My mom had the Yahtzee game of her life over the weekend in May when we were all together, both my sisters and their kids flew in from their respective corners of the country. We looked it up on the internet and her score was maybe a dozen points shy of the highest possible in games without multiple yahtzees, which is how we play because our scorecards from the game my mom inherited from her parents don’t have spaces for bonus yahtzees. She got everything, obviously, but even her three and four of a kinds were in fives and sixes, she got more than three for most of her bonus numbers, she was….well, on a roll. Maybe even more incredible was her efficiency. All she needed for her last three turns were her ones, her twos, and her chance. We knew we were witnessing a miracle, already. Then her chance was in the high twenties (around twenty is a good chance). She rolled for her ones, already with plenty enough points to get her bonus, got two or three, rolled again and got one or two more, and then on her last roll, hit that final one for a yahtzee of ones to end her magical game.
We were cheering and laughing. At the same time, my nephew was playing for the first time and rolling with zero luck. I was across the table from him and helping. Now what? he would ask, and I’d say, Well, you have two fives, so you could go for fives. Now what? Well, you still only have two fives but now you have two threes with one roll to go, so I would switch and roll for your threes. Now what? Now I would take your ones. You only have one but you’ll be down less for your bonus that way. My sister and I discovered that it’s poor strategy to ever go for your ones. Go for something with more point value and treat your ones like a scratch. “Never go for your ones” is on a list of notes we keep with the game, along with “always take a full house” and “never go for a full house.” We, one time, dug through the old score cards in my mom’s game and discovered reams of the tiny sheets with Rex and Kate’s, my mother’s parents, scores on them. Grandpa Rex’s ones were almost all 0’s and 1’s. He clearly played with the same strategy. I won’t reveal my nephew’s score, in case one day he reads this, but let’s just say if he’d been bowling it would have been under fifty. I felt awful because he was mostly following my advice. Now what? Well, you’ll have to scratch something. You’re having unlucky rolls, some games are like that. The cards just weren’t falling for him, to borrow an expression.
We’re a competitive clan of board gamers. Even now we all play wanting to win. We don’t get mad and refuse to clean up when we lose anymore, the feeling dissipates as soon as the game ends, but we all play with intensity. My mom famously took a firm position against ever making concessions to the grandchildren during games, stating that they should play by the rules and learn what winning and losing games is about. (We’ve caught her making them, though. She’s Sorry’d her own kids when clearly the better strategy would have been to Sorry one of the grandkids who were begging please Grandma with their hands covering their vulnerable pieces on the board.) Despite that, we discovered on this trip that our Yahtzee games are a constant stream of sincere advice. The decision is made by the player but anytime a roll of the dice doesn’t point in a clear direction, the rest of the table will lean closer and questions come: “Do you have your small straight?” “How are you on your bonus?” Then “I would go for your three of a kind in fives and then if you don’t get it you still have your chance.” or “Go for your sixes and if you don’t get them scratch your ones.” And because we’re helping each other we’re also rooting for each other. So many of us were playing, we introduced a second set of dice but we stopped using it because we realized we wanted to be able to watch everyone’s turn.
Someone private messaged me when I posted last week about enjoying our weekend with our mother, who is terminally ill with cancer, how nice it is we’re able to enjoy that time. I guess it is, but I often forget because it seems so simple. We’re all, as human beings, enjoying our lives that will end, we just rarely think about it. We “keep it on the back burner where it belongs,” quoting Jonathan Franzen from an essay, a line that stuck with me. Except, each in our own way, we’re using our awareness that we’ll die one day to remind us life is precious, to experience our lives as important or as having meaning, to make life signify, however one puts the same idea. This isn’t as different as people might think. We sometimes talk about what’s happening, maybe slightly more often than groups of friends, during late night chats, will discuss their mortality. If it comes up. We’re following my mom’s lead. Our ability to enjoy our time with her under these circumstances is to her full credit. She’s leading us to making the hard but simple choice to appreciate knowing what’s happening ahead of time so we can value this time with her.
At my father’s funeral, a man who knew my dad but didn’t know me talked to me. His talking to me and a neighbor couple my dad had helped out with some yard work showing up and bringing their young baby were the only two things I recall really reaching me through my grief. He was telling a story about my dad, but I think he saw I was grief struck and barely listening. I suspect he was familiar with what I was feeling. He said, “All those memories of your dad that are bringing you so much pain, now, are going to return and bring you joy again.”
The memories from that Yahtzee game, beyond that the weekend, and beyond that our lives, will cause us pain after she’s gone. Then as time passes, as grief does its mysterious work, those same memories will bring us joy again. That’s the process of grief and there’s no circumventing grief.