Almost a week ago, on Labor Day, my grandfather whom I had always affectionately called “Paw Paw” passed away at the age of 90. The following week was a rough ride of emotions and as with all things I felt the need to work through my feelings by putting them down on paper. I don’t write autobiographically much at all, as I tend to stay on the fictional side of things with my writing but I felt like I needed to get this out of me and so here it is. I don’t think it’s anything that could be called enjoyable but it is very much the most honest thing I’ve ever written and so I figured I might as well share it. A peek inside myself that few people ever really get to see.
It’s the little details of things that will stick with me after the longest time. At the funeral the thing that sticks in my mind is the attendant, handing out the leaflets with my grandfather’s obituary to the people who wandered in through the door. It’s a small town, filled with citizens of a certain age and I’m sure he knows a majority of these folks by name. He is an intrusive figure, a rotund ball of a man, similar in shape to a water balloon fit to burst. His pallid face is drenched in sweat and he waddles up and down the hall, shifting from foot to foot like an impatient duck with clubbed feet.
My hand gets lost in his when he shakes it and tells me he is sorry for my loss. His skin is a physical hypocrisy, dry and flaky but damp and clammy. He has psoriasis and bites his nails. He is off-putting to me in a multitude of ways and yet I offer a polite smile before turning away, trying to tune out his presence. My discomfort in the company of death is palpable enough without this repellant figure wedging himself into the situation. I know there are stages to the grieving process. Perhaps this is the anger that I had failed to endure up until this point. I told myself I couldn’t be angry at his passing, because not many of us ever live to see ninety years. Common sense told me that this day was an unyielding eventuality. Still, the human mind processes things the way it wishes and something within my cerebral cortex was telling the rest of my physical self to feel anger about something, God damnit.
My brother is silent beside me. I don’t know what is going on inside his head. He will converse with me when prompted but I do not believe this to be the day to nudge. I have seen him crying. Seen him try to hold them back. Watched as his glasses fog and he takes one tissue to clean them as he dries his eyes with another. We are waiting to be ushered into the parlor. We had been escorted out by the fat man minutes earlier, had boutonnieres pinned to our shirts and been instructed to wait for a signal to enter and be seated. Myself, my brother, and six other men, pallbearers for the man lying in the casket on the other side of the wall. I know the six other men, though I cannot remember their names. One is a cousin, my father’s sister’s son. Another married to the daughter of a different sister to my father. The rest I have seen at family gatherings, Thanksgivings and Christmases past and I feel a twinge of guilt that I do not know them by name and also feel no compulsion to ask. After this day it is unlikely I will ever come face to face with them ever again, my connection to this tiny little rural community severed with the passing of my grandfather. There will be no more Thanksgivings or Christmases together. He was the lynchpin. His den was the gathering area for our extended family, a beacon shining in the night drawing us all together when the time was right. That light is dark now. That dwelling where we shared so many mediocre holiday meals and wonderful memories now dormant, soon to be listed for sale and only tangible in recollections on days gone by.
The funeral director waves us in, the first two pews reserved for the eight of us. I take a seat beside my brother and two of the men whose names fail to materialize in my mind on the very first row, eyes locked on the now-closed vessel containing the remains of my grandfather which surrounded by bouquets of plants and floral arrangements. A wreath of red, white, and blue flowers adorns the top of the casket, perched lovingly on top of that arrangement is the all-too-familiar sight of my grandfather’s Stetson hat. It is everything that my grandfather was in life; vibrant, colorful, and country as can be.
The man I had always called Paw-Paw was a United States Marine and a carpenter by trade. He also raised cattle and other assorted livestock, the inhabitants of his ranch an ever-shifting menagerie of different animals. As far back as I can remember that ranch about an hour and a half away from Austin, situated on a little branch off of County Road 141 was a veritable zoo of rural animal life. I remember him leading me by the hand as a young boy out to the chicken coop and helping me toss feed to the hungry birds. Overly aggressive poultry would squawk and fly in my face and he would laugh as I ran from the fat little feathered bastards. We would ride together in his beat up old Chevy pickup as we traversed the trails that ran the length and breadth of his property, checking on the cattle and making sure they had enough to eat. As I grew older I came to associate Paw-Paw’s ranch with the relaxed southern ideal of freedom, a place where I could lean hard on the throttle of an ATV through the trails in the back of the property, a quiet oasis that stood in stark contrast to the suburban tedium that was my day to day existence.
