Imani Sumbi, Medill, Innocent Connect
I try to listen closely. My grandmother is providing instructions on how she wants to be ushered into the afterlife. I don’t want to forget any details and let her down.
She leads me to her closet and points out the lacey mint green dress she’ll wear in her coffin. She opens a finger-sized drawer in her jewelry box to reveal a gold-chained pearl rosary, the one that will someday be carefully placed in her lifeless hands. She goes to her desk and pulls out a typed document containing all the information we would need for her funeral — what kind of flowers she wants, which Bible scriptures would be read, which prayers would be recited, who would get to deliver a eulogy, who would bear the weight of her entombed body at the gravesite. She had selected her coffin, and of course she would be buried beside my grandfather, a man my mother told many stories about but sadly, a man I never met. I’m awed and disturbed by how thoroughly she has everything planned.
I’m around 10 years old at the time, and even at that age I’d been to my fair share of funerals. It’s the same year we lost my Grandma Joyce to breast cancer, my Great-Grandma Pearl, from whom I derive my middle name, and Great-Great-Aunt Ella Rea to old age, and my Great-Aunt Bernadita to salt insufficiency, all in quick succession. But this awful sequence of family deaths doesn’t have my grandmother suddenly wary of her own mortality and scrambling to lay out her last wishes. She’d already had her funeral arrangements prepared for years. Maybe decades. Death is not something unfamiliar to her. It has been with her all her life, and I think now she is so used to its presence that she welcomes the thought of it with open arms.
My grandmother is not an immigrant in the traditional sense, though she likely would have moved to America at some point in her life regardless. As it turned out, America got to her first. Born in 1940, my grandmother was a child of war in Guam, a 200-square-mile island in the Western Pacific that at the time was occupied by Imperial Japanese forces, though it had previously been under U.S. rule ever since the end of the Spanish-American War. The United States recaptured Guam in 1944, reinstating it as a territory. Though that made her an American citizen, my grandmother did not speak English as her first language, and did not make her first trip to the states until she was 25 years old.
As I listen to her stories and reflect on the history of her life, I find it difficult to pinpoint one specific catalyst for her unusual disposition around mortality. Was her fearlessness in the face of death fated from the start, having been born in the midst of World War II? Does she remember, on some deep, irretrievable plain of consciousness, the sound of American bombings? What it felt like to hold tightly to her mother’s skirt? Can she know for sure how many of her relatives and family friends were marched into the jungles and hounded into concentration camps, or outright killed by Japanese forces? Perhaps her acute awareness of mortality came with the early deaths of her parents, both of whom passed away when she was in her early 20s.
How did it feel, not being able to tell them she’d be leaving Guam for San Francisco? Or not having them witness her wedding, or the births of her daughters? Maybe losing her husband to heart disease at the age of 40 was the final straw that propelled her to prepare for her own demise. I don’t know.
What I do know is that none of this stopped her from living her life boldly and independently. Though she was (and is) a pious Catholic who placed family at the center of everything, she always lived life on her own terms. She chose which rules she would follow and which she would flout. At 25 years old, she postponed her engagement to spend a year in the Bay Area (having never been to the states), and this was right in the middle of the 1960s, one of the most politically tumultuous decades in American history. It wasn’t just a gutsy departure from everything she had ever known. It was a brazen rejection of what was expected from her as a Chamorro woman. Years later, when my grandfather passed away, she considered remarrying to another Chamorro man, but rejected him when he expressed desire for a submissive housewife. All alone, she worked tirelessly to educate herself, provide for her household, and put both her daughters through college as first-generation students. She retained a youthful spirit of adventure, and since retirement she has travelled to countless countries, often on church trips.
Last weekend, my mother, my aunt and I went to visit my grandmother (masked and gloved, of course). She is almost 80, so we feel it’s safest for us to go grocery shopping for her. Though many of her relatives and close friends have gone to their graves, she remains perfectly healthy. She still lives by herself, in the same house where my grandfather died. She has no handicaps or severe illnesses. She can walk and run and drive. She rises at 5 a.m. each morning to pray and, during normal circumstances, would attend church at 7 a.m. daily. Yet despite all this, she nonchalantly, half-jokingly tells us every time we visit that she is ready to die, that she is ready for God to take her home.
This time was no different. While my mom and aunt were at Trader Joe’s, my grandmother pulled me aside and asked if I would help her with her computer. Apparently, that meant she needed my help updating the program for her funeral mass and deleting the one she had shown me 10 years prior. This time, I find her preparedness is less disturbing, less strange. I know now that she embraces the idea of heaven not because of the death she has seen but the life she has lived. She is ready because her life is full, her heart is full, she is full.
Now that I am 20 years old and I’ve found myself on a path that has taken me thousands of miles from my home (though not across to an ocean or a national border), I only hope I’ve inherited her tenacity to face the world undaunted.