Tomorrow I go to New York for a long weekend with my mother and grandmother. When I mention our plan to friends, the words they hear don’t match my feelings speaking them. It sounds to their ears like a festival of fun: a Girls’ theater trip, a shopping and museum excursion, a family bonding adventure—NYC for chrissakes! What they don’t hear is the grey, the pall, the heaviness weighting my words. In my heart I worry this is all-but-certain to be a final trip of this magnitude for my grandmother: a goodbye tour of her birthplace and a final visit with a sister. No one has spoken this aloud, but I can’t be the only one to have this on my mind.
But wait—do you see how I wrote “all-but-certain” and “of this magnitude”? I qualify. I quiver. I caveat. I cannot bring myself to say: “This is a final trip.” I suffer from the same denial that she does. Where my grandmother is concerned, there is an unspoken pact: one does not talk about the specter of shortening time. Psychologists might recommend that we humans confront the fact of mortality. Perhaps they’re right. But to do so clashes with her profound core instinct: Deny it. Defy it. Ignore it. Banish it. Fight it. Live life.
She’s 94 next week, so who’s to say she’s wrong?
My grandmother is from Brooklyn. Though she left at age 18 and has lived uninterrupted in Los Angeles since FDR’s first term; though she fell in love with, married and buried my grandfather here; though she raised two sons, spoiled five grandchildren, and is short driving distance from five of her seven great-grandchildren here in Los Angeles, she will tell you that she is a New Yorker. And so we go.
This trip was born on a phone call. Two days before my 40th birthday this April, I called my grandmother from the scarred seat of a NJ Transit train. Christopher and I were heading toward a night out in the Big Apple. The disfigured skyline of Lower Manhattan was beginning to materialize as I pressed the numbers on my cellphone. “Guess where I am?” I taunted. “Where?!” she gushed. I smiled at the ever-present excitement in her voice before I answered: “On my way to New York City.” She let out a long, guttural sigh, and then, “I wish I could fax myself to you.” I wished I could grant her wish.
My offer: “If you ever want me to escort you to New York, I would love to.” A period of ruminating, followed by an acceptance: “Let’s do it.” I shared the plan with my mother and sister, not wanting to exclude. My sister’s three-word response: “Are you crazy?” My mother’s: “I’ll come with.”
Which brings us to tomorrow. Less than six months since my grandmother pined for a human-sized fax machine to transport her cross-country, we are heading to her first home. My mother has made every arrangement, sparing me the grown-up responsibilities I might not have lived up to: arranging wheelchair escorts at the airport, finding a hotel close to theaters, making sure we have theater tickets and dinner reservations. We will dine with my grandmother’s sister, nieces and grandnieces. We will be moved to tears by Next to Normal. She will have a day in Brooklyn with her sister while my mother and I visit friends and shop.
Picturing all this, I begin to feel a hint of excitement, of optimism, of giddiness about our adventure. It is carbonated bubbles in my heart. We will have a wonderful time. We will fill our cameras and memories with new images to cherish. And I will let the heaviness hit me if it wants to. That is part of the extraordinary beauty of this journey, after all. We will be a party of women gathering to celebrate being family, together and alive in this moment.
We did it. We did everything. Bustled with the throngs on Broadway and Times Square for three days and nights. It was not always easy, but it was worth it. It turned out to be what my friends had envisioned: a Girls’ theater trip, a family bonding adventure—NYC in its glory. My heaviness was nowhere near. Denied, defied, ignored, banished. It knew it was not welcome.
Back in Los Angeles where we began, the airport cab drove us toward my grandmother’s home. Marina del Rey seemed so backwater after three intense days of cityscape. Buildings were short, October sky wide, personal space ample. I rubbed my eyes and yawned with the weariness of travel. I turned toward my grandmother as we slumped in the taxi’s back seat, the three of us together, my mother in the middle. I asked with chuckle, “Same time next year?”
I expected a grunt with an eye-roll, or her self-deprecating hysterical laughter as she imagined herself marshaling the strength for another cross-country haul. I got neither. Serious as can be, she answered me: “Actually, I was thinking about the Spring.”
It was my turn to wonder if I’ll have the energy by then. Apparently my grandmother will be fine. Lesson learned.