The One With My Grandmother's Funeral
All in the same day, I got hired at a job I really wanted, my best friend went into labor, and my grandmother passed on. I got to come to Iceland for the funeral, along with my mom and my sister. We're here now, but my sister and I are flying out again tomorrow. Or, today, as it's after midnight. Saturday.
My grandfather is still alive, and he’s taking it pretty hard. I’ve learned a lot about their relationship over the past few days. They were together for 68 years and apparently, they were super in love that whole time. Their song was, “Þú Fullkomnar Mig,” an Icelandic love song, and a soloist sang it at her funeral today. My grandmother used to bring the cd that had this song with her to weddings in our family and have the bride and groom dance to it, that's how much she loved it. When my grandparents had to move into a nursing home, they slept in the same room but in two separate beds, like hospital style beds. After a few days, they asked to have the beds pushed together, because they couldn’t fall asleep without holding hands. Isn't that just...? I think I’d give almost anything to have that kind of relationship.
They weren’t demonstrative in public, so I had no idea they were still so in love. But it seems that they were "it" for each other. The minister called them soulmates in her talk at the funeral today. I was sitting there thinking, like, I knew my grandmother had a little bit of a jealous streak (she was a Scorpio, after all), but I didn’t know their love ran so deep. Twice, both at the private viewing for the family on Thursday, and at the funeral today, the minister mentioned how “skotin” she was for my grandfather (that word means kind of like, when you have a crush on someone).
I remember once I was over at their house, I think this was in 2010, and they were getting ready to go somewhere and my grandpa had on his three-piece suit. I mentioned how handsome he looked in his suit, and my grandma said, “I know, doesn’t he? I certainly think so!”
We’re a big family, I think my grandparents have something like 45 direct descendants, from their 6 kids down to the great-grandchildren. And we like to joke around and be loud and stuff. I thought more of us would be stoic, but everyone cried at the viewing and at the funeral. From the biggest guy to the littlest girl. Everybody was a mess. Myself included.
I want to say that, the unpretentious nature of the whole funeral process was refreshing. The day before, my grandfather and his children and grandchildren got to go to a private room at the church and see my grandmother in her casket. The minister spoke some sweet words, read some prayers, and we got to cry a bit and walk past her and say goodbye to her. Then the casket was closed, and the pallbearers helped carry it from that room into the church itself. There, I watched my cousins and the minister (a young woman whose grandma knew my grandma and told her to make sure she did an extra good job for us) and the funeral director set up the casket on the stand where it would be right on the altar. It was so matter-of-fact, the way they were checking to make sure it was all lined up and in the right spot and everything. Not in an uncaring way, just like, "We’ve got a job to do and we’re going to make sure we do it right, now scoot your grandmother’s casket over to the left a bit. No, your other left. There you go." Very Icelandic.
The minister was amazing. Right when she was about to start the funeral and walked up to the altar, I leaned over to my sister and whispered, “She’s gonna knock it out of the park.” And she did. She made jokes at the right time, was solemn at the right time, it was a beautiful service.
At the end, it was us, the grandchildren (most of us, anyway), who were the pallbearers and who carried the flowers out of the church. My sister and I carried one wreath, and the three youngest granddaughters carried the other wreath and a bouquet, and the other cousins carried the casket behind us. We stood up, arranged ourselves where we were supposed to be in the aisle (with the help of the funeral planner lady). Then we paused, and the choir started to sing. At the first note, we took our first steps.
The music they chose for that moment was phenomenal. It was a song called, in Icelandic, Gullnu vængir ("Golden Wings") but the melody is actually the song Va, pensiero by none other than Giuseppe Verdi. I found the Icelandic version online, but this production of the original one is closer to what I heard today, so I recommend listening to it first:
It was just voices and an organ. I got goosebumps from head to toe. The combination of the regal melody plus the kind of waltzing beat was perfection. My grandmother would have loved it. It felt like we were walking a queen out of the church. Listening to it, I had images of Vienna flash through my mind, I’m not going to lie, and we moved slowly in rhythm to the music.
We flower girls were the first out the door, which opens to a view of the sea at the end of the road. When I looked up after stepping outside, a bird flew across that view right in front of us, and I couldn’t help but smile. “Hi, amma,” I whispered. (Amma means grandma.)
