An Organized Death
Nonfiction by Emma Partridge
My Grandmother was one of those severe Canadian people that lived through the depression but never really left it. When all the popular girls in my grade were buying hair straighteners she told me that eating my sandwich crusts would make my hair curl in an attempt to get me to finish them.
I was the youngest in my whole family and never quite knew what to make of her. My older cousins had become close to her before the perm harshened and her pants rose five inches, they weren’t worried she would cramp their style. I envied the way cousins with cool names like Josh who would go on to dye their hair black and get roman numeral tattoos threw their arms around her. I couldn’t make myself do it, I feared that if I buried my head in her wrinkly neck perhaps we’d get fused like that and other 13 year old girls with large, hoop earrings would shoot me looks telling me I’d never get laid.
I don’t know that I regret the distance I kept her at, though. I can’t say that while I was in a rural farming community on the British Columbian countryside stockpiling thoughts about feminism that I wanted her going through the shelves in my brain and renaming the boxes things like “what does race have to do with it?”
I do regret the feeling that I had flying to her hospice right before she died, knowing that she had said goodbye to everyone except me and that was probably why she was hanging on. If anyone could give the grim reaper a look that would make him slink off to the corner until she was ready, she could.
I didn’t know that I deserved to be waited for this way — maybe it was making her wait in general that bothered me. Grandma didn’t do any waiting; she planned in advance, even death.
I was 16 making tea at her house when I noticed the cup had a label with a name on it. I held it up to my mom with a quizzical look on my face and she said, “those go to Debra,” as if that explained anything.
My mom then said that those were for after Grandma died, that she wasted nothing, not even time, which was saved and redistributed for her family in the same way that leftover dinner meat was.
I was initially quite disgusted that journeying into the next life was treated with the same level of organization and labelling that one applies to a garage sale, but I eventually claimed several things for myself.
Most of the kids and grandkids had scooped up their items by the time Grandma was in the hospice. Although, on my second night there I was bringing some Chinese takeout into the small dining area where my mom and her sisters were discussing something they hadn’t laid claim to.
As we opened up the boxes of noodles my mom said from behind her hands that Grandma had been reminded by her impending death that they ought to get the gold fillings out my Grandpa’s mouth when he goes, too.
“He’s got a fortune in there!” Grandma had wheezed.
Between chews of the greasy takeout I imagined vividly the three sisters getting a call about Poppa’s death and all showing up at the scene with a different pair of pliers.
I didn’t attend the funeral, which in the moment I had few reservations about but deeply regret now, not least because the decision was primarily an excuse to be alone with a college boyfriend who showed up to my house six hours late.
Grandma’s burial plot had been picked out and paid for for years, but there were other ways the funeral service tried to get cash from her still-living husband and kids.
“THUMBIES,” exclaimed a short man with hair that clung to his sweaty forehead, brandishing a shiny pamphlet in front of my Poppa and his daughters. Apparently it was a popular trend in Vancouver to imprint your dead loved one’s thumbprints on a material like wax that could then be hardened and worn on a bracelet, right next to your charms from ballet.
I kept wondering how long you had to hold their fingers like that and whose job that was. My grandfather was too polite to say no. He also almost bought a $90,000 casket until my aunts steered him away from the “Princess Diana” model to a more sensible box.
She did have an interesting finger — she’d use it to point at Poppa and back to her five times when she was ordering at a restaurant and wanted to communicate to the waitress that they were going to split it.
After the food came she would wave the waitress over and ask her why she didn’t tell her how big it was.
My whole family asked unanswerable questions like that. Double negatives and stuff where you weren’t sure what answer was being sought out. Or, if it was a simple question the answer would often be questioned.
“Are you tired?”
“Oh, I’m sure you are.”
I grew up teetering on an unsteady pile of shifting responses that were only true to some people.
She grew up much surer, sure that if you ate a certain amount of meat and potatoes in your life, got to bed at a certain hour, and remained wary of people of other races then you would complete all the appropriate checkpoints, tick off these predestined boxes placed there maybe by God, or possibly capitalism, who knows.
In a way, she was right to have a plan; she had a beautiful family holding her hand while she slipped off, hand in hand with the Grim Reaper that had been waiting patiently for her in the corner, nibbling on some digestive cookies.