Funeral In My Heart

When my grandma died, my roommate Lisa drove me to the airport. A co-worker of hers had a flight at the same time — 6:50 a.m. — and we both wanted to get there the recommended two hours early. It was too early for public transit, too expensive to justify a car service. It was dark, before dawn, and chilly waiting for the heat vents to warm us. I blinked away sleep in the passenger seat while we waited for her co-worker to arrive in the empty SODO parking lot, and again as the co-worker loaded her luggage into Lisa’s trunk.

On the open stretch of road, on our way to SeaTac, I asked where she was flying.

“Disney World,” she replied.

I told her she should definitely go to Epcot. That I’d been given bad advice as an 8th grader and regretted not spending more time in that particular park.

I also told her I was going home for a funeral, which she already knew. Lisa had told her. She wasn’t going to mention Disney World. But I was glad to talk about it, hear about it. At least one of us was going to have good time.

On the plane, I had a window seat. Once we reached altitude, I slid open the window cover and peered out to see the October sun rising over Mount Rainier, the sky a fantastic swirl of pinks, yellows, and oranges, a phenomenon that I miss most days. I turned to the women in the row behind me, urged them to pull up their window cover, too, dismayed that a thick piece of plastic was keeping them from witnessing it now.

“The view is incredible,” I insisted.

The woman in the window seat was resting her eyes, but the woman in the middle seat didn’t hesitate to reach over her. They both thanked me after.

“Of course,” I said. But really, I just didn’t know how to experience it alone.

Not the terrific beauty of the mountain at sunrise, and not the terrible grief of losing my grandma, which is why I was there at all. Flying to be with family.

***

At the Minneapolis-St. Paul airport, I kept taking the passenger train too far and missing the stop where my parents and brother were waiting for me. It was another two-and-a-half-hour drive to my grandma’s wake. I was sweaty, sad, and relieved by the time I reached them. Dad wheeled my luggage for me, and we piled into the Camry. It was a beautiful fall day in both Minnesota and in my home state, Iowa. Blue sky, green grass, golden corn stalks. We must’ve stopped somewhere for lunch, but I don’t remember where or what we ate. We must’ve talked, but I don’t remember any conversation until we were just outside of Allison, when we stumbled upon the revelation that my dad was now orphaned.

“You know,” I told him, “I once told my friend Hannah at college that she was half an orphan, because her mom died when she was young, and that she was only one parent away from becoming Batman. And then when her dad died, I told her there’s nothing stopping her now.”

My dad laughed and said, “Oh my God, honey.” Then he did a striking Batman impression. Parked outside of the funeral home, we were seized by riotous laughter. We gasped and laughed. It took us several minutes to compose ourselves, knowing the mood in the car couldn’t last, wasn’t appropriate to bring with us. We left it at the threshold.

Inside, I felt myself passed from one relative’s arms to another’s. Their faces were masks of pain and loss and solemnity. It felt right to be held and hugged and squeezed, but it was such a jarring shift of emotion and atmosphere. I no longer felt like laughing, but the laughter felt close by, like maybe it was still waiting, politely, just outside the door.

Together, with my family, I watched a slideshow of photographs and viewed Grandma’s body in her casket. Her earthly shell looked powdered and peaceful. I talked to people whose names I did not know, but who recognized me, either by sight or name. Who told me, “Oh, she loved you so much!” Apparently Grandma Miller had been thrilled to get one-on-one time with me the month before; it had been my first visit back to Iowa in fifteen months since I moved across the country, and I had beat my parents to her house by a half an hour or so that morning. Only since moving had I realized how close I felt to my grandma. We could stay on the phone for an hour without struggling to fill the silence. She sent me letters and newspaper clippings. She asked me about my writing, my city, my travels, the cat I adopted. She never asked me if I had a boyfriend. I loved her so much.

At her funeral, I eulogized her. After her funeral, I napped in the den of her buttercream yellow house after going through her belongings and setting aside the things I wanted to keep: her teacup collection; a photo album; a small letter-writing desk. I could hear everyone else doing the same.

But before all of that — before the funeral, before the wake, before my flight back — I was alone with my grief. As soon as I hung up on the phone with my dad, the bearer of bad news, I was lonely with it. When I spoke the words (or texted them) — “My grandma died” — to my friends, my roommate, my boss, they asked me what they could do for me: buy me a meal, drive me to the airport, give me some time off. They were kind, supportive, and helpful. I had a co-worker who sympathized; she’d lost her grandpa the year before, and I’m sure she understood better than most people that we couldn’t share our grief. We were separated by it. I was alone.

I didn’t have a car in Seattle, so I enlisted a friend to drive me a few places. The last newspaper clipping my grandma had sent me was about a mystery soda machine in Capitol Hill. It’s an old, outdoor Coke machine perpetually stocked with a variety of soda. It costs 75 cents, and each of its six buttons is labeled “mystery” so you never know what kind you’re going to get. That was our first stop. Then we drove to the West Seattle lighthouse, because Grandma Miller loved lighthouses. It was cold and windy and dark. But beautiful, too.

