When Etta James died I attended her funeral. She’s the only dead person I’ve seen. But I’ve seen dying. I’ve seen it at bullfights in Madrid. Until then I had thought the red cape so romantic, gallant. Turns out it’s just to hide the blood. And bulls otherwise couldn’t care less about the color red. It’s the incessant waving that pisses them off. Most shocking is the way they suddenly become so much smaller when killed. And then a tractor comes to scoop up their newly serene bodies like construction site rubble. I had my hamster Mattie euthanized. This shocks most people, as they could never think of having a hamster euthanized. I got Mattie with my first love, we adopted. I was trying to conquer my fear of mice and it worked. And then the hamster died. My relationship died too, I knew it would as soon as we buried Mattie. Turns out we were only staying together for her sake. On top of being adopted, we couldn’t imagine how badly having divorced parents would mess her up. We didn’t want to have to put Mattie through counseling, the stress of a tiny hamster couch.
Mattie is buried under a Joshua tree, out in the desert someplace though I can’t say where. I’m convinced if Mattie’s little makeshift coffin is ever dug up it will look like some kind of satanic ritual. I’ll blame it on a mob hit. The desert is that way, dead. But it wants to be alive. So often love is vain and reckless; a big baby, dumb and pawing. We took Mattie to the vet six times before we finally decided. Love fights when it ought to give up, let go.
The hospice nurse said it would be helpful if we gave my grandpa ‘permission’ to die. I suppose she thought we ought to go to him and say, “Oh you? You’re still here? Well, you can go now,” like a houseguest who has overstayed their welcome, used all the toilet paper, left their dirty towels on the floor. Each time she came for a visit she brought a small care package with morphine and cinnamon apple scented candles.
Mom called to tell me Grandpa was getting worse, “Bring him a milkshake. He won’t eat. I know if you bring him a milkshake he’ll drink it.” I brought him milkshakes for a week. At first he loved it. We sat and talked about who was the better singer, Patsy Cline or Loretta Lynn. Long slurps punctuated our debate. We’ve had this ritual since I was a girl, going for milkshakes. His favorite was strawberry and I could never understand why anyone would choose strawberry when chocolate existed. I tried to explain this once, “Grandpa, a strawberry milkshake is a compound food. Strawberries and ice cream separate, fine. Why ruin ice cream with fruit?” He would say, “Well, you like strawberries and you like vanilla ice cream, so there you go, you like strawberry milkshakes.” His logic was the same for tuna melts. The milkshakes were the only thing he’d consume until he got so far or so close to death he refused even those. The milkshakes were the only thing I’d consume too, we were both losing weight. As if some act of contrition on my part could bring him back to life, if I could want it enough, secretly show God I was serious. I brought them anyway, and I watched them melt, bead with sweat. I watched him melt. After three days of frothy shakes I ran out into the desert behind the house and threw my own, anticipating where it might fall. Seeing it so out of place made the crispy desert fodder look like something from Dr. Seuss or Willy Wonka. Because nothing was worth it. Because sometimes, something could mean nothing at all.
In kindergarten I had my first and most memorable visit to the dentist. Grandpa accompanied me to get my front tooth extracted. It was dead and gray from an accident with the kitchen table. I squirmed and screamed in the chair and the dentist broke my tooth in half. Hearing my screams from the lobby my grandpa burst through the office doors, pushed the dentist to the ground and scooped me out of the chair. He drove across town in a rush to a much friendlier children’s dentist who finished the job with patience and care. He stayed in the room with me this time. And that was how it was from then on.
He was a cowboy. He owned bolo ties and sometimes wore cowboy boots to fancy events. Irish Spring was the only soap he’d use. He voted for George Bush, and then for Barack Obama. He taught me how to fish and though I didn’t particularly care for it I went anyway for the bologna sandwiches. When my sister and I were kids he would sometimes become irritable, like when we lost the television remote, or my sister would eat his denture cleaning tablets. He once punched my uncle for calling my mom a ‘bitch’ during an argument. My uncle refused to apologize and my grandpa decked him.
The hospice nurse said it would be helpful if we spoke to my grandpa, make our peace. I had already been sitting with him for a week engaged in milkshake standoffs. Sometimes I thought about taking sips of his, but I never did. I just kept bringing them. I don’t remember what exactly I said during those minutes, maybe something about bologna sandwiches. That’s the way it is. The words you’ve rehearsed in your mind are lobster and filet mignon, but what you actually say, turn out to be a mélange of cold cuts. After some time he looked at me and said, “Getting old is hell.” The house smelled like a cabin in Christmas time, I knew the nurse had lit a cinnamon candle. I knew it was over.
My grandpa and I have the same birthday. Well, that’s what I had always thought. It was my uncle, at Grandpa’s funeral who revealed that in fact, we didn’t. Grandpa was born on a hot, dusty farm in Oklahoma. The wind blows like sandpaper there. They have no accurate record of his birth, and in fact even he didn’t know when he was born. He only knew it was somewhere around my birthday. So he often provided different birth dates, depending on his mood. My entire family had been holding up this lie so they could celebrate us both only once a year, buy only one cake, have one party and be done with it. It makes no difference to me.
Before the funeral my sister and I took shots of Black Velvet, my grandpa’s favorite whiskey and possibly the most disgusting whiskey known to man. Death is not romantic. It’s not strawberry milkshakes. It’s not a Torero’s pink tights, tight gold tasseled suit or red cape. There is no Hemingway novel here. Anyhow at some point you start rooting for the bull.
We buried Grandpa in Good Shepard Cemetery, way out in the desert. Its cultivated green grass sets the love and loss apart like an oasis. You might forget to notice the desert closing in around you. If you visit in the early hours of the morning coyotes weave in and out, yipping between the headstones.