Everybody thought I was staying through the weekend, but I'm not. I should have. But I felt guilty to ask off work that much when I just started there, and I was worried about leaving my kid for that many days, because it takes a full day to get there and a full day back. Now I think she would have been fine and I could have had just a little more time.
One of the things that’s so hard about losing a grandparent is that it feels like the end of an era, in a way. Like, childhood is really over now. I remember how much fun I used to have when we’d visit Iceland, and the family would all get together, and all us kids would play together at my grandparents’ house in Keflavik. We’d have big dinners, and ice cream, and would all crowd into the little sitting room where the TV was to watch movies together. Or we’d spread out in the bigger living room and we’d ask my grandfather to build us a fire in the fireplace, and he let us help him set it up. My grandma was an amazing cook. And my grandpa had a huge garage (huge to me when I was small, anyway) that was FULL of cool stuff. Tools, fishing nets, all kinds of rusty nails and things. It smelled crazy good in there, a heady combination of gasoline, briny saltwater, and dried out fish. (I realize this is not a scent you'd dab behind your ears, but it's more the memories behind it that made it smell "good.") It was a kid’s dream, all kinds of drawers to open and toolboxes and things to tinker with.
We always stayed at their house whenever we visited. They would pick us up from the airport, always early in the morning, and then my grandma would give us breakfast, usually we’d request skyr and she’d mix the sugar in it for us. We’d chat for a little while, and then we kids would go take a little nap for an hour or two. One of my favorite moments of every visit was lying down in bed for the first time. The blankets and pillowcases smelled so good, and the bed and down comforter were so soft. The window would usually be cracked open a little bit, and I could feel the cool air coming in and hear the wind outside (it’s always windy here). Deep down, I knew I was home. And it was Amma’s house that let me feel it. Even later, when they moved into an apartment… Obviously, it wasn’t quite the same as the old house. But either falling asleep or waking up, and hearing my grandparents’ voices in the kitchen while my eyes were still closed… That was comfort.
I talked to one of my cousins and one of my aunts about how, last year, when I came to Iceland and I only got to see my family one day for a Christmas party, and then I stopped by the nursing home last because I was nervous about seeing my grandparents in their decline, I felt so guilty. Not just because I had been stuck basically hanging out in Garðabæ for most of the trip, but also because I had been gone for six years prior to that. I left Iceland to get married and live in Texas, after having been there for a year, and both my grandparents were in pretty good health and of sound mind and everything. Then when I came back, everything had changed. They were feeble, and my grandmother had become increasingly forgetful and confused.
My aunt told me it was better this way. My memories of my grandmother are from when she was strong and healthy, and she would have preferred it that way. I suppose she’s right about that. She's pretty wise.
But I also missed my cousins growing up and getting married and having kids. I did that over in America, and they did it in Iceland. We were all friends when we were kids, but I kind of missed the transition into adult friendships. I mean, obviously we’re still friends, I don’t mean that we aren’t. But there’s nothing that can replace being there. And being together.
I’m glad that I grew up the way that I did and where I did. But it’s also undeniable that I missed out on something. I told one of my cousins today, I’m 100% glad that I grew up how I did. But simultaneously, I’m 100% sad that I missed out on growing up near family. I feel both at the same time. I wouldn’t trade the life I’ve had, but I still acknowledge that something else was lost. I suppose that helps me appreciate it more when I am with my people. I feel deeply happy, in a quiet way (for once), at family get-togethers. It’s this strange feeling of, like… Everyone in this room knows me. They know my name. They can, moreover, pronounce my name. They knew me when I was little. All us cousins were all together when we were little. We had to awkwardly hug each other hello and goodbye when we came to town and left again, and in between we ran around and played nonstop.
I once read something online about a girl who decided to try calling her father by his name, instead of "Dad." He stopped what he was doing, sat her down and said, “There are only two people in this whole world who call me ‘Dad.’ That’s you and your brother. I don’t want you calling me anything else.” That really touched me. There was only one person in this world I called “amma.” My other grandmother, who died when I was little, I called Oma. Now when I say the name Amma, her ears aren’t here to receive it. I know she hears it in another way, but not here in the body, not here with me on the earth.
