When my great-grandfather died about 20 years ago, he wasn’t the first person I’d ever known to die, but he was the first to share my blood and to have shared a conversation with me to die. I remember feeling sad for his passing, and wondering how it made my mother feel, since he was her grandfather, but my emotions were vicarious. I did some math.
Many of my friends in school had grandparents way older than mine. Many had experienced the death of a loved one, usually grandparents. In elementary school, that always seemed the most reasonable tragedy. There were other bombshells — I knew a girl who died from an accidental stabbing, on Thanksgiving, as well as other infrequent cases of sibling or parental death — but dead grandparents were de rigeur, a dime a dozen, the coin of the realm.
I fell in love with superheroes and comic books around this time. My first love was Spiderman; my life love, Adam Warlock. So many heroes powers symmetry or asymmetry (or both) their personalities and histories.
Superman is a near-ominpotent alien whose powers stem from his unique reaction to the rays of our sun; his Achilles heel is kryptonite, a near-nonexistent alien element his powers have a unique reaction to. Reed Richards’ incredible brain stretches light years beyond even the exceptional human limits; as Mr. Fantastic, he can extend his body to unprecedented forms and extremes. Bruce Banner’s wrath and raging lead him to become The Hulk, a juggernaut whose strength lets him overcome if not transcend any and all obstacles, but also one whose unpredictable wrathful rages render his powers a mixed blessing at best.
What if I had a superpower? What if no one I loved would ever die? What if it was as simple as deciding it should be so? Borges wrote Todos los hombres, en el futuro, serán capaces de todas las ideas — “Every man should be capable of all ideas and I understand that in the future this will be the case.” Ideas once considered impossible are always being exposed as achievable, ergo “anything is possible,” ergo someone somewhere would have the power to keep everyone they love alive, forever, if only they had the imagination to consider it, and the commitment to never let the idea slide away.
My paternal grandmother died today.
The last time I saw her was ten weeks before she passed. I was visiting family for the holidays and had been told by others and sensed myself that this was the last chance I’d have to see her. Mike Tyson once said, “You can’t stop reality from being real.” I thought of that. I’m a storyteller. 24/7. Some of the best stories are so convincing it’s tempting to conclude they’re real. But the realest fiction doesn’t feel anything remotely like reality. I didn’t think I’d never see my grandmother again. I knew.
She was staying in a…I don’t know what the term is. An apartment, in a building of apartments with people who I figured all needed some kind of medical aid/oversight. Her mobility was pretty much gone. She needed help eating and drinking.
Her room was room 36. 30 years ago she lived in a building on 104th Street in East Harlem. Her apartment was 9B. 36 = 6 squared. 9 inverted equals 6. B inverted’s still B, just slightly irregular.
The slip above her door in the medical home read “G Miranda.” The slip hung unevenly and poked out of its slot a bit. Whoever slipped it in had done so carelessly, as if the name on the slip wasn’t some secret miracle.
I saw the “G” and thought of when I was child, how my father and I adopted the initials “G.B.” and “S.B.” for one another. Since he’d grown up in Harlem, he was “Ghetto Boy”; I, raised on the meaner-than-average streets of Uniondale and the Charmin-soft cul de sacs of Webster, was “Suburban Boy.” I envied my father’s upbringing when I was young. At the time I was young and lost, living in a town that both fetishized and feared anything urban/ethnic; I was a white-skinned Puerto Rican all too used to white friends excusing their Spic jokes (the jokes were less horrific than the ignorance) by praising me as “one of the good ones.” I’m old enough now to understand why my father did not want to raise a family in the barrio he grew up in. Old enough to appreciate that. Old enough to light a candle for all the dreams we kill off to win victories for those we love.
What had my grandmother been dreaming before she lost the ability to move for herself, care for herself, live for herself? What did she dream after? What did she dream from the time she was good news to prenatal to newborn to toddler to girl to young woman to married to mother to grandmother to great-grandmother to G Miranda room 36?
The last time I saw her, my grandmother was watching Who’s The Man? If I’d walked in on her bodyslamming Dick Cheney I’d have been less surprised.
Abuela Guille loved her some novelas. I’ve come to see how my family’s near-universal fondness for these Spanish-language soap operas is one of the few substantive universals we share. Novelas are stories distilled to their most potent form. They’re drama in chemical form. Novels are fine wine. Pulp fiction is beer. Comic books are nutcrackers. Novelas are ecstasy: speedy and languid all at once, a cocaine-heroin compound high. Who’s The Man? is the three swigs you take from a 40 ounce Red Dog you found in the death grip of a corpse you stumbled across in the bad part of the woods one night. But from now on, whenever I see it, I’ll remember G Miranda room 36 laughing hysterically throughout.
