And there we were, perched on the edge of our dining room chairs, gleaming utensils splayed out on crisp, white napkins, waiting and wondering how we were supposed to enact this simplest of daily rituals. I sat down at the far end with the younger cousins, my mother and uncles in the middle of the long table. Our matriarch, my grandmother, poised with perfect posture, sat prim at the head as if nothing were amiss.
At the opposite end, where my grandfather used to sit, was my grandfather’s casket where, if one could get past the bizarre nature of his presence so close to our food, one could imagine him simply asleep inside its pillowed womb. Before dinner, grandmother had removed the single lily from between his hands (laid atop each other across his chest) and replaced it with a full martini glass, held in place by the laced fingers of heavy hands now devoid of rigor.
I smelled decay. Or maybe I imagined I could smell it, along with a comingling of makeup caked on his pallid skin and the turkey steaming on the table. I was both hungry and devoid of hunger, unsure how Miss Manners would approach this kind of situation. He had a martini glass in his hand and his place was set with dinnerware and utensils, so was I supposed to offer food as it came around the table as if he were there to eat? Would he require the butter as it followed the bread, which followed the green beans, which followed the plate of carved white meat? Who would refill his drink? Would he want seconds?
The tinkling of ice in glass shook me from this strange line of thought. Grandmother had raised her drink in the air, never taking her eyes off the casket. We’d stopped counting the number of Old Fashioneds she’d prepared herself, each one made with care, each orange peel carved slow and meticulous after muddling the other ingredients. With grandfather’s conversation skills greatly diminished, she had made the wet bar her confidante, a rock upon which she leaned heavily.
We all looked at each other in a glazed-over confusion, raising our own glasses of water or wine towards her. “To William; lover, father, overthinker, underachiever.” We sipped and put our glasses down then watched as grandmother polished off her full drink with breathless satisfaction.
“Paw-paw!” my uncle James, sitting across from me, exclaimed. Though much older than myself, he had regressive autism and was forced to sit with the younger generations during holiday dinners and family outings. He spoke in simple terms, sometimes quoting movie lines and song lyrics he remembered from his childhood before his brain started working against him. I’d recognize a line here and there, but I was ultimately ignorant of much that passed between his lips. Other times he just sounded like a very young child.
Grandmother raised her empty glass to the sky. “Paw-paw, indeed, dear. Paw-paw indeed.” She returned to the wet bar and opted for a full whiskey, neat, rather than mess with the accoutrements of another Old Fashioned.
I looked around at the rest of my family and worried that the weight of our collectively downturned eyes might buckle the table, split it in half and send dinner right to the floor below. Perhaps my mother could tell, or even my other uncle, but I could no longer discern the difference between my grandmother’s slurred walking and the creeping age that permeated her body.
She slipped back into her chair and stared down the length of the table, swirling the drink around in her glass absentmindedly. Uncle James, unable to control himself any longer, reached out for the spoon stuck firmly in the mashed potatoes. “No James, not yet,” Grandmother said. “You must be polite and ask your father if he’d like any before serving yourself. The head of the household should always be served first.”
She continued to stare at the casket as Uncle James pulled his hand back from the utensil and left it dangling in the air, unsure if she was making a joke. He looked around the table, a strange smile playing across his face. When none of us returned it, he shrunk back into his chair. He looked at the casket and then turned to face us all. Back to the casket…then back to us. Over and over until finally he summoned up the courage, grabbed the serving dish and held it out in grandpa’s direction.
“That’s a good boy, James. I don’t think Paw-paw is hungry. Let’s eat.”
I reached out for the dinner rolls and heard my father whisper to my mother. “Does your family do this with every death? Is this a thing?”
My mother, cool as can be, shoveled crudely carved turkey breast onto her plate. “It’s new to me,” she muttered beneath the intentional chiming of flatware on china.
By dinner’s end, there was too much food left, both on the table and on everyone’s plates. We knew it was time to clean up when grandmother stumbled over to the casket, pulled out the stuck olive, ate it, and then lifted grandfather’s hands towards her mouth in order to finish his martini. I was glad I had not eaten more as I’m sure it would have come back up immediately.
