I dug right down to the bottom of my soul… And cried. ’Cause I felt…nothing.— A Chorus Line
“Your phone is ringing,” David said. “It’s your mom. Here.” Disoriented, I took hold of the small glowing slab and mumbled, “I didn’t hear anything.” My iPhone buzzed in my hand. Right, I remembered, I’d silenced it last night before setting it on the nightstand beside David’s pillow. The buzzing stopped. I inched closer to the clock near my head and tried to focus on the blurry green numbers: 6:13. It was Friday morning, an hour before my mother usually bored-dialed me from her car on her way to work. As far as I was concerned it was still night — we’d gotten in late, and David had drawn the shades of our hotel room so we could sleep in. My phone buzzed, blinding me as the word “Mom” again appeared on the screen.
“Mom?” I croaked.
“Barb?” She sounded frantic, but I wasn’t alarmed — I’d heard that tone in her voice plenty of times. I asked her what was wrong. “It’s Pop Pop,” Mom said, her voice breaking. Words cascaded from her mouth, something about her father having died, that there was supposed to be a “do not resuscitate” (as decided by Mom and her sisters a few years ago, the last time Pop Pop was at death’s door) but that, when the hospital called Mom’s sister for a decision, she was distraught and overwhelmed and gave them the go-ahead to revive him, which they did, prior to placing him on a ventilator, which was the only thing keeping him alive now. “And I don’t know what to do,” she finished.
I let out my breath, long and slow. “If I was down there, I’d come over and give you a hug.”
“Where are you?”
“I’m in L.A.,” I said. “The cooking class I signed us up for? Remember I told you for David’s birthday I was going to try to show an interest in his favorite hobby?” I sighed once more and sat up. “Look, it doesn’t matter. What do you mean, you don’t know what to do?”
Mom couldn’t decide when to go back to New Jersey, or if she even wanted to. She vacillated between emotions — anger for the resuscitation, fear of judgment if she chose not to go, lament for any pain her father might be in, and grief over his impending loss. As I listened, I felt sympathy for Mom, for her grief and the agony of her decisions. When my mother reached a stopping point, I offered her one of the truths I hold close to my heart: “There is no ‘right thing to do.’ There’s only what’s right for you. What do you want to do?”
After hours of telephonic conferences with her sisters and daughters, Mom decided she would go — but not until Tuesday. That way, she wouldn’t miss her grandson’s seventh birthday party on Saturday, and she’d have a few days to prepare herself.
I hardly knew my grandfather. It was only two years ago that I wrote about having forgotten he was still alive. The rest of the extended family on my mother’s side — save for my Aunt Jane, who continued to reach out to me over the years — are names and faces, many of which I would have difficulty matching up. Relationships simply do not exist. This is not good or bad so much as just the way things are. How could I mourn the loss of something I didn’t have? I felt for my mother. But that’s where my feelings ended.
On Facebook, I noted how curious I found the concept of scheduling someone’s death — the polar opposite of the Caesarean section, to appoint an hour at which life support will be withdrawn. Friends posted comments, offering their condolences. I found this interesting, considering I hadn’t indicated how I felt about it. All I’d said was that he was scheduled to die and that the concept of scheduling a life-ending appointment was strange. People assumed I was upset.
There’s a protocol to life and death. When babies are born, you’re supposed to congratulate the parents. You rush to the hospital to tell them their offspring is gorgeous, and if you’re related or a close friend, you come bearing gifts. When someone dies, you’re supposed to express sympathy to the survivors. If you can, you attend the funeral. If not, you send flowers or food along with a note that informs the grieving how sorry you are for their loss. And if you were related to the deceased, you’re supposed to be among the grieving. I’ve never been one to abide by convention for convention’s sake. I either feel it or I don’t. I either want to or I won’t. In this regard, I am sure I have repeatedly disappointed my family.
They pulled the plug on Friday, exactly one week after my early-morning phone call from Mom. It took half an hour for Pop Pop’s heart to stop. At the wake in New Jersey, my mother was surrounded by her sisters, in-laws, cousins, nieces, and nephews. Her four daughters remained in San Diego.
The day after Pop Pop died, my sister Jane said she was thinking of sending a fruit bouquet. She asked if I was interested in doing the same. I thought about it for a moment. “I think it’s a nice gesture,” I said. “It’s thoughtful of you to make it. But it doesn’t feel right for me, so, no, I’m not interested.”
As the eldest, Jane had a stronger connection to both our grandfather and the grievers. For me, reaching out now felt disingenuous. I really tried to feel something, some buried tenderness from fond memories; but no matter how deeply I searched my soul, I couldn’t bring myself to care. I did not want to be involved.
Jane called me the following day to say that Jenny, our youngest sister, went ahead and ordered the fruit. “She signed your name to the card,” Jane said.
“I told her you weren’t interested in participating, but she said something about it being the right thing to do.”
“I’m sure she meant well,” I said. “And it may be right for the rest of you. But I’m bothered. Regardless of one’s intentions, I find it inappropriate for someone to presume they know the right thing for me to do and then, even when it’s made clear I am choosing not to do that thing, to go ahead and make it appear as if I did.” I then repeated the words I had offered my mother when she’d fretted over others’ expectations. “There is no ‘right thing to do,’ Jane. People may not like my choices, but that doesn’t make my choices wrong.”