Sunday, August 31, 2008

I Imagine There Will Be A Lot of Awkward Silences

My grandfather was raised by a woman who got her kicks off drowning kittens in front of her children and grandchildren. I never knew the woman, but that--and heaps of other evidence--makes me come to the conclusion that she probably wasn't the most nurturing soul. This is probably part of why my grandfather is the way he is: full of rage and hate.

And I was thinking about this today as I stood crammed up against a wall in a funeral home in Portsmouth, New Hampshire, where a memorial service was being held for the chair of our department's father. There were so many people in attendance they spilled over into a back room, and even that wasn't enough to contain them all, so the funeral directors set up another room, not in view of the podium, where the visitors could watch the service on an in-house television feed. To say that this man, our chair's father, was a wonderful and beloved man is the biggest underestimate in the world. He was worshipped.

I'd never met him, but I understood from the way people were acting, from the stories that were told, that this was a man you'd love to know. Which, of course, prompted me to wonder what exactly would happen at my grandfather's service. I felt slightly guilty wondering about this, especially considering my grandfather doesn't exactly seem to be going anywhere. He's had awful health for pretty much his entire life (polio, heart disease, emphysema, hypoglycemia; he's had strokes, heart problems, breathing problems; he smoked cigarettes for 40-some years, but of course never developed cancer, although my grandmother did--twice, and the final time killed her), but he's grouched his way through it all. He's yelled at his family, at paramedics, at nurses, at doctors--in fact, at his most recent surgery, my grandfather decided to call his doctor a fag--but he's still made it through in the face of all that sourness.

So what can I assume will happen at his wake, his funeral? Will it be well attended? Will the people there come for him or for us? Will an entire town turn out to say one last goodbye to the man who called them all faggot assholes, queer shits, mouthy bitches? Will we put a good picture in a gilt frame, balance it on a casket, and watch as people come forward to look fondly on that snapshot of him in better health and times?

Most importantly, how will I feel? Ever since the Christmas that changed everything, I have not wanted to be anywhere near my grandfather. It is awkward and awful. He wants to go on pretending nothing happened. He wants to go on being the same man he will always be. And I only talk to him now because I was forced to when my grandmother got sick and died.

In our family history, there are a million moments--both big and small--that I'd rather forget because he somehow ruined them, but there are other things to consider, too. At one time, I was my grandpa's girl. There is a famous family story that involves a day shortly after I came home from the hospital. My grandfather packed me carefully into my carrier and drove to his favorite breakfast place--a place where anyone who was anyone in town dined on the weekends--and walked me from table to table, showing me off like I was the best baby the world had ever seen. When people tell that story, my grandfather will break in and say, "I was ten feet tall that day."

He spoiled me. I was his only grandchild for a good long time, so I had his undivided attention and affection. He took me for special trips on his tractors and jeeps back into the family woods, where he would teach and quiz me about the different types of trees and animals. Whenever we went to town, my grandfather would find occasion to duck into one of the gas stations and fish out our favorite treat: ice cream sandwiches. He'd often come back to the car nibbling the soft, chewy cookie edges of his, and I'd squeal, "Did you get me one? Did you get me one?" and he'd make a big production about no, he hadn't, he'd forgotten, he was sorry, he'd get me one next time, did I want a bite of his? And as I crossed my arms and pouted, he'd tell me to take a look in his jacket pocket, and that's where I'd find my own ice cream sandwich--a little melty, a little sticky, but delicious nonetheless.

I'm not sure how I'll match all that up in my head when I finally need to, when I finally need to face his absence. I'm not sure how I'll do it because I can't now. I don't understand how it is you can go from loving someone so completely, so unconditionally, to wishing to be anywhere else but in the same room with that person because he has done things to you that are so hateful, so evil, so awful you wish you weren't related.

And it's not just me. It's the whole family and everyone he's ever come into contact with. How will we all handle it? How are we going to approach that day? I'm almost fairly certain that the service will feel absolutely nothing like the one I attended today--one that made me want to cry because I felt just how much everyone in the main room, the overflow room, and the television room would miss that man, that good man who loved them all more than anything.

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