The service moved with a quickness I have never associated with anything surrounding my grandfather or the sleepy Texas town he had called home for as long as I had known him. Friends and loved ones sat in mourning while country gospel songs filled the hall and a tiny wisp of a preacher spoke of all the things he had come to learn about my grandfather in his conversations with the family in preparation for the service. Some of these things rang true, like a bell struck in a silent room. Others felt divergent from the things I knew of my grandfather, the cracks in his liberty bell. Maybe the diminutive man of God felt he had to fill a certain amount of time, a theory I cannot discount due to the oppressive length of the songs chosen between readings from the gospels and sermons about the solace to be found in the kingdom of heaven.
At the conclusion of the service the fat man opens the doors to the parlor and the doors leading out onto the street. He ushers us outside, four to the right and four to the left of the entryway. The funeral director wheels the casket our way and we lift it from its carriage, delivering it into the back of the waiting hearse with quiet resolution. I turn to find my father standing in the doorway, his eyes wet with tears and his face wrecked with emotion. It is a sight I have seen precious few times in my life. My father has always been a quiet man, who kept his feelings hidden away like a treasure in an old chest, securely bolted and squirreled away in the dark. I turn my eyes to the sky and wrap an arm around him. My mother is crying beside him. I feel the tears sting my cheeks before I am mentally cognizant that I am crying myself.
My brother and I ride together to the cemetery. The cemetery that bears our family name. The place where our great-grandfather is buried. The man whom neither of us had the pleasure of meeting but whose namesake he bears. The woman I love sits beside me in the car, clutching my hand and giving me what comfort she can give. I tell her how much I appreciate her being there. I try to make dumb jokes with her and my brother to deflect from the aches that I feel in my heart. My subconscious compels me to at the very least attempt to distract myself and those in my immediate vicinity from emotional discomfort. I have a recurring dream where I am a prisoner, condemned to die on the gallows. In my dream they march me up the thirteen wooden steps and they loop the rope around my neck. A man wearing a black suit with white gloves asks me if I have any final words and I start making jokes, hoping that I can filibuster my way out of my inevitable fate. Suddenly the face of the white gloved executioner morphs into the visage of an old ex-girlfriend, or a professor who hated every assignment I ever submitted, or in one instance simply a yellow frowning faced emoji. The trap springs and I’m left to twist in the wind, my neck unbroken and my words still choking out, convincing no one.
When we arrive at the cemetery we emerge into the cloying humidity and approach the hearse. The fat man tells us that the ground we are preparing to traverse is somewhat uneven and to take our time and be sure of our footing as we go. In my mind the possibility of stumbling and dropping the casket repeats in my mind in slow motion a thousand times over in the span of a second and suddenly a dry lump rises in my throat and I force myself to swallow it and bury it in the tumultuous sea that is my stomach. We take hold of the casket and guide it to its final resting place, a plot beside my grandfather’s first wife, who died thirty nine years earlier to the day. We stand back and I look to my right to see a cadre of men assembled in formation with rifles at their side; an honor guard of local veterans. I know what is going on, it registers with me but my mind starts thinking of things totally dissociated from what is happening in front of me. I wasn’t expecting this. I should have been, but I wasn’t, and for some reason it hits me hard in the chest like a battering ram and suddenly my sternum is a splintered door.
The thin wisp of a preacher again reads from the gospels, I don’t hear any of it. I’m suddenly in a vacuum, the sound sucked out of the air violently leaving only a vague sensation of moist detachment; the physical manifestation of a dull shade of gray.
The sound of the gunshots bring me back to the real world.
Seven men fire three shots. Twenty one shells hit the ground. A lone bugler plays taps as my family weeps behind me. The fat man unpins my boutonniere and ushers me towards the grave. I place the small white flower among the others draped atop the casket. I stand back and watch as one of the honor guard hands a folded American flag to my uncle, the oldest of my father’s brothers. He nods in acceptance and stands in quiet resolution. He is putting on a brave face. He lost a daughter only last year. He is all too familiar with the feeling of grief and sorrow. I allow myself some tears for his sake, and my own too. The service is over, but the grieving is not.
The grieving is still not over. As I type these words I still grieve. Because grief is not a simple thing. Grief is complex and confusing. Grief is a bastard who slides a knife between your ribs in the night when you least expect it. Above all, whatever else it may be, grief is necessary.