The Eulogy I Wish I Could Give You

Nov. 3, 2017, McAllen, Texas

I’m flying over Texas right now, finally getting around to writing the thing I’ve known I had to write since the day my mother called with the news.

My grandmother is gone.   

With most of my extended family converging on Las Vegas, I’m on a plane to Texas to start production on a documentary that a friend and I have been working toward for years. When mom told me they’d scheduled Grandma’s funeral for Nov. 4, my heart sank. It was the one day on my calendar that was basically immovable. With thousands of dollars already invested in flying our crew to Texas and a small grant on the line, I had to wrestle with the reality that I could not attend my grandmother's funeral.

By now my mom has arrived in Las Vegas, where she will join three generations of Moreno descendants as they gather to lay to rest our proud matriarch, our mom, our Grandma, our Great-Grammy (“G-G” to the youngest of her proud line)—our Lydia.

Her passing was not sudden or unexpected. The first time cancer came knocking last year, Grandma let it know what’s what. In the movie version of this story, when cancer first visits my beloved abuelita, she stands to meet it with a militaristic resolve. This proud Navy veteran, 94-year-old child of the Great Depression, member of the greatest generation, furrows her brow and scowls in that signature Mexican-grandma way as she raises her hand and steadies a rigid finger right at cancer’s face. Then she grows from about 5-foot-nothing to around eight feet tall, and when she speaks her voice has the same quick confidence and accented inflection that have, in my mind, always sung a song about our family’s history and its essential Americanness. And my Grandma Lydia gets right up in cancer’s face, pointing and staring hard like a drill instructor, and she says sternly, “B----, do you know who the f--- I am?”

This is, of course, the Marine Corps version of this story. We Marines have a way of embellishing from time to time, and I hope my family will indulge me these narrative enhancements as I say goodbye to Grandma in my own way, since I can’t be present for the final goodbye I so badly wanted to share with them.

Part of me needs this opportunity for confession. I want to ask forgiveness for not being a better grandson, for not being strong enough to call and talk with Grandma after the cancer came back, after she started down the path toward eternity. I want to tell people about the last time I saw her and how I wonder if not calling was my selfish way of preserving a cherished memory.

In January, I sat holding her delicate hands at her home in San Diego while she told me how much she enjoyed the Navy SEAL memoir I co-authored with Kevin Lacz. Of the hundreds of positive reviews the book has received, hers was, by far, one of the sweetest and most cherished. Grandma was a longtime fan and supporter of my work as a writer, going all the way back to my early days as a young Marine correspondent. She and I shared many wonderful conversations over the years about our mutual love of literature, especially John Steinbeck.

Grandma was a voracious reader and a proud Navy veteran, and when she described the particular zeal with which she devoured The Last Punisher, my heart felt full in a way that a million bestseller lists could never touch.

When I gave her photos of her great-granddaughters and the hand-written notes and artwork they’d made for her, she smiled warmly and listened to my doting-dad stories. If I close my eyes, I can feel her gentle hands in mine as we talked in that room, breathing in each other’s spirit for the first time in too many years.

Then Grandma told me the bad news. The cancer might be resurgent, and she was likely in for another fight. I wish I could say Grandma delivered this news with the same unshakable resolve that my storyteller’s mind always paints her with, but she did not. The uncertainty in her eyes amplified the reticence in her voice as she got through the unpleasant business of turning another page toward the final chapter of her own life.

Again, I held her hand in mine and listened while she mustered some comforting courage and gave it all to God. “Whatever plans He has for me, I’m just going to trust in His will,” she said warily. Looking back, I feel like I had a sense right then that this might be our final goodbye, but I never wanted it to be.

Back home in Portland, we raised Grandma up in prayer every night, like we’d always done when she was ill or injured. As reports of her condition worsened over the months, I failed over and over again to call and to talk and listen and comfort.

The day before Grandma died, my mom called to tell me Grandma wanted to hear from all her loved ones before she died. I told her of course I would call. I wanted to schedule the call for a time Sabrina and the girls could be on the line. A working Sunday passed, and at the end of a busy Monday I finally told the girls their great-grandmother probably wasn’t going to live much longer, and we absolutely had to call her the next day.

The following morning my mom called to tell me Grandma was gone.

For this, I ask forgiveness. From Grandma, from my family, and especially from my Aunt Debbie, who loved and cared for her mother in the latter years and final days of her life and was there through all the darkest hours. Debbie, your selfless nature and fidelity to family is a source of inspiration, and we are all forever grateful for your love and devotion to our beloved Lydia.

I cannot be in Las Vegas tomorrow to ask her forgiveness in person. I cannot be there to properly memorialize her or share in the closure and catharsis that comes with the final goodbye. And because I can’t be there, I need the world to know a little bit about Lydia Moreno Linton.

I need you to know that every Christmas season, she made dozens and dozens of the most amazing tamales and delivered them to her closest family members and friends. I can’t remember how many times, in the early days of a new year, I sat at my grandmother’s dining table while she heated up some of her last remaining tamales and delivered a full plate topped with steaming mole sauce. I need you to know that eating them was a spiritual experience.

I can tell you that Mexican cooking was a proud tradition in our family and that when it came to Mexican cuisine, Grandma was an artist like no other. She was known for keeping an immaculate kitchen and for her obsessive (and completely unmatchable) approach to food preparation, quality of ingredients and precise execution. My mother inherited a lot of Grandma’s talents in the kitchen, but even mom will tell you that nobody prepares a meal like Grandma.

Grandma also had a temper that you did not want to get on the wrong side of, but she was, at her core, loving, strong, kind and giving. I’ve been writing for hours now, and it’s almost 5 in the morning. I feel like I’ve barely scratched the surface. I’d like to go on and on about how much Grandma loved everyone in her family and how devoted she has always been to us. I wish I could convey the gravity of her loss by making real for the world the divine gift of her existence. But I have only these words and memories and perhaps some lonely tears in this hotel room in Texas.

I love you so much, Grandma, and I’m so sorry I can’t be there to say goodbye today. I am thinking of you, and my heart is in Las Vegas with you and our family.