Miami Beach Elegy

When I was around 9 years old my grandma and grandpa suddenly got heavily into transcendental meditation. This was funny because it didn’t seem like either of them. She was an intellectual and high-minded person, but also somewhat appearance-conscious and high-strung, and the whole Eastern spirituality thing seemed very earthy-crunchy for her.

But it was clear that she was the one who was all fired up about this new thing, whereas grandpa was just going along for the ride. It wasn’t easy to imagine him getting excited about meditation, but it was easy to imagine him doing it. He always seemed to be in a meditative state anyway, as he sat watching Mets games on TV with his pipe in his mouth.

The cool thing is that they insisted on teaching us kids — me, my siblings and cousins — how to meditate. And they made us take it seriously. They asked each of us to make up our own mantras, and they told us never to tell our mantras to anyone else, because that would compromise the intensely personal relationship between each of us and our mantras. I asked grandma if she and grandpa knew each other’s mantras and I was surprised that she said no, they didn’t.

Well, I still remember and use my mantra, and I wonder if my brother and sisters and cousins do too.

We would meditate all in the same room for exactly twenty minutes. Grandma would set a kitchen timer that would ring when we were done.

We did most of our meditation lessons the summer I was 13, when all of us spent 3 weeks together at their condo in Miami Beach. It was a great summer. We played bingo once a week, and one remarkable day they stopped the bingo game in the middle — you can imagine what a serious event this had to be to halt a Miami Beach bingo game in the middle — and wheeled a TV into the room to watch President Nixon declare his resignation (yes, it was August 1974). Everybody clapped, because it was a Democratic crowd and we were all sick of him anyway. And then we went back to playing bingo.

As we got to be older teenagers, grandma maintained her interest in our growing countercultural explorations. She completely approved of the hippie lifestyle. We took her and Grandpa to see the movie “Tommy” (by the Who) and afterwards when I asked what she thought she said she was dazed and somewhat disturbed because there had been so many powerful and contradictory messages that she wasn’t sure she’d been able to comprehend. The cool thing is that it never occurred to her to dismiss the movie, or to feel superior to it.

Later she mentioned that she wanted to go to a rock concert. I never took her up on this; I just didn’t think it could work out. She really was just a fragile old lady in a way, or at least that’s how she seemed to me. I felt like the noise would have broken her. Maybe I was wrong, who knows.

When I was in my early 20s and just out of college, my mom turned 50 and took all of us on a cruise to the Yucatan peninsula. I’d never been on a cruise ship before and I thought it was a pretty wonderful arrangement. Three huge meals a day, sports and games and dancing and shows, and the roaring ocean over the edge to look at. I had just broken up with my longtime college girlfriend, Lisa, and I was in a somewhat lovesick/lovestruck mode. The rolling ocean seemed like a good place to be.

One night we all played blackjack in the boat’s casino, the first time I ever gambled for money. My grandpa usually sat back and let other people dominate the events of the day, but I remember at the blackjack tables he came to life and gave me and my brother some good lessons about how to stay ahead of the game and not lose our heads.

The next night there was a broadway-style dance revue in the boat’s main ballroom (these cruises keep you busy with activities). I happen to be a sucker for cheezy broadway show tunes, the cheezier the better, and it was an amazing show. I remember watching an old couple, a goofy looking chubby-faced man and his frumpy wife, doing some kind of really intricate cha-cha-cha style steps, and thinking how amazing it was that their elegance on the dance floor completely nullified the goofiness and frumpiness they had while standing still, and thinking that it was only by having danced together for many years that a couple could possibly move so smoothly together, and make the difficult steps look so simple.

My brother and sister and I were sitting on one side of the audience, facing the dance floor, and my parents and grandparents were sitting opposite us across the room. At one point my brother nudged me and said “Look at grandpa, he feel asleep”. I looked and saw grandpa’s head was tilted back in his chair and I laughed but just exactly at that moment an old man next to us shouted “HEY!” and jumped up and started running right towards grandpa. Obviously he understood what my brother and I hadn’t. Suddenly everybody was running towards grandpa and the music stopped, and grandma and my parents sat next to his empty chair stunned as the ship’s doctor rushed to the scene with his equipment and laid him out on the floor for repeated attempts at CPR.