After dinner, we congregated in the living room. Grandmother snored in a wing-backed chair in the corner, half-filled rocks glass tilted dangerously in her hand. Everyone seemed more relaxed now, their faces more apt to smile at shared stories of my grandfather.
“I was up studying,” Aunt Vivian started, “and the doorbell rings. There’s Uncle Andrew, drunk as a skunk, swaying and weaving between these two police officers. Now, I was only seventeen at the time, so I couldn’t laugh; I knew he was in serious trouble. But then daddy came out of the bedroom wearing nothing but black socks and boxer shorts. He had the black belt in his hand…”
“Oh god…that black belt. I wish I could forget the beatings from that thing,” my mother said, laughing.
“And Andrew, God bless him, saw this image of an angry and armed daddy, larger than life and nearly naked, and lit out faster than I’ve ever seen him run before. Daddy chased after him, pushing the two cops aside and then those two cops, well of course they were running after daddy.”
My father chuckled and watched my mother double over in laughter, nearly spilling her own drink in the process. Uncle James sat near the fireplace, rocking back and forth over and over again, an unknowing grin spread across his face.
“I’ve never seen such a sight. A drunk teenager, running like a complete loon in the middle of the street, chased after his belt-wielding, half-naked father, who in turn is being chased by two cops having trouble keeping up. Oh my word. I simply lost it. I could not stop laughing. I didn’t get any studying done for the rest of that night. I just kept replaying that image over and over.”
I looked up at Uncle Andrew, his face completely blank. “I still to this day don’t remember anything about that night. I remember waking up the next morning to the worst headache ever, wondering why my ass hurt so bad. I figured something had happened at the party until Viv told me everything that afternoon. I was grounded for the entirety of that summer. My first back from college, even!”
“Oh your high school graduation!” my mother nearly screamed before doubling over into laughter again. “When dad mixed up the adult punch bowls with the kiddie punch bowls. The widow Larson from next door was so mad at him for that. Her little girl spewed all over the place after only a few sips and made a mess of the kitchen.”
Uncle Andrew nodded, smiling. “How often do you think he mowed her lawn in order to get back into her good graces?”
“March to October, without fail,” Aunt Vivian chimed. “She’d watch him from the window of her living room, giving him the death stare to end all death stares until the lawn was completely done too. She’d just stand there, glaring while he pushed that manual mower around until damn near dark.”
I found it interesting, the stories I heard about my grandfather after his passing, and wondered why I’d never heard most of them before. I suppose the grief found in loss brings out the strangest remembrances. Having never lost someone before, this was all new to me, but seemed like a comfortable second nature to everyone else, as if this was simply the way death was handled. Smiles over sadness, stories over silence.
My family talked well into the night as my grandmother snored in her chair, still somehow looking regal and proper. I had not known the number of jobs my grandfather worked as a teenager or how he had gone to night school just to get a promotion at work so he could provide for the family that was coming with the news of Uncle Andrew’s arrival. So many facets to a man I thought I knew, but apparently knew only on a superficial level. Which is strange because he was family.
An inflatable mattress had been put on my Uncle James’ floor and that night I lay awake, anxious and restless, his sleepy mumblings emanating up and out into the dark. It’s hard not to confront the reality of death when it sits silent and monolithic in the dining room. I wondered if I would cry at the funeral, knowing that tears had not come at the news of grandfather’s passing, news that came hours before dawn and given to me through sleepy eyes and dream-heavy thoughts. An unreality until dawn arrived and the mind came to fully.
It’s not so much that I am afraid of dying; I just want to be in control of the process. Or maybe I just don’t want it to be prolonged. There’s a certain torturous aspect to the drawn out death, both for the individual and for those around them. A strange complacency winds its way into the fabric of the daily struggle, watching the body deteriorate, watching the mind deteriorate, constantly feeling unsure of how to act or react to situations.
You become accustomed to the deterioration until finally the decay wins out. And then? Regret, for not being there, for not being more present as the final days of life wither the body, each wrinkle formed from the experiences lived and the choices made. And maybe that’s the nature of life, to suck out every drop of vitality from within, each passing minute a reminder of what it is we have so that we never take it for granted, every decision etched not only into the crevices of the brain, but the wrinkles and liver spots of the body as well.
