Death is difficult.
It’s hard to think about, it’s hard to watch, and it’s hard to experience. On top of all that, it’s hard to be honest about. What do you say?
When my Grandma Annie died I was 20. I had lost a loved one before, but never as an adult. Losing someone as a kid is intense, but also kind of cartoonish. When you’re a kid the future is completely unknown anyway, so while a violent change in plans is rough, your plans aren’t that developed to begin with. It’s easier to adapt. But with Annie I understood that something intimate was lost forever. I remember coming home from college on a train, staring out the window at the Hudson river passing by, completely stunned. I wasn’t really sad or angry at that point, I was more so frozen. I was scared for my mom. I thought of her as particularly sensitive and also as particularly close with her mother, and I couldn’t imagine how she’d react. I didn’t know how our family would change, I didn’t know how our traditions would continue. I was confused. The three hour trip felt like nothing and forever at the same time. It was without time. It wasn’t until I got home and saw that people were sad, but that they were functioning, that the clocks started working again. And at that point, a new set of thoughts started to seep into the void in my mind.
I began to worry. I was worried that I wasn’t sad enough. And I was worried that I couldn’t remember all the times I had spent with Annie on demand. And I was terrified that I hadn’t – and seemingly couldn’t – cry. Time passed between getting home and the funeral, and I thought I was broken. Until we got to the church. And I sat down, and saw the coffin by the altar, and the entire reservoir of emotion that had dammed up behind my own naivety broke. And I was overwhelmed by sadness. And I couldn’t stop crying. And I couldn’t imagine how anything would ever be bright or warm again.
And then my father’s mother, my yiayia, put her arm around me, in what at the time felt like a completely surreal, angelic gesture. I looked up to see her, the only other woman who had ever held a similar role to Annie in my life, bracing me and smiling and being strong. And I don’t remember what she said to me, but it was comforting when the world felt like hell. And as we got up out of the pews to follow the coffin to the hearse, I never stopped crying and she never let go of me. Stoically, and elegantly, and radiantly, this woman walked me out of the church. And I knew it would be OK.
And now she’s gone. And all I have is the memory of her and that intense, horrible, inspiring moment to help me this second time around.
This was Ipapanti Georgiou.
She was kind and simple and she was generous with her love. She thrived on other people’s success and she bore their suffering so they wouldn’t have to. During one of our last visits together in the hospital, I spent hours alone with her. She knew she was going to die, that was obvious. And yet, all she talked about, between gasps for air, was her family. She’d tell me to be nicer to my mother and to call Irene once and awhile. And she’d tell me to find a nice Greek girl and to make lots of babies with her. She talked about that one a lot.
She was so ambitious and driven. She’d put anyone who’d listen to work in her garden. And then she’d follow them around, exhausting herself just the same as if they weren’t there helping. She’d point at weeds to be picked, and flowers to be moved, and rocks to be organized, orchestrating everything with her cane like an choir conductor does with his stick. I remember one chore in specific: she’d hand me a small rake, the head of which was less than a foot wide. And she’d tell me to scratch the lawn with it, to air-ate the soil. No matter how hard I did it, she’d yell at me to do it harder, until one day I accidently broke the wooden handle of this 20 year old antique tool she brought over from the motherland. So I’m standing there with two pieces of rake in my hand, and I looked up at her, and – I kid you not – she standing there with another rake, this one with a metal handle.
When she wasn’t in the garden, she’d be inside with a thimble and a pincushion that looked like a tomato, working on some project of some neighbor or friend or family member. This, I’ve been told, was a reflection of her childhood. When she grew up, it was all about taking care of the household and her immediate family, especially her father. And it was her father who insisted she have a skill, thus her learning how to sew.
And when she wasn’t sewing she was sharing meals and telling stories. I can’t think of many memories of her that don’t involve a set table. Always some chicken, and some burnt pieces of toast or pita. Or the one time when someone had brought over Japanese food and Yiayia ate a dollop of wasabi thinking it was guacamole. She didn’t eat a lot Japanese food after that.
And I think back to her shopping. She was always on the hunt for the ideal $20 handbag or the perfect pair of slippers. Endless trips to Marshalls and TJ-Max, where she somehow managed to return more things than she’d bought.
And then there was church. She had countless stories about cathedrals in Greece, the exploits of saints, prayers she thought were good, hymns she liked. I’d come home from school for the summer, and see her and she’d ask me, “Adam, does the church lock the doors during the summer? Are they closed?” “No, Yiayia, I don’t think the church closes during the summer.” “Ohhh, that’s interesting, because I didn’t see you there last Sunday…” I remember her driving me to church as a kid, and then sitting next to her during services later on. She’d always point to where we were in the liturgy book, even though I was terrible at following along.
These are all little trivial memories. They’re important only if you knew my Yiayia, but they were trivial nonetheless, even to her. To her the only things that ever mattered were the people in her life, her family, and God.
As my Papou began to lose his memory and his autonomy years ago, she carried on taking care of the house and him, a job my family still finds difficult doing with the force of several people helping all together. She did that impossible job, alone, unwell, and with a smile on her face till the very end.
I never saw her in a bad mood. I never saw her act in a way I could ever call selfish. She lived for others.
Her influence was a train, and her love was the sun. The world will be slightly darker without her.
As the youngest of her siblings, her father used to say, “εαρθεν η μικρή”: here’s the little one. I like to think he’s going to say that again very soon.
I love you Yiayia.
We’ll never forget you.