Friday, August 01, 2008

Deaths are sad

How's that for a headline?

Within the last few months, a couple of people whom I cared about died. One was the edgy comedian George Carlin. The other was my grandmother, Miriam Hoffman Wain, whom I knew for most of my life as "Greemie." While the two deaths seem unrelated, in a funny coincidence, I own one George Carlin book (Braindroppings) and I got it by liberating it from my grandmother's bookshelf. I don't know if she ever read it; she certainly didn't seem like a likely Carlin fan, but she saw me reading it and said I should take it.

A week after Carlin died, fellow comedian Jerry Seinfeld wrote a tribute in the New York Times, claiming that "George downright invented modern American stand-up comedy in many ways. Every comedian does a little George." Seinfeld told a story that I found very funny and even a little bit meaningful.

THE honest truth is, for a comedian, even death is just a premise to make jokes about. I know this because I was on the phone with George Carlin nine days ago and we were making some death jokes. We were talking about Tim Russert and Bo Diddley and George said: “I feel safe for a while. There will probably be a break before they come after the next one. I always like to fly on an airline right after they’ve had a crash. It improves your odds.”

See, that's funny. Carlin himself would have greatly appreciate the irony. An atheist like me, George Carlin almost certainly didn't BELIEVE the superstitious nonsense that he was saying to Jerry Seinfeld on the subject of death. And sure enough, right after he said it... he died. Much comedy is built out of irony, and this is exactly the sort of dark humor that I love.

If I had to analyze this as a joke, I would say that part of the reason it's funny is because, in reality, nobody knows when they'll die. Making a prediction about how "safe" you are based on unrelated events is just ridiculous, and almost nobody really has a chance to prepare for it.

Almost nobody. Greemie knew.

She had been sick for many years, undergoing chemotherapy. She was also much older than George Carlin, and it was obvious near the end that she was a little tired of being alive. I would call her occasionally, to cheer her up and update her on my life, and after only a few minutes it would be obvious she was trying to politely get off the phone.

I didn't take that as a slight against me. She had trouble hearing, and forgot things, and it seemed like she was embarrassed about people hearing her like that. Greemie took care of her own mother, Bess Hoffman, until she died at the age of 103. She'd had personal experience with how frustrating it can be to communicate with someone in her own condition.

She was my last living grandparent, and I'm afraid I wouldn't be truthful if I said that she was my favorite. I always felt that she was very cranky and hard to get along with, even when I was young. On the other hand, she was a financial wizardess, and often unbelievably generous when she was alive. Apart from occasional gifts, toward the end of her life she started flying the entire extended family to California, at her own expense, every year, so we could all be together for a catered Thanksgiving dinner. She was still a bit standoffish and uncomfortable even when we were all there for her, but it was obvious how happy it made her to see everyone else enjoying each other's company.

The last time I was there, I had a feeling that it would probably be the last time we could make it. So I said how much I loved her, and she accepted my hug but told me to stop being silly, or so concerned.

Her memorial service, which I attended two weeks ago, was almost like having one last Thanksgiving bash. Keryn and I stayed at her house, along with two cousins, and we were treated to dinners by our aunt Nancy (now manager of the estate), and there was one heck of a party after the service at her favorite temple. (For certain definitions of "heck of a party." If you like lots of family with catered items like smoked salmon, it was very enjoyable.)

At the service, my aunt Robbie told a very funny story and I learned something new. I'm a lifelong atheist, but I've always assumed that my grandmother was a devout Jew. I never really asked her much about her religious beliefs, and had no idea if she thought about an afterlife.

Robbie's story went something like this: Robbie asked where Greemie thought she would go when she died. Greemie said: "The Hills of Eternity." This sounds like an unusual but reasonable answer for a religious person -- until you learn that "Hills of Eternity" is actually the name of a local cemetery. So Robbie pressed further: "Yes, but I mean after that." Greemie thought a bit more, and said: "An urn." Finally, exasperated, Robbie said: "No no, I mean what do you believe in after you die?" And Greemie said "Oh, this is a serious question... Tinkerbell!"

