Excerpt from Raking the Dust, honoring the birthdays of my grandmother (April 15th) and Charlie Chaplin (April 16th).
In times of hardship and heartache my grandmother would recite St. Teresa’s Prayer or sing Charlie Chaplin’s “Smile” in a warbly and off-key voice, what sounded like the death cries of a rare and beautiful bird being strangled.
Smile though your heart is aching
Smile even though it’s breaking.
When there are clouds in the sky
You’ll get by.
If you smile through your pain and sorrow
Smile and maybe tomorrow
You’ll see the sun come shining through
The Prayer of St. Teresa and “Smile” were my grandmother’s aural talismans, which she voiced for herself and others.
A couple of years earlier, my grandmother had been knocked into a coma by her third stroke. I flew back to New York to visit her and brought with me a CD I had made containing different versions of “Smile.” Tony Bennett, Frank Sinatra, Rickie Lee Jones, Barbra Streisand, the instrumental version which had been featured in Chaplin’s film Modern Times (for which it had been written).
Alone in the hospital room with my grandmother, I placed headphones over her ears and let the CD play all the way through. I could faintly make out bits of music coming through the headphones as I stared at the withered and shrunken woman in the hospital bed who had replaced my grandmother. Her right arm, which was slightly bent at the elbow, had coiled in toward her chest and fossilized in that position. The deep hollows of her face gave it the look of a tissue-skinned death mask. Tubes, like transparent worms, seemed to be growing out of her nostrils and arms. Yet the thing that most struck me in telling me my grandmother was no longer my grandmother: her shorn gray hair.
My grandmother was fiercely proud and diligent when it came to dyeing her hair and keeping the gray masked or to a minimum. Over the years I had seen a varying palette of colors. Brown, frost-blonde, caramel, chestnut, burnt sienna, eggplant, but gray was never among them. I remember thinking—If my grandmother awoke from this coma and was confronted with this stranger in the mirror, the first thing she’d do is dye its hair.
Before heading back to Taos I left the CD with my Uncle Eddie and told him to play it for her. He said he would and wound up doing so, every day, religiously. After nearly four months my family decided to take my grandmother off life support, and everyone was shocked when she survived another six weeks without artificial assistance. In life my grandmother had been a fragile and diminutive woman, who had suffered abuse at the hands of her husband and waged constant battle with spells of depression, but at her core she had always possessed a prizefighter’s resilience, one of those people who refused to stay down or give up the fight. My Uncle Eddie once told me—There are people who go down Alex. And stay down. They don’t get back up. Your grandmother always gets back up.
I liked to think of my grandmother, this liver-spotted spud of a woman, going toe-to-toe with Death, knowing that the fight was rigged and there was no way she could win, yet giving it all she had as Charlie Chaplin and St. Teresa urged her on.