The strangest thing about our final conversation was how similar in so many ways it was to most of our conversations. I’m partially fluent in Spanish; Abuela Guille was partially fluent in English…
(Following “Guille” with “was” instead of “is” felt like playing the piano with the wrong fingering.)
A lot of the times when we spoke, my brain felt like one man playing tennis, racing back and forth: trying to translate and understand as much as I could, in truth to understand more than I could, because I wanted to honor and love this woman, and I knew her stories were the stepping stones to that connection, but there was a language distance between us, and other distances, too, so in-between trying to understand her I was also seeing the growth of the space between us, a space large enough to be the third half of our relationship.
I make sense of life and the universe through gaps and absences. The Mirandas are not a family of planets; they are would-be stars. My grandmother and I had a warped gravity that made sharing a concentric orbit impossible. We were together or apart, and never anywhere else; the distance between us made it so. But the space between us was not empty. The dark matter there had a dreamlike quality. We could connect in dreams, and sometimes did. We could connect over our dreams, and we did. If I asked her about her last dream, she had an answer, always. My favorite type of people are the ones who listen to their dreams. They’re two-spirits: light enough to dream, yet deep enough not to the mistake the realest fiction for reality.
The last question I’d ever ask my grandmother was whether she’d been dreaming.
“No,” she said, “pero…” She spoke for about 20 minutes straight. I couldn’t follow everything she was saying. She was mixing past memories with present-day delusions; I didn’t know if she was sundowning, or if she was talking about dreams, or remembering truths, or recalling things that never were. I didn’t need to know. All I needed was the pero. That pero said it all.
If you only knew G Miranda room 36, you wouldn’t know that on Sunday nights we’d drive to Abuela Guille’s apartment in East Harlem and have dinner with her. When my cousin Amii was there, we’d play “Court” at dinner. A number of moments since then in life have been as fun as Court, but none have ever been more fun.
If you only knew G Miranda room 36, you wouldn’t know everyone in Guillermina Miranda’s family carries at least 10 extra pounds because anytime anyone came to visit she insisted on cooking enough arroz y gandules to survive an apocalypse and insisted you eat enough to survive one. I didn’t know I picked this up from her until I had a stepdaughter and was accused of doing the same. If we’d been able to connect more directly, I may have seen this symmetry earlier. But the way it unveiled itself — through distance, time, unconscious — brings a tickle to my head and heart well worth it, and I thank the universe for the questions it raised — what did she learn about me from my absence? What questions did she never get to ask?
By the way — the last time I’d ever see her, even with her unable to feed herself, much less cook, she gave me something to take with me when I left. I still have it. I suspect I’ll keep it a long time. It’s a chocolate mint truffle. The chocolate we connected over. The mint? Sigh…
If you only knew G Miranda room 36, you wouldn’t remember Abuela Guille had a toy McDonald’s restaurant that I played with every Sunday for I don’t even know how many years. One of my favorite toys ever. You know those classic McDonald’s floor tiles?
When I see those I think of that toy, and her, and 9B and 104th Street and a world I’m so close to and light years removed from, the difference between the sun that licks your skin and the sun 93 million miles away, between the many winters between me and my grandmother and the summer of our golden age, those eternal Harlem sunsets.
If you only knew G Miranda room 36, you wouldn’t know what it felt like learning in Abuela Guille’s kitchen that I like to eat lemons, and how even today that taste, that electricity of taste buds in exaltation, reminds me of picking one out of the bottom of her fridge.
Every time we left her apartment after dinner, she’d lean out her window and wave. My sisters and I made a game of it: we’d start waving after turning at the end of the block brought her into our view, then keep waving when we reached the car, as we climbed into it, and whoever had the window seat nearest her would continue to wave, through the glass and the invisible distance between us, until we were out of sight.
In the middle of my last visit, I went with my sister to buy my grandmother some groceries. I bought her ham and cheese, and remembered her making me ham and cheese sandwiches years ago with the same proud hands that now fought to securely hold on to a handful of pills without dropping them. I paid with cash. My change was two cents. I left my grandmother for the last time fingering the two coins in my pocket, wondering if two people, even two with such distance between them, can love stories so much their combined gravity pulls certain events into having no choice but to occur. The two coins echo, symbols of death but more powerfully of an after-death journey continuing. I wonder where my grandmother is now. What’s it like there? Can she see I’m still waving goodbye?