When my grandmother passed away, I feared I was too sentimental in talking about her. There are many good uses for sentimentality when dealing with death, but I gilded her character, ignoring harmful flaws and major dimensions of who she was. This is not to attack her, or my grandfather, but to recognize the complexity of any given life. The whole package is who now lies dead, not only the good or the saddest or the most popular parts.
Patterns are real and narratives are useful, but they can also oversimplify people, and delude us into thinking life isn’t messy. With your permission, I’d like to share a few things about my grandfather, not in any particular order, since every item is true. You can consider this prose poetry, or meta-non-fiction, or simply the eulogy I’m not going to say on Thursday. Regardless, these are some things I’d like to relay about a man I knew.
-My grandmother forced him onto a diet around when I was born. It grew increasingly strict, and he chaffed for junk food. My first memory of visiting them alone was Grandpa putting a hand on my shoulder, almost hiding from her behind me, even though I was tiny. I remember his voice going cagey as he said, “Well, I have to take John out for pizza.”
-He was one of six boys in an Irish Catholic household. His mother died so early he never knew her, and his father had little time for him. When he came back from World War 2 almost bedridden with malaria, his father told him to, “Quit your bellyaching.”
-He lied about his age to sign up for the marines early. His service put him in the Pacific, where he was issued one rifle. His unit was instructed to decapitate the dead bodies of Japanese soldiers and keep their skulls to protect the barrels of their rifles from rain. He kept the skull after the war, usually hidden in his attic, up at least until ten years ago. Why he did that is a subject of family urban legends.
-He worked with Job Corps on the East Coast of the United States, and helped hundreds of poor black families find work in a tense city. He made some friends during that period who still visited him even in his last year. I never met any of them, but heard amazing things.
-He was never comfortable visiting a Chinese restaurant. I watched his fists clench and eyes dart around the waiters; they made him nervous, giving him flashbacks to combat with Japanese soldiers.
-He held the most exuberant conversations with Jehovah’s Witnesses I’ve ever seen. They never came close to converting him, nor did he seem to try on them, yet he always perked up when he saw them coming.
-He and my grandmother helped finance my college education; it wouldn’t have been possible without them. One time, when I needed to get home but Mom was busy, he picked me up, driving from Connecticut, to the college in Vermont, to Mom’s in New York, and then back home to Connecticut. He didn’t seem to mind it at all. During the drive, he lectured me on how fiction was evil, being fundamentally a manipulative lie. When he couldn’t convince me to give up fiction, he said he was certain one day more articulate people would show the world that it was only deception.
-His senility and dementia humbled him in ways that saddened me, even though I’d often been at odds with him before it. One great change was my writing. On no day could he remember what I wrote about, and often he forgot that I wrote novels at all. Yet whenever I mentioned that I was writing, he would encourage me, tell me I deserved to be proud of myself, and say that I seemed very serious about the work. For someone who could remember so little, every few months he’d ask how my book (or “your thing”) was coming along.
-Every single time in my adult life that I told him I loved him, his warmest response was awkwardness. His typical response, even at his most senile, was disdain. He enjoyed affection and sentiment from his wife, daughters and granddaughters, but not from any man I ever recalled. Over a hundred times in the last two years I accidentally ended a phone call with, “Love you, Grandpa,” to which he’d respond with something like, and often exactly, “Uh, well, goodbye.”
-There is an infamous Christmas in my family. It was the winter after my father moved out, and my grandparents made a power play. I was withdrawn from religion and holidays at the time, and made my desire to abstain explicit at multiple points before the day. I simply attempted to sleep in and let the family do what they wanted. My grandparents visited early in the morning with presents, commanding everyone to open them in order, woke me up and urged me into the living room. They told us where to sit, what to do, letting us know they were in charge, and I remember how helpless and uncomfortable my mother looked in the throes of what should have been kindness. I tried to avoid the gift-rituals by making coffee and fetching things for people. When I said I didn’t want anything, my grandfather stormed up to my face, a fist clenched suggestively at his side. I saw his eyes soften with concern when he realized I was taller than him, and the taint of fear that I might win. Before I could say anything to calm him, he circled around me and walked out of the house. I did not talk to him for several years after that.
-After my grandmother died, the family quickly realized he was too senile to live on his own, or even in a private house with live-in care. He was placed in the best nursing home they could find, but I knew he hated it. Readjustment is even harder for people suffering from dementia, and at the funeral one thing I clearly saw he longed for was family contact. The next night I called him, and we chatted for a few minutes. I repeated that for almost every night for the next two years, sometime between 5:30 and 7:30. We did the math last month, and counted around 700 calls – we’d talked more recently than in the rest of my life. It took very little time from my day, and meant unfathomable things to him. At his absolute cognitive worst, he still recognized my voice and, according to anecdotes, would brighten when someone said John was calling later.