There’s nothing like a death in the family to put things into perspective for you. My grandmother was a Cuban farm girl. She swore someday she would rise above her upbringing, and become part of the class that made things happen on the island. I was never able to get the full story of how she met my grandfather, but I know that early on they were very much in love.
My brother has pictures of the two of them tearing around Havana on a Harley Davidson in 1937, and they look like they are having so much fun together. They built a wonderful life together, successful at business and at home. When Castro took over, my family was forced to flee the island, leaving behind all but what they could carry. They rebuilt, but Abuela never forgave the world for what it took from her with that revolution.
Somewhere along the lines, she picked up cigarettes, and she never gave them up. In the final week of her life, she made a choice between facing a potentially debilitating stroke down the road and the risks of open heart surgery. She was doing fine after the quintuple bypass, telling nurses what to do, ordering people around. Just like old times. Then five days into recovery, a slight tear in her aorta revealed itself, and she died.
Cuban Catholics do funerals in a big way, and Abuela would have hers no other way. Open casket viewing from 2pm – 11pm on Sunday, Funeral on Monday, all of it was a bit overwhelming after a redeye that left San Francisco at midnight on Valentine’s Day. During the viewing, I was amazed at how still she kept, throughout everything. I kept walking into the room, and finding myself surprised that she hadn’t budged. People move, after all. When I finally worked up the courage to touch my grandmother one last time, I understood. It sunk in.
You can temporalize death all you want, but touching it, when it’s had its hair dyed, make-up done, and has been sitting under an airconditioning vent for 24 hours: that will straighten things up for you.