We later found out it had been a massive sudden stroke. Grandma said she blamed herself because she’d been encouraging him to eat rich foods and a chocolate cake dessert at dinner just a few hours before. But, if she did encourage him, it was only to make him feel good. Anyway, it was a long, strange night. Grandma didn’t go to sleep until long past midnight. She endured the ordeal with remarkable calmness, appearing quiet and transformed but very much in control. It was as if a moment she’d been dreading for years had just happened exactly as she’d expected all along, and she recognized it and was ready.

We had to stay on the boat for the remainder of the cruise; there was no way to get off. The passengers and crew were very sympathetic towards us the next 3 days, and we walked the decks together in a weird state, like celebrities or ghosts, as people whispered of our misfortune whenever we passed. The boat stopped at Cozumel and we spent a day in the beautiful clear waters of the Gulf of Mexico. The next day we visited the Mayan ruins at Tulum, an amazing sight to see in our strange state.

By the end of the trip we had recovered enough to start engaging in activities on the boat, and my siblings and I visited the boat’s fortune teller, a serious young man with a gypsy goatee who told us he’d been in the room and watched grandpa die and had been very disturbed by it, and that grandpa was in a better world now. He then talked to each of us and told us our fortunes, and I found out that I was going to get over the breakup with my girlfriend, and that my first novel would eventually be published.

When we told Grandma about the fortune teller she decided she wanted to go, but when we brought her to him he said he couldn’t do it, that this was too intensive a situation and that he was too inexperienced at his job to take her on. I thought it was nice to discover that cruise ship fortune tellers have such careful codes of conduct.

Anyway, I always thought of grandpa’s death as an absolutely perfect death, and I hope when it’s my time to go I’ll go the same way — surrounded by gambling tables and rich chocolate cakes and cheezy broadway show tunes. And, surrounded by family. Grandma was not so lucky. She lived another 18 years, but had fallen into a deep depression soon after grandpa’s death. Even though they had argued a lot and certainly had had some issues in their marriage, it was now clear that she was rudderless without him.

The onset of various minor affliction was followed by the worst disease of all, Alzheimer’s. But grandma maintained her dignity and elegance even through this worst crisis. And even if her death was not perfect like grandpa’s, she was also surrounded by family at the final moments — Sharon, Danya, Sara, Kiala and Al.

I’d had my last conversation with her a few months before, at Thanksgiving. It was
pretty disconnected. But in the years before then we’d had a lot of lucid conversations. She would fade in and fade out, and we’d try to get a question in before she’d fade out. She liked answering questions, even though it was obviously a struggle for her to think of the answers.

She talked about God often in her last years. She was always up for a theological discussion, and strangely always assumed I was smarter than her about these issues, and deferred to my answers even when I didn’t want her to. The other thing she sometimes talked about was politics. She liked Bill Clinton a lot, and even in her weaker moments would sit up in bed to express her contempt for politicians like Newt Gingrich and Bob Dole. But the last presidential election of her lifetime, Gore vs. Bush, I doubt she was even aware that an election was taking place.

About a year before she died I had one of my last conversations with her, and I remembered to ask a question I’d been wondering about, “Grandma, do you still meditate twice a day?”

She said, “I try, but it’s hard here.”

I said, “Do you remember your mantra?” and she said “Yeah, it’s –“

I had to yell, “GRANDMA! Don’t tell me your mantra!!!”

She still remembered her mantra, but she had forgotten that she wasn’t supposed to tell it to anyone. I’m really glad I stopped her in time.

Her last day was Feb 14, Valentine’s Day, 2002. I think it’s nice that she died on Valentine’s Day. I doubt she was aware of this fact. But if she had been, I think the fact would have appealed to her romantic side.

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