I’ve been absent, I know. I’m surprised you even came on over and knocked on my door since it seems like I’m never around, but here I am.
Part of the reason for my absence is that I sit at a little desk and stare at a computer screen and think about words all day, so I don’t really feel like doing that when I get home.
Another part of the reason is that my dear Granddad died at the end of a long, frail, thin road on May 6th, and we were home in Indiana for a chunk of days around his funeral, and spent another chunk of days foraging for food and not putting away our suitcases when we returned to Tennessee.
And also, I didn’t really know how to talk about it.
My Granddad was… my Granddad. A sturdy man with a booming voice and a talent for singing and making up words when he couldn’t find one that fit just right. I’ll remember him in his recliner, wearing light blue jeans and ankle-high zip up boots, a white tee shirt, and thick-famed glasses, squeezing one of those hand exercisers made out of a coil of metal with plastic handles. He would stack us four deep in his maroon Buick and take us down to the ice cream shop, where they had peppermint ice cream with chunks of candy in it; he took us to see Return of the Jedi, despite my mother’s disapproval. He drug out what seemed like fifty old bicycles from his huge, pole barn garage on what was once his farm so that every cousin would have one to ride on a summer afternoon. He survived the depression, a Chicago childhood filled with drama and abuse, and a transplant to a Southern Indiana farm town just as his adolescence began, when he’d already seen too much. He survived a war. He survived as a farmer, and later an entrepreneur. He was a loving and committed husband, he was a wonderful father to my mother and her five brothers and sisters, proud to put every one of them through college. He was a doting and jolly Granddad with big thick hands and a thousand rich stories and silly voices for his fourteen grandchildren.
I am lucky to be one of the older ones. I got to know him for so long.
He didn’t look a thing like himself lying in the casket, covered in rosaries and roses. Birdy wanted to visit up close again and again, and I took her up to the casket whenver she wanted, to talk about him and let the fact of his death be unmistakably real to me, making myself answer her questions. Like why can’t we see his feet anymore? Because he doesn’t need them. Why doesn’t he move? Because he’s waiting to go to heaven. Granddad has a lot of flowers on his tummy! Yes, there’s one rose for each of us. And this tiny pink one is for you.
We sat and watched for several hours as a long line of people filed in to stand over his waxy, sunken face and made their way through the long line of hugs and handshakes for my grandmother, my mother, my aunts and uncles. We watched as dirty, weathered old farmhands he hadn’t seen in forty years filed right in behind the fragrant church ladies.
Keeping a toddler in a funeral home for four hours requires some creativity, and we took several walks around the perimeter of the building, pointing out the huge, run-down house with the stained-glass window where my Great-Grandmother on my dad’s side lived in her old age, with and amputated leg, too many parakeets and a stove that her children had disconnected so she wouldn’t burn the whole place down.
We all prayed the rosary together after the crowd had left. And it wasn’t about listening to the words as much as it was about all of us, this huge, dark-clad and tear-streaked flock of family, coming to one center point and saying the prayers together, nobody talking over anybody else, none of our characteristic joyful din. It was about pooling ourselves and our energy, and making a big collective ball of our memories of him to bring him into the room for a time, with all of us murmuring and chanting and crying. It felt ancient and it felt like letting go. Pray for us sinners, now and at the hour of our death, amen.
The funeral service couldn’t have been more beautiful, with one of my uncles delivering a powerful eulogy. And as un-Catholic as I claim to be, I don’t know if there is a place quite like a small-town Catholic church to feel so exquisitely sad.
Truly, we’d all been slowly grieving him for many years as he suffered stroke after stroke after stroke, with my Grandma praying fiercely by his bedside as she diapered and fed him day after day. When Hospice came to remove the hospital bed from their bedroom, her tidy little twin bed with the old reading lamp and the crucifix above it seemed so reverent, so faithful, so cheated, and so relieved. There was a well-worn path around the place where his bed had been for so many years, with plush beige carpet in the middle springing up like grass.
I held hands with my cousins and we all helped move his casket from the hearse to the gravesite, and something about giving him over in that place full of headstones with very familiar names made us feel like a sad and proud Royalty, like we’d all earned this badge of grief together, that we’d all had the honor of knowing him, all a part of something so solid and well-worn.
Now that we’re home, Birdy says, “Granddad isn’t old anymore. He’s getting UP! He went to heaven to see his friends.” She came up with parts of this explanation all on her own, and I have to believe that she understands this better than I do, because she’s never one bit sad.