Saturday, September 29, 2012

My Life With Irma Levinson

My great grandmother is dying.  She's in the hospital again, and as I understand things, from this point it's a matter of how quickly or slowly it happens, but it's a near-certainty.  I think about it and my heart starts to jump around in my chest like a terrified bird in a heavy cage.  My whole body feels like molten lead.  My vision tunnels out and I feel like I can almost hear her in my head.

I haven't had the chance yet to cry about it.  Well, now I am, as I type this.  I thought I was prepared; we had such a scare a few years ago, when she had a heart attack, but it still hurts as if it wasn't something expected.  It's hard to explain how much I love her, and how much she has always meant to me and always will mean.  Damned if I'm not going to try.

She likes to tell the story of the day we met.  I was two, just about, and my father had just moved in with my grandmother, her daughter.  She says she never really liked kids, but when she came to visit I apparently crawled up into her lap and stayed there the whole time.  I remember the perfume she used to wear, and how her hair was always "done up", and the way she used to laugh when I was little.

I would visit her for weekends or whole summers, and her apartment was always very quiet, slightly dark and dusky, with tones of gold and beige, walls draped in climbing vines and the microwave that she used as a breadbox instead.  There was the old television set, embedded in a massive cabinet along with a record player, with a more modern model on top of that.  There were the mirrors hung up around the bas relief of Pan and two nymphs, which now adorns my own wall here in San Diego, the only thing I could bring myself to take when she moved out of her old apartment (which as it turns out was not long after I moved away with it).

She taught me to read, more importantly to love reading.  At first, there was the "Growing Up Book", which we would read together over and over again, until she realized that I was actually reading from the page, and not just memorizing the words and guessing.  Then later I found her copy of the Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam, and she taught me how to love poetry.  This one was her favorite:

A Book of Verses underneath the Bough,
A Jug of Wine, a Loaf of Bread--and Thou
Beside me singing in the Wilderness--
Oh, Wilderness were Paradise enow!

Here, though, this is the one that I will always remember her by:

For some we loved, the loveliest and the best
That from his Vintage rolling Time hath prest,
Have drunk their Cup a Round or two before,
And one by one crept silently to rest.

She taught me to play Scrabble, and gin rummy, and mah jong, and I was addicted to her calzones with ricotta cheese and spinach.  She taught me about musicals: our favorites were Paint Your Wagon, Fiddler on the Roof, and most importantly, Auntie Mame.  She always liked Rosalind Russell's version better, but we still loved the music in the Lucille Ball version.  She made no bones about it, she was my own personal Mame, and I was her little Patrick.  She would watch old sitcoms with me, like "I Dream of Jeannie" and "Bewitched" -- neither of us much liked "I Love Lucy" -- and I would put on her jewelry and reenact the scenes with myself playing both Darrin and Samantha, and she would always play Endora.

Naturally, she knew I was gay by the time I was six years old.  When I finally came out to her, her response was to be upset with me for not trusting her to not be disappointed with me.  It was more than I expected, which was stupid of me.  I should have known.

She always encouraged me, from the very beginning, no matter what anyone said or what I wanted to do.  If I wanted to act, she thought I would become a great actor.  If I wanted to write, she just knew I was going to grow up to be a famous novelist or screenwriter.  I was a hair stylist, a dancer, a singer, a scientist.  When I started learning to argue, she became convinced I should go into law.  Ultimately, her lesson was the uniform certainty that it didn't really matter what I wanted to be; as long as I worked at it, there was nothing I wouldn't be capable of doing.  Just love everything you do, and the rest will follow.

To my parents' discomfort, she used to get things for me that they couldn't really afford (and in all reality, I would later realize, she couldn't either).  She got my first and second and third bicycles, my first synthesizer, my first typewriter, and (indirectly) my first car.  When I was a teenager without an allowance, she would press a twenty into my palm for spending money, just so I would have something in my pocket.  She tried very hard to teach me about money, and fiscal responsibility, but the lessons never took as well as she'd have liked.  She blamed my father for that one, but she eventually forgave me.  She always forgave me, even when I didn't really deserve it.

When I was a teenager, and being bullied, and having problems with my parents, and feeling generally sorry for myself, she kept me going.  She would tell me, "this, too, shall pass", "they're jealous", "you just keep going, and everything will work out fine".  She would wave her hand in just such a way, and suddenly they, whoever "they" were, had been dismissed as if by magic.  She taught me how to persevere and how to be social, and she taught me how to get over myself when I needed to hear that too.  She also taught me how to stand up for myself, and to stop apologizing so much (I still haven't got that one down).

