The day my stepsister delivered her daughter, I don't think I got any work done. I clicked back and forth between her Facebook page and her husband's, refreshing often just in case. He tagged her periodically, talking about her progress and cheering her on. I knew I was wasting company time, but I wasn't sure if I was wasting my own. Surely a stepsister merits a phone call? I wouldn't learn about my niece's birth on Facebook, would I?
I did. My feelings were hurt for half a second, but I realized from the comments that my stepsister's best friend in life, who shares none of the weird family dynamics, also heard about my niece's safe delivery on Facebook. It must have been a sign of the times; after all, I'd also heard about a couple that changed their Facebook relationship status at the altar. It's not real until it's on Facebook.
In the moments after I learned of my stepdad's death, the first instinct I had was to communicate. A part of me wanted to be like a town crier; to go stand on the corner and let everybody know that the world was different now. I texted instead; my boss, then my two closest friends. I told my dad and my stepmom in person, since I live with them and I was bawling pretty loudly, wondering the whole time if this was going to be like all the other deaths, where I lose it once and am subsequently just kinda sad but mostly resigned to the news.
"Not to put that out there—but at first I thought it must be your grandma," my stepmom said.
Because she didn't answer when my mom called, I phoned my stepsister and told her that her father had died. And then, exhausted, I went back to bed at about 5:15am. Mom called me again by seven; 1:00am her time. This time she was fretting about her mother. Mom wanted Grandma to find out in person that her son-in-law had died.
"I'll do it, Mom," I said.
"Tell her I'll put my big girl panties on," Mom sobbed, "tell her I'll be okay. Tell her not to worry about me."
I got out of bed, showered, dressed, and picked up the phone again. Mom told me that she couldn't get through to any of her brothers and sisters, but I thought that might have changed while I got ready. So I called all of my mom's oldest brother's phone numbers, finally getting through to my aunt.
"He's on the phone with your mom right now—what happened?" she asked. So I told her what I knew; that my stepdad was having trouble breathing and the paramedics came but he died. I marveled at the evenness of my tone, how very relaxed and forthright I sounded to myself, the way you do when you're five drinks in and are amazed that you're not even a little drunk, until you knock over your wine and can't remember the word "cheddar."
"Is that—I don't even know—is that a heart attack? It sounds like a heart attack to me," I said to my aunt over the phone, but raising an eyebrow at my dad, sitting in a recliner nearby. He nodded.
"Or a stroke," my aunt said.
I confirmed with my aunt that my uncle wasn't on his way to the nursing home to tell my grandma, then I jumped in the car to go tell her myself. Crap—it was a Sunday? What if she wanted to go to church after? So I looked up the nursing home's phone number, convinced I would crash my car in the process—then called to make sure they would have her dressed in case she wanted to go to services, thanking god that Google Maps on my phone would direct me to whichever church it was she liked—was it Saint Gerard's? No, that was where my cousin had gone to kindergarten, wasn't it? Holy Cross; that sounded right. But didn't that church we used to go to shut down? Saint Casimir. Had to be Casimir; it was the word that still felt a little unfamiliar.
And then I begged a god I don't particularly believe in that when I told my grandma that my stepdad had died, I wouldn't get the giggles. She's a very sweet woman, but she would be baffled by that—she would say, "I thought you liked him? Then why are you smiling that he's dead?" I imagined myself explaining that I just get giggly sometimes when it's inappropriate; that it's a nervous tension thing. I imagined her "that's effing weird, Karen" expression.
Please god, the nervous giggles would be just too much.
He-that-I-doubt delivered; after making sure Grandma recognized me, I told her that my stepdad, her son-in-law had died. No giggles. She processed it in slow bursts. She said "Oh," then asked a question. "Oh." A few more moments. Another question.
"Mom wanted me to let you know that she'll be ok and that she'll put her big girl panties on," I said.
"She'll do what?" Grandma asked.
I offered to take her to church.
"What church do you want to go to?"
"Whatever church you want to go to."
The answer came quickly: "Nah." She did, however, take me up on my offer of brunch. The slow pace of questioning continued. A theme emerged: "How old was he? I can't believe he was just sixty-six. Was he really sixty-six?" On our way back from the diner, she offered up her own age as only seventy-two.
"Oh yeah," I said, "what year were you born in?"
"1930," she said.
"Oh, Grandma—I think you're eighty-four."
"I knew that didn't sound right."
"How old do you think I am?"
"Oh, I don't know—about fifty-five?" From the math, it sounded like she thought I was my mom, a couple years ago. The shocking fact that I'm thirty would clearly have underwhelmed her. I was relieved that we were nearly back to the home. But when we got there, I didn't leave right away. We didn't really talk. Just some smiling and nodding, a few small exchanges.
I looked at Facebook on my phone, and there it was, from my stepsister: a picture of my stepdad with my niece, and the words "RIP Dad," posted in the wee hours of the morning. My first thought was, "I guess we are doing this now." My second was, "Oh, thank god." I wouldn't have to make any more calls. I wouldn't have to text or email or think about who deserves to know first, gathering my composure and holding tight. I could just say it on Facebook. So I sat in my grandma's armchair while she chilled in her wheelchair, and then I started to write: "Goodbye to my stepdad . . ." I was weeping by the time I tapped out his name on the screen.
Grandma seemed surprised to see the tears, but I was relieved that she knew I was upset. Since she's gotten older and her hearing and her health has faltered, my aunts and uncles have started treating her as somebody that needs to be taken care of instead of somebody who does the nurturing. I haven't quite felt myself around her. I have felt on guard, like I have to put a pleasant face on and be extra sweet, even though she has always loved me just fine—even when I was throwing a tantrum. I probably haven't cried in front of her since I was a little kid, and doing it then felt like I was restoring honesty to our relationship.
All I wanted was to climb into Grandma's lap and have her not say anything. But I am far too big. And then a thought came to me: I can ask for what I want. I can just ask.
That's when the giggles came.
I grinned sheepishly—really not too different from when I was a little kid, except I am thirty now, which had already proven not to impress her much earlier that day—"Grandma, can I have a back-rub?"
"Oh, I don't care," she said.
So I sat down cross-legged on my grandma's bed in her room at the nursing home. She wheeled closer to me. And then she gently scratched my shoulder blades.