Sure and Certain Hope

My grandmother can’t talk about death without talking about religion. “I keep telling everyone I won’t be ready to die until I find God,” she says. It’s her favorite joke these days, because it grants her immortality. She will never find God. She thinks believers are morons.

Ready or not, though, she will die. Not just because all mortals die, but because she has a condition called aortic stenosis. Her aortic valve is narrowing, forcing her heart to work overtime. The heart is a muscle. Eventually, if nothing changes, it will tire itself out, and stop. Without a dangerous and painful open-heart operation, her doctor said, she had a 50/50 chance of dying within two years. She decided to postpone making a decision about the surgery, and since then no decision has become her decision. That was over a year ago.

We’re sitting at a sidewalk table at a café in Chelsea. Her eyes are clear and blue like shallow pools. She stopped dyeing and perming her hair a decade ago; now it’s gray and close-cropped, tomboyish. “My mother had superstition—shtetl religion,” she says. “My father was a socialist and a nonbeliever. And I was torn.” As a teenager she was a restless, probing agnostic. Then, as soon as she made her mind up that there was no intelligence organizing the universe, she no longer understood how anyone could reach a different conclusion. “You know me, very open-minded,” she says. Another one of her jokes: she thinks open-mindedness is overrated.

We all hold some truths to be self-evident. Atheism is my grandmother’s religion, but she does not live in a cold, meaningless universe. On the contrary, her guiding axiom is the mysterious sanctity of life—not life in the abstract, but each particular human life. “How can it possibly be,” she often wonders aloud, “that every instant a new, totally unique person comes into the world?” If she had a God, this is what she would praise him for.

The waiter has just brought our lunch. “Such fun!” she exclaims. She says this often—about the food, the weather, the people she’s with. She’s lived in New York City her whole life, but she still sometimes rides the bus down Broadway and back up again, looking out the window like a tourist. She once told me she could visit the Metropolitan Museum every day for a thousand years and not get bored. “I love being alive,” she said. “I’m serious. Not everyone appreciates it, but I do.”

She will be 86 this month. Some parts she likes better than others. She gets tired easily. Her memory is still intact but it isn’t getting any better. Still, she is beholden to no one and she can do what she likes. She banters with strangers on the street. She watches opera on PBS and reads the New Yorker and drinks coffee with friends, and she no longer keeps her opinions to herself. “When you’re young, you’re so consumed with what other people will think. Not anymore.”

Walking the half-block from the café to the Rubin Museum, she pauses to remark on the grillwork in the windows while she furtively catches her breath. It’s usually easy to guess what my grandmother thinks of a piece of art. She turns away from Bill Viola’s video installation on the sixth floor after about ten seconds, looking like she’s just left an unsanitary restroom. But when she pauses at the engraving of Ezekiel’s vision, and again at the Tibetan breastplate made of bone, her face is inscrutable. She spends a long time in front of the yogis meditating in charnel grounds. She reads the placard, sounding out the Buddhist words.

“Nirvana,” she intones, squinting. “Means nothing, right? And what’s supposed to be good about that?” It’s not exactly nothing, I tell her. And not good or bad, exactly. Meditating on death is supposed to shake people from their apathy and help them appreciate life. My grandmother isn’t listening, exactly. “To all of a sudden be nothing?” she asks. “All of a sudden? Nothing? The world just goes on, and I stop?” She says it like it’s the wrong answer to a crossword, like she’s trying to make the pieces fit. She’s still squinting at the placard but her face has taken on a hardness.

I follow her into the back room where visitors can type into an online guestbook. Lines of famous poems have been painted on the walls. Rage, rage against the dying of the light. We sit in the chairs near the two computers. She picks up the mouse, clicks it once or twice; a wave of frustration crosses her face. I ask her if she wants to use the computer and she declines. “Memento mori,” she mutters. “I thought it was a memento, an object. But it’s a sentence.”

She turns to me and I see the sun through the window gleaming off the back of her pupils. “Do you believe it?” she asks me. “That you’re going to die? Really know it, I mean. Not intellectually. I didn’t when I was young.” Even these days, the visceral truth hits her only in quick, sharp moments. “That’s what I call a depression—heavy, like a physical weight. What can I do? I go downstairs for coffee, try to get my mind on something else.” The smile she shows me now is not the public one she uses to pose for a picture or laugh at a joke. Nor is it a sad smile. It means I’m telling you the truth.

“I was 19 and working as a secretary during the war,” she says. “My boss died. At the funeral they said, ‘He’ll live on in our memories of him.’ As if that’s a comfort. It’s not a comfort!” Two blonde girls with clipboards, visiting the museum after school for extra credit, approach the computers in the back room. When they see us, they tiptoe away.

“You know, I shouldn’t be telling you this,” my grandmother says. “Somehow people expect you to say, ‘I’m fine with it, I’m ready.’ But I don’t feel ready. I’m terrified.” Her voice is unwavering and plain. She is not whining; she’s stating her opinion: I’ve decided I’d rather stay, thanks. “Maybe if I thought there was some plan? The people in those paintings, they think they’re going to heaven, or it’ll work out through karma, or something. Me—what’s my plan? To make room for everyone else?” She’s right. We expect resignation in the face of death; anything else seems undignified. But it’s not fair. I can’t imagine I’ll ever get tired of living. Why should she?

She tells me about her friend Grace, who decided to die. The doctors recommended aggressive chemotherapy, but Grace didn’t want to end her life in pain. She called her friends on the phone one by one to tell them the news.

“How did her voice sound?” I ask.

“Matter-of-fact,” she says. “Like she was arranging a time for our book club to meet.”

It’s possible Grace was ready, I tell my grandmother. It’s possible that when the moment comes, you make yourself ready.

“It’s possible,” she says, squeezing my hand. “Unfortunately, I won’t be able to report back.”

She leans on me as we get up to leave. In the lobby she puts on her big, square sunglasses and then stands for a minute, looking up. I think she’s distracted by something, some detail of the molding, but then I realize she’s looking at me. This time her smile is a smile of genuine pleasure, the kind of image you might try to trap in your memory forever. “How can I imagine not being here, not knowing what you’re up to?” she asks, tugging at my wrist like an impatient child. “I want to stay right here.”

Andrew Marantz is a freelance nonfiction writer living in Brooklyn, NY. His writing has appeared in such publications as New York magazine, Slate, Heeb, and the New York Times. He blogs sporadically at Culture Medium and thinks the four most overrated things in life are bars, irony, Sonic Youth, and home fries.