When I moved away from home, she was the person I would call when I needed to hear a calming voice, or when I needed to know that my own past still existed.  She was a reminder for me that I had not literally dropped into a different reality altogether.  I would tell her everything, good and bad, and she would marvel at the good and help me work through the bad.  She got me through my Associates degree, literally paying my way for a few semesters when my financial aid didn't come through and I was nearly forced to quit.  She triumphed with me when I succeeded, and was my inspiration when I needed something other than myself to motivate me.  After all she had done for me, what sort of person would I be if I let her down now?

Through all of this, she's been there, and I've watched her own aging process.  I remember the first time I realized what time was, and what death really meant.  I was in sixth grade, but I vividly remember it because it was such a formative moment.  I had been watching the movie 1492 with my parents, and realized that all of these things had (more or less) happened, that there was such a thing as the past, that I was living in a world that no longer contained these people, and that this meant one day I would live in a world that no longer contained my family, that one day the world would no longer contain me, and that even if there's such a thing as Heaven, it still wouldn't be me lying there, that I was going to become an adult, that my childhood was going to disappear, that my father would grow old, that my great grandmother would grow old even sooner, and that I was going to have to watch this happen, and there was nothing I could do about it.  I learned about my own mortality in a really shocking hour of personal gnosis, and have had many troubled nights since then lying awake in much the same way, reaffirming the absolute truth of my own mortality and, more horrifying in its own way, that of my family and friends.

I remember when she lost a breast to cancer, and when her eyes started to go bad so that she couldn't read anymore.  In seventh grade, I made her an audio book of Dune, and recorded songs for her, and read to her when I could.  I remember her falling, and suddenly needing a cane to walk around, and eventually the cane became a walker, and the stairs became more and more of a chore for her, and bathroom trips more and more of a problem.

I remember her shrinking, just as she remembers me growing.  She would keep marks on her pantry door to measure how much I'd grow between visits, and eventually some of my cousins saw those and wanted marks of their own (but she would always take pains to mention to me that mine were there first).  I remember suddenly being taller than her, and at some point she came no higher than my chest.  I felt embarrassed about it, because I had no right to be so much taller than someone as truly amazing as she was.

My great grandmother was not just my great grandmother.  I think she was my first friend.  She was the first person in my life who treated me like a person, and not just as a child.  She taught me to live up to that, to claim my dignity, and to live as the person I wanted to be.  Before I came along, she had already lived a dozen lifetimes, most of them a mystery to me even now.  She never wanted to talk about most of it, except for one of her husbands, Musty, whom she loved with all her heart, and her children, my own grandmother and my great uncles, Tommy and Sam.  Sam is there now, taking care of her, and I am so glad that he is there because she would always talk about him constantly when I was a kid (and occasionally confuse me for him in fugue moments), and she missed him terribly.  Tommy died long before I was born, and she used to tell me I was what God gave her in exchange for taking Tommy away.

In any case, here we are.  I have finally made it to grad school; my classes start Monday afternoon and I am going to do this as much because of her love and support as anything I have ever done.  I can not visit her, but I know she knows I'm with her, and I know she's here with me too.  I know because when I was a kid, she told me that when she dies, I will always know that she's still there with me, that she will sit on my shoulder and blow a cold breeze past my ear to keep me on my toes and to remind me that she loves me, that I am loved.

I can't say that it makes this hurt any less.  My heart is still aching, and I never knew until now that this was an actual, literal ache, but it is.  It hurts that I can't be there with her, that I can't see her again, that I probably never will.  It feels so unfair, but I can be grateful that she was in my life at all, and that we have had the time we've had.  I will still be thinking about her on my own journey, and she will be a constant presence in my own life until the day I die.  In the meantime, I can honor her the best way I know how: by doing my best to live up to the life she has dreamed that I should have.

So here's a song she used to sing to me.  It's what we have always said instead of goodbye:

I love you, a bushel and a peck! 
A bushel and a peck, and a hug around the neck! 
A hug around the neck, and a barrel and a heap 
A barrel and a heap, and I'm talkin' in my sleep. 

About you. 
About you! 
About you! 

My heart is leapin'! 
I'm having trouble sleepin'! 
'Cause I love you, a bushel and a peck 
You bet your pretty neck I do! 

Doodle, oodle, oodle. 
Doodle, oodle, oodle. 
Doodle oodle oodle oo. 

I love you, a bushel and a peck 
A bushel and a peck, go and beats me all to heck! 
Beats me all to heck how I'll ever tend the farm 
Ever tend the farm when I want to keep my 
Arms - about you - 

About you! 
About you! 

The cows and chickens 
are goin' to the dickens! 
'Cause I love you a bushel and a peck 
You bet your pretty neck I do - 

Doodle oodle oodle 
Doodle oodle oodle 
Doodle oodle oodle, oo! 

Good-bye now...

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