At the cemetery, the World’s Greatest Lutheran Minister (her name is Erla, by the way. I literally want to be bffs with her, I’m like, such a fan) said a few more words at her graveside. She said that she couldn’t help but notice that every one of my grandparents’ descendants had, as she put it, striking eyes that squint when we smile, and wide smiles at that. She told my grandpa that we had all inherited the best traits from both of them. We couldn’t help but laugh, because both of my grandparents always liked to brag about what a “good-looking family we are,” and we have a running joke that only good-looking people are allowed into our family, meaning that the babies born to us have to be cute (and they always are, of course, haha). I asked my grandfather afterwards if he was happy that the priest had noticed what an attractive bunch we are, and he said, “Það er ekkert annað hægt!” Which means, “Nothing else is possible!” We all had a good laugh at that. My cousin who lives in Texas told me that her friends are starting to get botox for their wrinkles around the eyes, but not her, because she’s proud of those wrinkles. They run in our family, and they’re from laughing! What’s not to love about them? I feel the same way.
I want to come back again and bring my kid. She needs to play with her cousins and run around in the cold fresh air and see the mountains. My parents talk about buying an apartment here and dividing their time between America and Iceland. Or Europe, but I think after this trip my mom is more motivated to be here, even if it is more expensive. Nothing can replace time with your people.
After the last time I lived here, I didn’t want to do it again. But in truth, I would consider it. I don’t know what the hell I could do, like, for money. Or how I could, like, talk to people. My Icelandic is not great. And I can’t small talk in this language and it drives me crazy. That’s another thing I talked to one of my cousins about. Different countries have different types of small talk. And even different regions within countries have their own dialects of small talk. I'm best at Midwestern and Southern American English small talk. Not to toot my own horn, but I’m low-key kind of amazing at it. I can start out talking about how much I love your hair, is that your natural color? It's gorgeous! And before you realize what's happening, we’re crying about our first middle school heartbreaks in the bathroom together, and then deciding that your college roommate’s ex-wife is a total narcissist who probably has Borderline Personality Disorder too, but it’s not her fault, it’s because of her upbringing. Still, we're glad that they broke up because Gary is obviously a lot happier with Melissa. Like, I can converse. It’s my superpower, if I may. But I can’t do it in Icelandic. I’m not funny in Icelandic. I'm nowhere near charming in Icelandic. I’m like, awkward and quiet in Icelandic. Well, maybe not quiet, but awkward. By the time I translate what I want to say in my head and try my best to guess how to correctly conjugate every single word in this freakish language, the moment has passed. And I can’t tell stories in Icelandic, either. It’s too hard to figure out how to do all the verbs and stuff.
But stick me in a backyard barbecue either in the Great Lakes Region or south of the Mason-Dixon Line in the U.S. of A? Look out. I’ll have promised to go to lunch with your Aunt Mary who's a Pisces next time I'm in the city (true story), got a great deal on a Ford F150 from your car salesman Uncle Pete, and I’ll be selected to be your next door neighbor’s grandson’s godmother, all before we run out of corn on the cob. Yes. I’m that good.
How good does some barbecue sound right now? Ugh. I'm hungry.
I’m gonna walk around downtown a bit tomorrow. I mean today. I’m trying to decide if I have enough guts to go swimming at the pool where I had my nervous breakdown over showering in front of my friends oh so many years ago. Is it worth the freezing cold run from the locker room to the (heated) outdoor pool just to make myself do a nude Stride of Pride in front of strangers who literally could not care less about what my ass looks like tiptoeing across cold tiles? Probably not. But maybe.
When I said goodbye to my aunt, the wise one I mentioned above (she's married to one of my uncles and has amazing hair), she put her hand on my arm and said, "You're on the right path." She tried to let us have a cool moment by just walking away after she said it, but of course I had no chill and had to go, "Ooooh! Thank you! God, you're so wise!" and ruined the whole, "Say something profound then vanish into the mists," vibe she had going on.
Seriously, though, she is wise. When I lived here, she and I got together for lunch a few times so we could speak English and a little Spanish together (she's not from around here). We'd always end up talking for hours about all kinds of things, and she's given me some great life advice that I still think about from time to time. And we talked a bit together after the viewing. We didn't delve too deeply into anything, but I felt like between her keen scientific mind and her intuitive vision, she was kind of checking to see if I seemed all right, what with everything I've been through this past year. So it meant a lot to me that she said that, because I think she must have observed my soul and liked what she saw. So, here, let me write it the way it should have gone when she said it to me. Ready?
I'm on the right path.
(And then I don't say anything after that. Wait! I did it again. Crap.)