Setting aside all the backyard barbecues and community pools and mosquito bites and open windows, I’d like to maybe use this Memorial Day to honor the memory of my badass grandpa—a Korean War vet who chain smoked my childhood away at the kitchen table while solving crosswords and listening to Frank Sinatra.
Me and my grandpa – late 1990s
- Confusion – I was nine when my grandpa was diagnosed with lung cancer. He was a fat man one day and an emaciated one a few months after that. It just didn’t make any sense to me.
- Fear – He was a fat man one day and an emaciated one a few months after that. Oh God oh God he’s gonna die, isn’t he?
- Detachment – My mom asked me to sit with him on what ended up being the last day of his life. He was wasting away in the hospital bed we had temporarily installed in our living room. I didn’t want to do it, and found it difficult to even tell him that I loved him.
- Bargaining – Go to bed, my mother told me. My aunt Liz flew into town all the way from Denver. All 6 aunts and uncles and their spouses and some family friends were in my house. I heard them crying while I laid in bed with the door cracked open. I tried hard to cry but couldn’t. I asked God to at least just please let him see the light and for his death be some kind of powerful, mythical experience.
- Withdrawal – Something was missing, but the loss hadn’t hit me yet. I spent the better part of the wake offering to make people apple cider and hanging out with my grandparent-in-law and giggling and eating hard candies.
- If you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em – I did remember to at least bring something significant with me. A pair of blue rosary beads I had made by myself in the second grade and that had been blessed by the Bishop of Arlington. I knelt in front of my grandfather’s open coffin, kissed the beads, and placed them in there with him.
- Annoyance – I was very annoyed with my younger cousin for goofing around during the funeral mass, but I never cried. The service was boring. I just wanted to go home.
- Denial – After the funeral was the after party. To be honest, getting to take off school for almost a whole week was awesome. All of my cousins and relatives came into town. We had two whole pigs roasting on our front lawn. There was live music. My grandfather’s funeral was, like, really fun.
- Coasting – And after the party was the next stretch of my life. I have very little memory of this time. How long it lasted. How I felt. Life was odd without my grandpa – I think at this point I was still living in his house – but I was generally unfazed.
- Breakdown – I don’t remember the first time I cried. It wasn’t some monumental, chaotic thing. Shortly after he died, my mom had given me a Raggedy Ann doll and told me to think of my grandpa when I held it. “Grandpa,” I said, as I clutched the old doll to my chest. “I’m so sorry,” I said, and I broke down.
- Heaviness – When something so powerful as permanent loss finally sinks in, it does not punch you in the gut or bleed on your face or any of that. It sits quietly on your shoulders and whispers in your ear when you think you’ve finally shaken it.
- Guilt – The whispers get stronger. Whenever I did anything bad, I had this feeling in my gut that my grandpa was looking down on me from the other side. I felt ashamed. I held onto my Raggedy Ann doll and cried and apologized and told him I loved him whenever I did anything wrong.
- Lemonade – When life gives you lemons, you make jokes about it. I’d sit at the kitchen table with my mom’s side of the family, telling stories about the time he rolled the station wagon into the lake, or the time he bought a bus, just laughing about everything.
- “Closure” / Catharsis – I had my drivers license for at least a year before I finally decided to visit his grave by myself, even though the cemetery where he’s buried is only like a 15 minute drive from my house. It was a cold, grey day. I was on the way to my dad’s house, but I decided to stop off at his grave without telling anyone. I didn’t bring him anything. I hardly even remembered where he was buried, but I went with my gut and ended up finding the tombstone. I cried a lot.
- Rehashing – My mom found a DVD full of home videos from the late 80s. It begins with my grandpa standing at the bottom of his driveway during an icy winter, talking about the weather and the surrounding nature. I sat there in my basement with my mom, smiling watery smiles and tilting my head all the time and gulping whenever he said something particularly jarring.
- Continuum – Coasting again. Occasionally repeating steps 10 – 14. This is what life is now. I’ll see a picture of my little brother and sister at my grandpa’s grave and start crying because they never knew him. I’ll listen to Sinatra for a week straight and my voice will crack during “My Way” as I remember him singing it at the top of his lungs in our kitchen. I’ll do something horrible and cry and ask him for forgiveness. I’ll hear someone’s Boston accent and smile at the way he used to call me “Taylah.”
- Acceptance – As far as I’m concerned, this stage is mostly a myth.
Grandma and Grandpa – May 27, 2012