That's her answer. It doesn't mean anything; but it was good for a laugh among all the gathered family. I guess that means that Greemie didn't know if she believed in an afterlife, but she sure believed in family, and she believed in making others happy. So that's pretty good to know.

As it happens, she had family all around her when she died. My mother tells me that she and her two sisters were at the hospital for the final few days, and that they had been singing her their favorite songs from childhood as she was lying there dying. I don't think that I would describe anything as a good way to die; but if I had to rank the possibilities, that would probably be pretty high up on the list.

One last thing I can say is that she was a huge technology buff, just like me. I neither understood nor appreciated this fully while she was alive. She was one of those people who would always forward every urban legend and "business opportunity" that she received by email, along with added information about how this seems really valuable and/or insightful. To be honest, it drove me crazy, and I even corrected some of the things she said from time to time.

But when you think about it, it's pretty unusual for someone her age to have caught on to computers and taken advantage of them so effectively. I introduced her to computer-based card games, and at the end of her life I found that her computer was stuffed with little games of her own. Not the kind of games I would play, obviously, but lots of goofy simple solitaire-type games that she downloaded from the internet or paid for.

I also remember arguing with her about CD-ROM drives when they came out -- she thought there was no important program that wouldn't fit on a floppy disk. And also, when Windows 3.1 was popular she asked me why her computer was running slowly even though she kept adding memory. So I looked, and told her it was because she had about eleventy billion windows open at the same time, and she should close some. She said she WANTED all those windows open at once, and wouldn't listen to me when I said she should just run one or two programs open at a time.

Actually, she was ahead of her time. I'm looking at my task bar right now... I have well over 30 windows open myself, including 4 folders, 8 documents, several emails, and a few dozen web sites. She just wanted to do stuff that computers weren't ready to do yet. She also, as I said, was a financial wizardess, and most of her money came from carefully managing her stock portfolio and rental properties. Online. She got it about the internet revolution. And she may not have understood spam, but she forwarded those junk emails because it was one small way to keep in touch with her family, without having to expose her vulnerability on the phone all the time.

So, that's the end of a life. I don't believe that there's anything left of Greemie except for an urn, and the memories of her that are held by me and others. But I don't know everything. Maybe she's off somewhere, enjoying herself now... at Tinkerbell. Wherever the heck that might be. And if she's not, then I'll still clap my hands a couple of times for her, and enjoy the good memories she left me with.


  1. What a lovely tribute to your grandmother, she sounds like she was a wonderful person.

    My 97 year old grandmother is in hospital at the moment and we're not at all sure she'll be coming home from there. I haven't been visiting her nearly as often as I'd like, I think I'll try and go tomorrow.

    Btw, Mim is short for Miriam :)

  2. Kazim,

    A truly touching tribute. Sorry for your loss.

  3. Anonymous8:34 PM

    Russell, I keep up with your blog and Ginny's. I wanted to say that the thing I appreciated most about all of my athiest friends when my grandmother's life ended was that you all wanted to know about who she was, and not one of you said she is in a better place much like my religious friends. It was very comforting for me to share my memories and realize that those memories were what would allow her to live on in my life. Thanks for that, and for sharing your memories about your Grandmother. Kim

  4. I realize this is a couple of weeks old already, but I wanted to give my condolences.

    It reminds me that I once paraphrased Carlin at my own wife's funeral five years ago.
    Her (southern baptist, for the most part) family was gathered together back at her dad's house and although I was in an understandably shaken state, I remember saying to those gathered, "I would like to think that Chasity is 'up there', smiling down on us and waiting for us to join her in paradise.....but I doubt it, because she's actually here in this urn."

    I was a little disappointed in the reception of my remarks though because, hating all of them for years, I expected nothing short of a riot. Instead I only got, "Poor guy...he's in such a state, he doesn't even know what he's saying", and the like. Not really surprising considering that her family never accepted the fact that we were both atheists. They always said we would 'come around'.


    Oh well, can't win them all I guess.

  5. my grandmother died not long after Carlin aswell. i think it was about 4 days later.