It was the first funeral I held in my heart.

***

My other grandma, Grandma Bohlen, was in the nursing home and unable to attend my Grandma Miller’s funeral, but she knew I’d flown home for it, and she said, “Anika won’t have to fly home for my funeral.” I suppose it was nice to have permission not to, but I brushed off her comment. Of course, I would fly back for her funeral! It was actually bizarre to be home for Grandma Miller’s funeral first, because when I’d visited her the month before I’d felt reassured we’d have plenty of phone calls and letters and visits ahead of us. It was the exact opposite of how I felt after visiting with Grandma and Grandpa Bohlen; when I’d last said goodbye to them at their assisted living apartment, with a tight but careful squeeze and a kiss on the cheek, I was strangely aware that it might very well be The Last Time.

This fear was unfounded. Grandma Bohlen lived for another four years, though she spent most of that time in the nursing home, vocal about her readiness for death and whatever’s next. She wasn’t keen on life anymore. She warned me once, “Don’t get old,” and when I told her the date of my next visit, she told me, “I’ll be dead by then.” She often told my mom, who visited each week, “You’ll see me, but I won’t see you,” which I found morbidly hilarious.

When Grandma Bohlen died, it was January, I was grieving the recent, unexpected death of my beloved cat, and there was a snowstorm headed for Iowa. Grandma had said I wouldn’t have to fly back for her funeral, and she ended up being right. There wasn’t going to be a wake, because she was cremated, and there wasn’t going to be a burial, because she and Grandpa were going to share an urn. It made sense for me to stay put. Instead, I bought a box of Little Debbie’s Pecan Spinwheels, the kind we used to have at breakfast and teatime, and I held a funeral in my heart. Then I planned to fly home during the summer to gather with family, look through old photographs, and remember together. Which is exactly what we did.

***

Now Grandpa has died. He was my last living grandparent, and I’d always planned on returning home after his passing, knowing that’s when he and Grandma Bohlen would both be laid to rest. Except Grandpa’s death has come at a time when death and grief are ubiquitous, and travel and gatherings are ill-advised. The COVID-19 pandemic isn’t over. Sure, Iowa has lifted all of its mandates. Seattle hasn’t, but I could go anyway. Technically, I could. I could get a COVID test. Book a flight. Ask my parents to fetch me at the airport. Technically, my family could host a funeral, invite the public. I mean, technically we could even all go to Disney World.

But I don’t think any of us would feel good about it. I know I wouldn’t.

Over half a million Americans died from COVID in the past year. Just as many families are grieving. My grandpa didn’t technically die from COVID. Technically, he got COVID, recovered from it, then died.

The last time I saw Grandpa Bill was in October 2019. I was in Iowa for a friend’s wedding, and I’d just cut my hair. My fiancé was still just my boyfriend. I called my cousin on the drive over, and he agreed to meet us at Grandpa’s house, where Grandpa lived with one of his three daughters. Grandpa had just gone outside to fix a weed whacker when we showed up, and he was annoyed at being shuffled back inside until he saw me standing in front of him.

“Look who it is!” he exclaimed, his face bright, his smile wide. We embraced, the pen in his breast pocket pressing into my collarbone. We all sat in the warm glow of the living room and visited as we had hundreds of times before, as hundreds of different versions of ourselves: young and old, sick and well.

The last time I talked to Grandpa Bill, he was in the hospital. A nurse handed him the phone. He was cheerful and confused. He raved about the food and how good they were feeding him. (My mother informed me he wasn’t and couldn’t be eating solids.) He believed he was going home that evening. (He wasn’t.) He said he was going over to Loretta’s house. (Loretta was his sister; she’d been dead for years.) He said I could visit him there. (I obviously couldn’t.) Two minutes into our conversation, he asked me to remind him who I was. When I did, love and excitement reentered his voice all over again. He knew who Anika was.

I didn’t call him again. I knew he wouldn’t remember. I knew that I would.

I made peace with the last time being The Last Time.

Except . . . I didn’t. Not really. You can’t grieve someone until they’re gone. It doesn’t matter if you live a thousand miles away. It doesn’t matter if you know in your heart you won’t ever see or speak to them again. There’s always a chance. A possibility. A flicker. A hope. Until there’s not. It’s always some nebulous tomorrow, the last time — Until it’s today.

It’s today, and all I want is to be in Iowa, for it to be non-COVID times, to put my arms around my relatives’ shoulders and squeeze, to share physical space with all the people who loved Grandpa, all the people who love me by extension, to laugh and to cry. We wouldn’t have to talk. We wouldn’t have to say anything. We could just be in our grief — together.

Funerals have always been for the living. Now I yearn for that fellow feeling, for the opportunity to swipe one of the pens Grandpa Bill always kept in his breast pocket.

There’s nowhere on Earth I’d like to be so badly as that funeral home in Allison.

Instead, I hold another funeral in my heart, knowing it might be the only one I attend.

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