I rolled off the air mattress, trying not to let it make too much noise beneath me, and shuffled out of the room in silence. The house was dark, dimly lit by a single night light plugged into a hallway outlet. Soft light gave way to deep shadows in the corners and made the handles of the casket shine ethereally. The top remained open, grandfather’s martini glass graciously removed and put at his place at the table, the only bit of dinnerware left sparkling in the dark.
Any other time, I may have found myself creeped out by a dead body in the room, but there was a strange solitude to the moment, like a shared secret between us. My fingers traced the beveled edges of the dark, oaken casket, moved up and over to the silky pillowed insides. Before I knew it, my entire palm laid on his chest, hoping to hear some small bit of thump-thump below, some momentary evidence that he was not actually gone.
But all was silent and I let my hand linger there, buffeted by his tie and the lapels of his suit jacket. It was unreal to see him lying there, still as stone, and realize there was no essence of him left except for the remnants of his life scattered throughout the house within the trophies of his younger days or the pictures hanging on the walls.
“Strange, isn’t it?” my grandmother’s voice whispered from the dark. I hadn’t heard her move about from her slumber in the chair. Her hair was disheveled, but she wore a solemn look that had not made its presence known during dinner. I nodded, not knowing how to respond. “Even I’m a little surprised at my decision to have him here during dinner last night. One final meal with the family, I guess.”
She came around to the other side of the coffin, standing by his feet. For a long time we both stood there, not saying anything as we stared down into the casket. I wondered what was going on in her head. I imagine she wondered what was going on in mine, both of us having experienced the same man in different ways.
“You’re too young to remember your grandfather when he had his vices, but that’s how he and I met, you know. Over drinks. It was…unladylike…for me to be able to keep up with the boys back in those days, but I could and I did. Plenty of bad decisions made during those days, but your grandfather was the one shining exception. We drank well into the night and I woke up in his bed.”
I cringed, waiting for grandmother to go into entirely too much detail, which she had a penchant for doing.
“…But it wasn’t how you might think. I didn’t know where I was. Didn’t recognize a thing.” She sat down at the table and motioned me to do the same while her gaze never left the casket. “I got up, stumbled through the room. The headache was murder, let me tell you. I kept wanting to get sick all over this strange place until I left the room and found him curled up on the couch in the living room adjacent. His first place wasn’t a big one and he could’ve easily been less of a gentleman to me in my condition…”
I stared across the table at my grandmother. She rested her head in her hand and, even in the darkness, I could see something else taking over and changing her expression, an inner something tugging at her better nature as her smile faltered and sagged, her eyes following suit. In the dark, she looked frail and defeated and it was the most vulnerable I’ve ever seen her.
“Well. That was how we met. It took weeks for me to really warm up to him since I thought he had some kind of unsavory endgame in mind, but he was persistent and soon I was the only one of us drinking and he just kind of went along with it, taking care of me when I got out of control and putting up with my drunken tantrums. Through all the clichéd broken china and the vehicular mishaps, he stuck by me, God knows why. I was a mess made in heaven.”
She sighed. I could feel her breath rush across the table and tickling the hair on my arms. She turned to look at me eventually. Her eyes glistened in the dark, rimmed with slowly building moisture.
“You seem sad now, but last night…” I started. “Last night it felt like you hated grandpa. Why?”
She reached out across the table and patted my hand. “I hate that he’s gone, honey. Other than my children and my you, my grandchild, he is the best thing that ever happened to me. I hate that he’s gone. I hate the situation. I hate feeling like a part of me is missing now and unable to be found again. I hate that I want to shake him back to life because I don’t know if I can do this on my own,” she said, motioning out to the rest of the darkened house. “Don’t know if I want to, if I’m really being honest with myself.”
“You’re not thinking…”
“No, dear. Not seriously. But I know it’s going to be very hard without him. So yes, I was angry last night. I had this absurd notion floating about in my head that it was his fault that I’m alone now. That somehow he was in control of when he was going to pass, so in some way I blamed him. And maybe I will for a while. Silliness of course, but it is what it is.”
She reached out in the dark and clutched both of my hands in hers. I could still smell the liquor on her breath, but didn’t mind. The moment would be one I never forgot long after she passed years later, one I cherished as it felt like I’d been given a glimpse into a part of my grandmother’s persona that she held back from public viewing. In that moment, she was vulnerable but unafraid to show it. My respect for her ballooned; I felt I’d been let in on a secret that I’d never divulge.
