the grave, I stood wedged between someone else’s tombstone and the heavy, plastic side of the funeral home tent which beat against my back with every defiant gust. The service was short and I managed to withstand the flapping tarp. It was far less than my grandmother had withstood.

That night, the flying machine came to me in my sleep. I might suggest that it was some manifestation of the means by which my grandmother was leaving this world. But if that’s the case, it was only circling, waiting for more passengers.

There was still cemetery mud on my shoes when I got the call on New Year’s Eve. A young friend had died in a car accident early that morning. She had hydroplaned on the rain-soaked interstate and lost control of her car. She was twenty-five years old.

I met Seyde at Ken’s Sushi in Nashville. Close to my home, the restaurant has become a regular haunt of mine. The staff there treats me like family. When I was going home regularly to visit my grandmother, they always asked about her. The manager and her brother – a sushi chef there – shared stories about their grandmother with me.

Seyde was close friends with the staff at Ken’s, especially the manager, her brother and his wife. The first time I saw her was at a send off party for a waitress returning to Thailand. Seyde’s father was Thai; her mother is American. She spent the early part of her life in Thailand. When she was thirteen, her father died in a car accident in Bangkok. After that, she moved to America with her mother and brothers.

Whenever I saw Seyde at Ken’s, she treated me like an old friend, always offering a smile and a hug, insisting I go out dancing or for drinks with everyone. If it hadn’t been for Seyde and the Ken’s crowd, I might have never danced again. While I’m grateful for the lack of video cameras on those nights, it sure was nice to move to music with friends again. And now I have a cache of cherished memories I wouldn’t otherwise.

Three days after the accident, a blessing ceremony was held for Seyde at a local Buddhist temple. The temperature outside had continued to drop over the week and the pavement was cold through my socks when I pushed off my shoes outside by the door. I had arrived just as the monks were finishing the food the family had prepared for them.

The large room was already nearly wall to wall with family and people whose lives had been touched by Seyde. Still, guests continued to arrive after I found a spot on one of the many rugs covering the floor. Near the statues of Buddha, some of Seyde’s favorite things had been gathered around a large self-portrait sketch. For some reason, I noticed the bottles of Diet Mountain Dew.

After the monks finished eating and the tables were moved away, the family gathered around in front of the Buddha statues where a string was draped around them and back to Buddha and the monks. Holy water was sprinkled on the family and guests. The monks chanted as guests knelt with their palms pressed together and eyes closed. For twenty minutes or so, the room was filled with the drone of the holy voices that only occasionally rose in pitch. With my eyes closed and consciousness focused on the sound, I started to feel, even if just for the moment, worry and pain fall away.

After the blessing ceremony, there were remembrances and a slide show. So many beautiful, captured moments of Seyde with family and friends. People she had known since school; friends she had grown up with. In every photograph there was that unforgettable smile.

I watched for a while, and then talked to other guests before getting in line to speak to Seyde’s mother. This would be the first time I met her. When I got to her, she hugged me a long time and said through a mother’s tears, “I’ve lost my only girl.” A parent should never have to bury a child.

After a few more goodbyes, I stepped back out onto the cold pavement and found my shoes. The temple rooster crowed goodbye as I walked to my car and squinted to try and make out a figure walking back from the far end of the lot. It was a monk in a heavy winter coat. We both had left the entire world’s warmth inside where the rugs were stained with tears and holy water.

Less than a week later, on a Friday night, I’m sitting in Ken’s at the sushi bar. It’s been two weeks and a day since my grandmother died, less than a week since Seyde’s ceremony at the temple. On the placemat next to mine, there’s a picture of Seyde that the manager’s little boy has been carrying with him, even to bed. It’s a little wrinkled, but not enough to obscure her natural beauty, the luminous smile and the eyes that looked upon no one as a stranger or unworthy of friendship.

It’s still cold as hell outside; there’s even been snow the last few days. The skin on the back of my hands has started to crack from the chill, but the sake’s warm and the conversation abundant with reminiscence of our lost friend. From now on, every carafe of sake begins with a toast to her.

It feels like home in here. This is where I met that friend. This is the place I shared grandmother stories. This is the place I’ll be again in a few days, sitting too far from the window to check the sky for lights.