My grandmother died twenty years ago from a complication of virtue and defiance. She was perfectly healthy until she insisted on giving up cigarettes. Then she was gone in a fortnight.
“You’re eighty-seven,” my mother warned her. “When you’re eighty-seven, you don’t stop smoking. You keep smoking.”
Grandma looked at the cigarette she was smoking.
“It’s not healthy,” she said.
She said it with the air of someone who’d made a discovery.
“Look,” my mother said, “you’ve been smoking for sixty-eight years. If you dropped dead right now, no one would say that you smoked yourself to death.”
“God’s against it,” Grandma said darkly. “It’s a sin.”
“Where’s that written?” we asked.
Grandma became vague and mentioned the temple of her body.
“Why do you drink wine then?” we asked.
“Wine’s different,” she stipulated. “Jesus drank wine.” Then she added, “And he didn’t smoke.”
“So what?” we said. “He never ate a pizza or listened to a CD either. That doesn’t mean those things are bad.”
Grandma thinned her lips and folded a napkin.
“God doesn’t want me to smoke,” she said.
Even though God didn’t like Grandma’s smoking, He never let on. She remained healthy while others died who were much younger. Men in her family ran out of heartbeats in their forties. Her sisters and aunts were overtaken by cancer and blood clots. But Grandma kept on going. In her eighties she moved into an old age home near us—a depressing place called Masonic Haven—and there she stayed. On Sundays she got into her old Toyota, rolled down the windows and drove to our house. Along the way she smoked two cigarettes and ran every red light she came to.
I once got a lift with her.
“The light’s red!” I cried.
“What light?” she asked once we were through it.
“The one back there.”
Grandma gripped the wheel and accelerated.
“When did they put that up?”
“Five years ago.”
“No one told me,” she said.
During lunch she complained about her smoking.
“God’s very angry with me,” she said and swilled her wine.
My father puffed on his cigar and regarded his mother-in-law.
“I’d be angry with Him,” he said. “He’s the one who made tobacco and lips and lungs.”
Grandma took a sip of her wine and smoothed the tablecloth.
“Smoking is the Devil’s work,” she said with complete conviction. “Not God’s.”
“I’d still be angry,” my father insisted.
Grandma looked hurt.
“You mustn’t speak like that,” she said.
“Well,” my father replied, “God’s free to intervene when He has a moment.”
Grandma thought about this.
“I’m going to stop smoking,” she declared.
One Sunday, God intervened. Grandma stopped smoking, bronchitis found her lungs by the end of the week and the hospital did the rest.
Her service was held in a little hall at Masonic Haven. It was a dreary Sunday at the onset of winter. We waited at the gate and greeted people as they arrived. Jack was there too. He’d known Grandma for years and thought of her as his own.
“Look,” he muttered and gestured at the sign above the gate.
Wooden letters spelled Masonic Haven, but the S and the O had fallen off. The sign read Manic Haven.
“They have wheelchair races on Wednesdays,” my sister said. “When no one’s around.”
We smiled at this, relieved to have something to smile about. We went inside and sat near the front, behind my mother and father. My mother was quiet and my father looked ashen-faced. He’d known Grandma longer than he ever knew his own mother. There were a few other family members and two dozen old people from the home.
The minister was a gangly man with a sonorous voice. He made us sing a hymn while he swayed behind the makeshift pulpit like a reed. Then he cleared his throat and assured us of Grandma’s piety. Her life had been one of devoted service and unquestioning reverence. Her place in heaven was guaranteed, he said, and similar guarantees extended to those of us who followed her example. While the old people nodded grimly, Jack whispered to me, “Everyone crams for the end exams.”
We sang another hymn and then the minister began his sermon. He broke over us like a wave. He riled against the Devil and his helpers—the sinners and heathens. The louder he riled, the more his gestures were inflated with the slope of his voice. At the peak of his zeal he flapped his arms and made a fist. Then, just as suddenly, he slid into restraint again. God was everywhere, he said, and He had a plan. While the minister read a part of this plan from the Bible, I remembered how I once prayed to God for a bicycle. I was ten or so at the time. My friends had bicycles, but I didn’t. Grandma interrupted me mid-prayer.
“No, no,” she said. “God’s busy. He’s making planets and flowers. If you want a bicycle, tell Him exactly what you need. That’s how it works.”
The minister knew nothing of Grandma’s arrangements with God. He spoke about our miserable existence on earth and our glorious salvation, and that was that. He wasn’t going to bother God with Grandma if he could wrap things up himself.
In the end we sang another hymn. My parents remained seated and stared at the floor. Outside the windows of the little hall the last of the swallows gathered on the staves of telephone wires in the bitter mercy of a winter without snow.