Every Friday, we ate lunch together. My grandma was a fickle eater, but there were always certain things she’d pick at no matter what. Crispy breaded pieces of chicken, potstickers, milkshakes, sweet potato fries. She loved sweet potato fries more than almost everything else, a food she’d only discovered about a year ago. It was the one item she would specifically request. Everything else could come and go, but she always made time for sweet potato fries. These weren’t the healthiest foods in the world, of course, but they were necessary. At 90 years of age, my grandma needed to keep her weight up and any one of these menu selections would do the trick.
We talked about a number of things, her and I, but she liked to discuss the Seattle Mariners most of all. No one (outside of, perhaps, my other grandmother) was as loyal to the Mariners as my grandma, who watched every game on a giant flat-screen TV my parents purchased for her a few Christmases ago. Her day revolved around first pitch, while her bedtime often coincided with the game’s final out. If you asked her when the television broadcast was set to begin, she’d give you a time exactly thirty minutes before its actual commencement, a habit borne out of diligently watching the pregame show.
In recent years, the Mariners, as we’re all well aware, were prone to losing. My grandma would grumble to me about the mounting defeats, and I’d lament along with her while subsequently rooting for victory the next time out. Her gripes with the team were never as severe as other fans, though. For one thing, she wanted Hisashi Iwakuma to get more playing time — despite being informed that they only let starting pitchers throw once every five days. For another, she was frustrated with the fact that the Mariners, with their youthful roster, couldn’t win more often “with all those young guys.” These were the biggest problems facing my grandma each day. She had it pretty good, I’d wager.
My grandma was a character. She wore Adidas track pants because they were comfortable, then complemented the ensemble with a blouse and a cardigan in case any guests arrived at the house. She began most sentences with the line, “When you get old like me…” and shared quotable bits of wisdom with my brother and I. “Do things while you’re young,” “Spend half your money and save half,” and “You gotta stay motivated” were the three stalwarts, phrases that became cliche over time, but still resulted in nods and “Yups” from an engaged audience of two.
In addition to the Mariners, my grandma was a big fan of jigsaw puzzles. If the sun was up and a game had yet to begin, she could usually be found piecing together a colorful landscape of some sort at the dining room table. When we had family get-togethers at her place, she’d throw a tablecloth over the disassembled collection of tiles and seat us around fractions of a budding masterpiece, hopeful that no one would notice the work-in-progress underneath. When we discovered uneven terrain beneath our plates, we’d call her out on her attempt to mislead us. She would laugh, then. We’d laugh, too.
My grandma was selfless, like many grandmothers are. She’d pay for every bill she could get her hands on, slip us cash when no one was looking, and would help my brother and I clean a bedroom that often lay in ruins when we were growing up. She would house-sit when we took family vacations, and upon returning home we’d find our beds made and our laundry folded. She left the world around her better than she found it.
She spent what could have been the best years of her life in a Japanese internment camp during World War II, only occasionally sharing some of those details with her grandkids. Once, however, I got her to open up about the past for a middle school graduation project I was doing on her husband, my grandfather, who had died shortly after her oldest grandchild’s first birthday. It was then that I learned about a war hero, his wife, and a life led before my grandma ever became “Baba,” a nickname bestowed upon her by a toddler back in the mid-1980s.
Two weeks ago, I happened upon my grandma sitting on her front porch as I arrived for lunch. She had recently taken to sitting outdoors for long periods of time, watching as neighborhood traffic went by a few yards away. On this particular afternoon, my mother and aunt were inside the house cleaning. I asked my grandma why she wasn’t inside with everyone else. “They told me an old woman was a bother,” she replied, “so they threw me out.” My grandma made me laugh quite frequently.
My grandma was good to everybody she met, strangers and kin alike. To her grandchildren, she was a superhero who knew how to do just about everything. To outsiders, she was a colorful personality with white hair and a certain hint of feistiness beneath her kind exterior. To me, she was one of a few people in my life I always wanted to talk to and spend time with. As the years went by and I grew up, she became as much my friend as my grandmother. We were happy to be around one another.
Last Friday, per usual, we had lunch together. My grandma was happy because the Mariners had won the night before. They’d win later that day, too, then somehow drop the next five in a row. I stayed longer than usual on this particular Friday because my parents had joined us, prompting longer lunchtime discussions. When an hour had come to elapse, she tried to get me to leave for fear I’d lose my job. “You better go, you don’t want to lose your job,” was another of my grandma’s favorite sayings. But I remained a little longer, jokingly assuring her that hanging out with my grandma wasn’t what would ultimately result in my termination.
When I left that day, I told her to enjoy the nice weather and root for the Mariners, like always. She stood at the door and waved good-bye, like always. And then I went home, like always, back to a life that moved faster than it did when I sat at the kitchen table of my grandmother’s rambler.
Three days later, I received the worst news of my entire life. My grandma, my good friend, had passed away overnight, in her sleep. It was as abrupt and unexpected as a passing might be for a 90-year-old — she had, after all, been making wisecracks just a few days earlier. For as much as it tore me up inside, I knew it was probably the way she would have wanted to go. But that didn’t make it hurt any less.
My family convened at her house. She lay there before us, physically intact, but gone in spirit. Outside, the first substantial rain in months poured down from gloomy skies, providing an apt backdrop for the mood that emerged in the wake of a sudden departure.
The Mariners would lose that evening, which she would have grumbled about. They’d lose the next day, too, and the day after that. Thank god she didn’t have to see this, I thought to myself, only half-kidding. But somewhere in the heavens above she probably was watching. And grumbling good-naturedly.
The puzzle she had been constructing remained unfinished upon the dining room table. A whimsical painting of a barnyard, complete with hens laying roost to impossible quantities of eggs and people dancing in the foreground, seemingly unaware that these godforsaken hens needed to be rid of all these godforsaken eggs. Only about 25 pieces remained. She had been so close to finishing this goofy depiction of farm life. I sat down and gathered the remaining tiles. One piece, then another, and another. A couple minutes later, I wedged one last piece into its respective opening. We had finished the last puzzle we’d work on together.
A short while later the men from the funeral home arrived and quietly took her away from us. She was gone in all facets now, but it hadn’t really sunk in yet. I thought it might hit me later that evening, but it didn’t. A day passed, and nothing still. My mother asked me to pen the obituary and I tried, but the right words never came. So I wrote this instead.
I know now when I’ll lose it, when I’ll break down and need to be alone. On Fridays. It will hurt the most on Fridays, when I’m packing up at the office to go visit her for lunch. No one else will gripe about Hisashi Iwakuma’s playing time or get as excited about sweet potato fries. No one else will send me on my way for fear I might lose my job. No one else will laugh when we uncover an unfinished puzzle beneath a tablecloth. I don’t want to be without that presence in my life, a light that brightened each passing week and raised my spirits no matter how high or how low I might have been on any given day.
But at the same time, I know she’s in a better place now. And I realize that this was bound to happen sooner or later, and thankfully it wasn’t drawn out over a long, painful period of days, weeks, or months. I’m grateful for all she did to help raise my brother and I, her only grandchildren, who wouldn’t be the same were it not for her.
In spite of all that, I will always miss her. My friend, my grandma.