Wednesday, July 26, 2006

Earth, receive an honoured guest

I was in the middle of a Shopper's Drug Mart yesterday with my boyfriend, getting his prescription filled. He had a horrendous throat infection - tonsullar cellulitis, I think, although it may well have been cellular tonsillitis. He had spent three days in hospital, which is brutal to go through and less brutal to witness, but still no picnic. Hospitals are the worst sort of waiting room. Nobody wants to be there - it's either a stop on a journey that takes you away from home and back again, or the end of this journey and the beginning of another one, if you believe in that sort of thing.

Unfortunately, as we were waiting for the man (to give us antibiotics and codeine), I got a call from my mom: "this is the call you've been waiting for," she said. It was, in fact, exactly the opposite, but I knew what she meant.

My grandmother died yesterday morning. This is shitty, but not so shitty, in that this means a lot less suffering for her. She went in her sleep - she essentially just never woke up. The lung cancer that they had suspected she had went and moved to her brain some time ago, and it was just a matter of time, and whenever that's the case sooner is better than later.

My grandmother (Anna, but we all called her Hanka), it bears saying, was a pretty great lady. She led one of those incredible lives that could only have happened in the 20th century. She was the daughter of General Anders, my great-grandfather, an extremely decorated military figure of singular importance for Poles in the 20th century. She married young, and managed to escape from Poland with her husband (Bernard, from whom I got my middle name) and my mother in during the war, even as her father's army was readying to do battle in Italy. She has a pile of medals herself: Polish and French army decorations that she earned, somehow. There's an inherent sort of nobility right there that I am lucky to have been close to, I have to say. When was the last time anyone felt that a war was just, or that there was any sort of greater good in it? How foreign does that now seem?

They lived in Europe for a while - both with and without my mother as the family got separated - and my grandfather made his living for a while as a professional gambler. The whole family was eventually reunited: there were some amazing times, and some very difficult times. Gambling in Monte Carlo, for instance, where my grandfather broke the bank at a casino (I think he bought a castle with his winnings) and also some very lean years of terrible poverty. A lot of movement as they waited for Europe to settle in a way that it wouldn't until the 1980s and later. Finally, they all moved to Canada: a return to Soviet-occupied Poland at this time probably meant imprisonment or execution for my grandfather and perhaps my grandmother, too. Certainly, that would have been my great-grandfather's fate.

My grandfather got cancer shortly after they moved here (to Montreal). After he died, my grandmother worked for the CBC for a while - there is a great photo of her interviewing John Lennon and Yoko Ono during their bed-in in Montreal. It's funny - there are photos of my great-grandfather sitting with Churchill, Stalin and Roosevelt; of my grandparents meeting the Pope; and of my grandmother sitting with John and Yoko. Makes my autographed Joe Mantegna picture seem a little pedestrian, doesn't it?

In Canada, she met the guy I refer to as my grandfather, Andrzej Nowakowski. They fell in love right away, and married soon after, and for close to half a century they were together. He became my mother's father almost immediately; and he loved and cared for them both in a way that I find inspiring and amazing. My grandparents had a great, great love, and it was palpable to those of us around them. Not that we felt or saw their passion, necessarily, although I know that was there - but there was an amazing sort of mutual support, camaraderie, and rhythm to the way that they were with each other. Whenever I stayed with them, I could hear them speaking in bed for at least an hour every night, after we had all gone to bed, rehashing the day's events. Can you imagine? Almost half a century into it and still looking to share with each other every day? Still finding something new in the other person after all that time, still being excited by them? This will be almost impossible for him, I think. I can't think of a time that they were apart in all the time I've known them. I am trying to be empathetic, here, but I honestly can not imagine what this will be like: I've never lost anything that means as much to me as she did, and does, to him. But when you marry, you need to think to yourself, "I am going to bury this person," and now that's the terrible thing that he has to do.

Some of my favourite memories of my whole life are centered around my grandmother. We visited them every year in Florida - it's where I learned to gamble, and where I learned the importance of friends and entertaining. My grandmother had seen the worst that our world had to offer, but she woke up every day with such a gift for loving life that it's hard to believe she had experienced the things that she did. We read of the history that my grandmother experienced first-hand: the politics, the wars, and even the pop culture. But I think she loved it all, she smiled with it all, and she passed a lot of that on to me. There is something of her that will always be with me, and on my worst days I find it so comforting to think of that.

I'm never happier than when I am staying in a good hotel, with good friends, a good drink and cards to play. I get that from my grandmother as much as I get that from anyone. A few years ago, I revisited the apartment in Florida where we used to visit her and my grandfather, but this time with a few friends. Sitting on the balcony, listening to the ocean, drinking beer and playing cards, I think I understood sense memory for the first time. I was happy - more than that, I was content, I think, in a way I can only be when things are simple. I owe that memory to my grandmother, because she gave me that experience, but I think I owe her the ability to tap into that memory, too, because somehow she gave that to me as well.

Already, I miss her. Actually, I hadn't seen her that often in the past few years, but I miss her still. More than that, I guess, I miss the fact that she's not in the world anymore. So I will do the only thing that we can do, and try to hold on to whatever I can, and keep it with me. Hopefully, then, I can feel what I've gained more than what I've lost.