The hearse arrived early the next morning to pick up the casket. Two men in predictably black suits from the funeral home rolled it out on a collapsible gurney, not unlike from an ambulance, but somehow feeling more regal. Maybe it was just the gravity of the day. The men were unemotional, but cordial. The dining room felt empty as if a vacuum had suddenly sucked out everything good from within.
Grandmother hadn’t gone back to bed, shuffling through the house all night long quiet as a specter. I stayed up as well, both out of sleeplessness and a desire to keep an eye on her. How much of what she’d hinted at, not living without grandpa, stuck in my mind as partly true and, were it in my power to do so, staying up to prevent its possibility seemed the only option.
She stood, silhouetted by the morning light in the doorway and fully dressed in her mourning black watching the men cart off the casket. What do you say in that moment? Being profound seemed vastly out of reach and everything else felt trite, words spoken just to fill an awkward silence.
A hand gripped my shoulder from behind. “You alright?” my father asked in a whisper.
“I am. But I feel like I should be feeling…I don’t know.”
“Less? More? I feel wrong.”
My father nodded and turned to watch my grandmother who still stood in the doorway watching the funeral parlor men driving off. “That’s completely normal. Death is a weird concept for anyone to wrap their head around. Whatever you feel is completely perfect and right. No need to question it.”
Grandmother turned from the doorway, saw us and gave a weak smile before disappearing back into her bedroom until it was time to leave. The family milled around the living room until she emerged, all trying to find the balance between respectful silence and the celebration of a life gone too early. Odd and mundane topics flew between us, replied to shortly and without much further explanation. The only one of us who seemed unfazed was Uncle James who stutter-laughed in random spurts, which helped to diffuse things, if only a little.
The service was a simple one. Quick, to the point, with only grandpa’s few remaining living friends speaking on his behalf. I sat between my parents, both of whom were as uncomfortable as I was on the hardwood pews, and watched older men hobble up to the podium one after the other. Each of them shook, gave wavering smiles, reached far back into their now foggy memories to give recollections of the man who lay silent behind them. When the service ended, two of them plus myself, my father, Uncle Andrew, and a young usher from the church carried the casket down the aisle and out to the hearse.
I had never carried a casket before. It was both heavier and lighter than I expected. My hands were sweaty and didn’t seem to want to hold on to the brass handles. All I could think while marching down the aisle was how tragic it would be if I’d lost my grip and somehow made a disrespectful spectacle of the procession. So of course, I gripped harder and made sure that didn’t happen.
At the cemetery, grandmother was the only one who sat at the graveside, black veil over her face to shield the tears from us and the sun from herself. Uncle Andrew stood on her left, her hand clasped on his upon her shoulder, and Aunt Vivian stood on her right.
It was a warm morning and I began sweating beneath my black suit. Still I had not cried, even with the casket near the hole in the ground. I recognized the finality of the moment and still found myself feeling as if my emotions were wrong, incorrect because they were not pouring forth, because there was no great wave of sadness like one sees in the movies. I knew I wasn’t a heartless person – I loved my grandfather deeply – but I began to question that idea until the recitation above the grave came to a close.
A sound came from near grandmother, a wail so deep and loud, so distraught and so vulnerable, that it could not be ignored by anyone. I looked over and saw my Uncle Andrew’s face crumpled into a vision of such anguish, such heartbreak, that I found myself unable to contain my tears any longer. I had never seen him act in such a way in all my years; always a stalwart man who was slow to anger and quick to laughter. I realized then that it was not death that brought out the deepest part of us, but the pure absence of a man who had been so influential to the directionality, the purpose, of our lives.
I turned away from the grave and tried in vain to let my uncle wail in peace, to let him vocalize whatever he needed to whatever deity might listen. I don’t know why I thought he would find it while surrounded by the rest of us, but it felt proper to give him that moment and let him wallow in his despair. I tried, unsuccessfully, to wipe my eyes dry.
Uncle James, blissfully unaware of the profundity of the moment, seemed enthralled by a flying bug of some sort and wandered away from the grave, mumbling “Paw Paw” beneath his breath. Maybe he knew something we didn’t.