My grandmother had a heart attack this Christmas.
It’s fine, it’s fine. She died a few days later. No, really, it’s okay. I’ll tell you why.
If I can use some indelicate language, my grandmother, Colleen Johns, was a tough old broad. Her first husband, my grandfather Fred Johns Sr., died in the 1970s when my own dad was a teenager. To get by with her three kids, she worked as a dental hygienist. And she made it work that way, with two boys and a daughter in Detroit in the ‘70s.
Tough ol’ broad.
She eventually married again, to a guy named Wally who she was not a fan of. He died a largely unceremonious death when I was a kid and grandma was living in Arizona. Then when I was a teenager, grandma met a nice farmer, got married, and moved to Iowa. Then she had a stroke, went into a coma, and while she was in the hospital, that nice farmer divorced her. When grandma came to, The left side of her body didn’t work, she didn’t have a husband anymore, and she was back in Arizona, living with my uncle and his family.
I’m not saying this to make you feel sorry for me and my grandmother because she had a hard life and then she died…although, y’know, you should because she did. I wanted to talk about my dad.
Grandma lived with Uncle David in Tucson for a while and then my dad worked up the money to move her to Conyers. She lived in an elderly care facility five minutes from my parent’s house. They saw her most days and she spent a lot of weekends with them. For the last ten or so years, my dad made sure grandma was close to family. And that didn’t end when she died.
She passed away just before the New Year. Dad had her cremated and kept her remains in a handmade wooden box. He set the date of the funeral for the end of February so that his siblings and nieces and nephews could make travel arrangements. For the first time ever, my dad, mom, my siblings… my Aunt Debbie, my cousin Steven and his wife Jenny, my Uncle David, my cousins Tatiana and Tyler, my half-brothers Ian and Aaron…we were all under the same roof. Dad said that grandma made that happen, but I know, quietly, that she was just the catalyst. It was my dad.
My father, Fred Lawrence Johns, grew up in Detroit. At 18, he went to work at AT&T and had a blue collar job that turned into a desk job by the time he was in his 40’s. I love my father. He is also where I get my want to dominate a conversation, my cock-sure ability to speak confidently on anything despite knowing nothing about it. My quickness to volunteer for things.
There are times when that sort of personality reveals its utility, and one of them is when you bury your mother.
My dad had charge of the weekend. We had a funeral mass for grandma at my parent’s church. It really was a family affair, my brother played the organ, my mom and I gave the readings… and dad, the ordained Catholic deacon, said the mass.
I was awed by that. The strength of love and faith to be able to speak joyfully on the occasion of your mom’s funeral. My dad’s homily was full of hope. He told funny stories about grandma and about how much love she practically radiated for everyone around her. She would do this thing, at the end of the night when it was time for us to go and we were saying our goodbyes. You’d bend down to hug grandma and she would hold you tight with her good arm and wouldn’t let you go. You’d say “I love you grandma,” and she’d always say… and here, everyone in the church said it out loud… “I love you more.”
My dad eventually took to saying “well that doesn’t mean I love you any less.”
Not to be out-witted by her son, grandma started making up words. “Well, I love you morether.”
Grandma and Shakespeare had a lot in common in that way. She was also really emotional and I understand why. She’d gone through one of the most painful things a person could go through—the man who was supposed to love and care for her the most, her husband, abandoned her when she needed him. And this is after her first two husbands straight up died on her. This woman had a truly devastating track record. There was so much trauma in the subtext of those tearful goodbye hugs. It broke my heart every time.
My father came up with a mantra for her: Don’t Cry Because It’s Over, Smile Because It Happened. And that was the message he brought to us at her funeral. Grandma loved us as hard as she could up until the very end, and that love persists. It is the eternal thing, because we will carry it in us and we will pass it on to our children.
Watching my father in his white vestments, speaking to the congregation, I saw him teaching me another lesson. Being a father, being a man means leading when it is hard, when your heart is breaking. Because a man stands up. Even when his legs are shaking. That doesn’t mean hiding your vulnerability, but wearing it on your chest. “Yes, I hurt. It’s okay to hurt. Let me help you hurt less.”
We buried grandma, in that handmade wooden box, in the forested cemetary across the road from the Monastery in Conyers. Dad knelt and carefully placed the box in the earth. He said a prayer, and took a spade and shoveled some dirt into the hole. Then my five year old son approached, curious about what was happening. My dad helped him, steadying his hand as he poured a bit of earth into the grave.