I was in the parking lot of the regional jail when I got the call from my sister telling me my grandmother was dead.
“Grandma passed away at about 1:30 this morning,” she told me.
Everybody else was fine.
A week before, my 88 year-old grandmother had entered the hospital because of fluid around her heart. She didn't much like doctors, hated hospitals and had sort of been counting the days until her death for a while. She mentioned not being around in birthday cards sometimes.
My sister broke the news and I tried not to laugh. While I'd been inside the regional jail, talking with a loved one about choosing to sleep on a thin mat laid over a cement floor in an overcrowded cell rather than taking a bed someplace where he'd be beaten, my father was choosing a casket for my grandma.
I imagined him looking at coffins the same way most people would look at used cars and whatever he got would be like my grandmother lived: simple, unpretentious and fiscally conservative.
She'd never piss good money away on an ornament nobody would ever see much of --least of all, her.
Meanwhile, details of the funeral would be forthcoming and probably very soon. Plans were being made. The tune was being called.
I was fine. I'm always fine at the point of impact. Later, things would suck, like when I thought about how I hadn't seen her in over ten years and the reasons behind that.
In the beginning, I didn't go because of money. More times than not, I didn't have two thin dimes to rub together. I worked two jobs, struggled to provide both for myself and for my family.
That never seemed to get much better.
Then, there were problems with vehicles. Nothing I drove seemed all that reliable, especially not for a seven hour trip across Ohio to Michigan.
Then I worried about the fragility of my grandmother and the rambunctious nature of my family. I wasn't sure the old girl could handle an hour with us, let alone a weekend, a holiday or a week of vacation.
The minority of voices echoing my concerns encouraged me to think this was for the best.
All excuses were poor and had little merit. The old woman had survived the Great Depression, backwoods poverty growing up in Arkansas and my much loved, but not especially saintly grandfather. She'd raised two kids in Flint, Michigan, in auto worker and union country, which could get rough.
She'd have been fine. If we'd annoyed her, she'd have puttered off to her room and closed the door until we came back later.
And so a decade disappeared with nothing more than a few phone calls, birthday cards and those letters I wrote to her from time to time.
The letters were for my comfort as much as hers. For a while, I was mailing them every week. Grandma didn’t have email and probably didn’t know what facebook was –not that it would have mattered. After cataract surgeries, she could barely see. My aunt, I imagined, read my letters to her and probably wrote her occasional responses back –except around birthdays.
For birthday cards, she managed to hastily scrawl some little note on the inside of the card, telling me she loved me, but mentioning her back trouble, her impaired vision or her advanced age.
They made me laugh sometimes, but I always appreciated those. She was trying to include me in her life in a way that made sense to her. The card with the money, she sent to share her joy. The messages were her little bits of pain. There was balance in that, I thought. She wanted to share the good and the bad, while I tended to gloss over things: car trouble, selling blood for gas money, an ended marriage, etc...
Sitting in the parking lot, it occurred to me that I'd cheated her out of a lot, but there was nothing to be done about it. I hung up the phone then drove home to pack.