My grandfather had an entourage before it was fashionable to have a group of people surrounding your daily moves. Therefore, it was quite unusual that day that he was driving by himself. In fact, the last conversation my father had with him was regarding this fact. George was to be in court later that week. He was headed to Elmbrook Hospital to prove to the prosecution that he was in fact ill and had heart problems, he was going to get his medical records. My dad asked if he wanted him to drive him, he said no. Timing is a funny thing, he was at a hospital, yet he had his heart attack minutes later driving home. He hit a light pole, and was gone. The next week my dad walked into court and instead of handing over the medical records, they handed over a death certificate.
My grandfather hated hospitals and most doctors with a passion. He did not abide by the old school rule that doctors were God and had the final word. He always said, I am hiring them just like I hire anyone one else. Unfortunately, I had no idea that George was ever sick. I had no clue he had had open heart surgery and no idea, nor did any of us that he was filled with cancer when he died. I don’t know if it was denial or his constant need to move forward but illness and George were not to mix, and they didn’t. On one occasion George called my dad from Columbia hospital and barked at my dad to meet him on the side street in 15 minutes, as my dad pulled up there he was with his overcoat not so discreetly hiding his hospital gown. He jumped in the car, blurted some obscenity that he did not need to be there and they left. Apparently this was a constant problem; he just could not follow anyone’s rules, even if they were in his best interest.
In some ways it was a blessing not knowing my grandfather was sick. In other’s it’s what caused such a shock to my system. The paradox that one minute the world was safe and the next it could collapse without warning. I had been to other funerals, for heaven sake’s my mother’s side of the family is Irish Catholic, we weren’t church people, but we were funeral people. It was like, who is it this week, “your great aunt’s second cousin”, all I knew is if someone died you were there. So funerals didn’t make me uncomfortable, but I had never known anyone in the casket before. To this day I rarely miss a funeral. I am a good mourner, and that has nothing to do with George’s death. I have been handed coats and asked where to sign in at numerous funerals being mistaken for the staff. George’s funeral was different, and I was not prepared.
Now is as good a time as any to mention its no mistake that I alternate between Grandpa and George when remembering my grandfather. I always called him Grandpa, but in my head he was always George. He wasn’t soft in the traditional Grandpa way, and my father had always called him George. I always wonder if he would have lived longer would I have changed my verbiage. I doubt it, because I was his favorite, and I think he liked the words Grandpa coming from me, but who knows. So in my memory I switch back and forth, sometimes I see him as my grandfather and other times I see him as everyone else, a force to be reckoned with, and that was George.
That night that I witnessed my dad’s sorrow, as a child I thought it only meant one thing, the same thing I felt this gaping emptiness that I didn’t know if I would ever feel whole again. I didn’t know that my father was in a hurricane of emotions, and despite the grave concerns of the estate, the only fear he stated out loud was “what if no one comes”. I don’t know how many people came to the wake at the funeral home, I just know the sea of people never seemed to end. I only remember bits and pieces, in my experience that is how grief works, your mind will only allow you to take in what you can handle. I remember sitting on an off white brocade settee love seat to the left of the coffin with my grandmother and my uncle. I remember that after the service I walked up to the casket with my grandmother and she touched George’s lifeless hand and kissed it. She told me it was okay, but I didn’t want to touch him. He didn’t look at all like himself, yet he looked exactly the same. I remember he was wearing a brown suit, and later I would write a note and show it to my little sister that if I died I wanted to be put in pajamas. My first will and testament at age eleven. I remember thinking how odd that for eternity you would have to sleep in your dress clothes. I remember most of the funeral just like that, very factual and detached, trying to wrap the confusion of my child self and my adult awareness into a harmonious agreement. But from that moment on I never really saw the world as a child again. I never felt invincible, because the person I held up as untouchable, larger than life itself - without warning was plucked from the earth, and if it could happen to George it could happen to anyone.
What I do remember with a visceral clarity was the moment we were to go home. Everyone else had gone, my father and mother were making arrangements with the funeral director for the church service tomorrow and they were about to close the casket. I think they forgot I was still there, because at the moment they tried I went into a state of hysteria and with all the life inside of me in contrast to the lifeless body next to me I wasn’t going to let them shut the lid. And the questions that no one could answer began pouring out of my aching scared heart, whom would be with him all night, what if he couldn’t breathe and woke up? My father carefully pried my fingers, full of life off of the casket and I remember glancing at my grandpa’s lifeless fingers – reality. I remember my head hitting the back of my dad’s shoulder as my limp body collapsed into exhaustion.
It Scared Me
I crouched frozen on the stairs catching the profile of my father hunched heavy hearted over the antique wood chopping block, his head limply falling forward. The yellow and blue cast iron pots and pans hanging overhead, the one’s he often bumps his head on, he doesn’t even notice. Then slowly I see his clenched fist, slamming down intently, slowly on the solid wood. Once, twice, the third time he stops mid motion, the dull thuds echoed restraint. My young strong father looked instantly fragile as one by one tears slowly hit the block of wood below. The kitchen was dark, and in the silence I could begin to hear him shake. My mother moved towards him, but he shuddered away, she laid her hand on his back with the slightest of touch and left him alone. Any other circumstance I would have misinterpreted his action as anger towards her, unfortunately I understood. My mother had been the victim of my grief earlier as I screamed with all my childhood might from the depths of a soul I didn’t know I had that I hated her. I hated her because she was the one to tell me my grandpa was dead. News I could not bear to hear, to hear was to feel, as with my father to be touched was to feel and all we wanted to be was numb and alone. I didn’t dare move, I didn’t want him to see me, in fact I wanted to pretend I didn’t see it myself. I had never seen my father cry, and I was afraid.