A public elegy
An email from my mother early this morning (GMT)/late last night (central time): my grandfather died. A multiplicity of reactions:
The first, to do unthinkingly what I had to do this morning. A strange blurring of time and place and lives. The first thing I had to do was go to the hospital this morning, but for my own unresolved (and seemingly unresolvable; I mystify my doctors; I will have to go for more tests) medical issues. I ducked soundlessly out of the dark hushed flat, already running (literally) late for my appointment, roommates still sleeping, even Jess's cough quiet finally, and into the purgatorial fluorescent hall, elevator, finally plunging out the back door of the building into the cool grey day, still quiet and surprisingly clean for Brighton - perhaps there was rain last night, rinsing the car exhaust and bar fumes from the streets? I hurried out the gate, where I ran past Ray, the insufferable day porter (a bit of background: the man comes to our flat to shout at me [last, when our tap was dripping and I was concerned for the waste of water] & threatens that he'll have no more maintenance complaints from our flat; confrontations with him have triggered seizures in me, and so generally I avoid what I consider a presence noxious to my general well-being, though sometimes the inevitable encounter, such as this morning...) - he makes some comment on the morning, I don't even understand what, I nod my head as a response, hardly looking, and keep my stride. He shouts something at me, something rude and uncalled for, I can tell by his voice, though I still cannot process language yet... I turn and shout at him: "My grandfather died this morning!" I shock myself, there on the street, blurting it out - shouting it - to Ray - how funny, after everything, that Ray, intolerable Ray, is the first person I should tell. And funnier still: when I look, I find sympathy in his face. I've lost use of my language again; I put on my big dark glasses (indispensable for every doctor's appt, to the point where I pack them the night before) despite the clouds & run off for the bus. By this point I have a near-silent Rasheed on the phone; I've told him the news; I get nearer the bus stop: it's closed for construction. Having no idea where the next closest stop was and knowing I'd never make it to the hospital in time if I walked, feeling so pressed for time, and feeling, somehow, too, the press of mortality, I ran to the nearest cab corral & threw myself in the backseat of the first in line. At least it was quiet here; I could hear Rasheed on the phone now, at least his silence, and I felt for just a moment that he could help somehow, if I could tell him what I needed; I filled him in on the details, but when I had run out of them, and we lapsed into silence, I realized, looking at the brown and grey brick buildings go by outside, the futility of it - and so I arrived at the hospital to meet one of my doctors, and there found a waiting room full of old men, dying men, men in wheelchairs and men who slouched skeletal in cramped waiting room chairs pushing their dentures in and out of slack gums, and one old man who had come along with his middle-aged daughter & waited for her when she was called in to the office (he stood when she stood; "Are you fine waiting here, Dad?" she asked, and he sat) - and none of them were him - it was as if I had rushed to the hospital to be with him before he died, and I was too late - then, suddenly, I had no idea what I needed, if anything at all.
I was directed to another waiting room, where two old men were the only other occupants. They sat together - friends? They joked like they were, but maybe it was a generalized brotherhood amongst old men; maybe there is a universal language amongst old men who find themselves in hospitals (whereas we young people keep quiet as to cover ourselves from the curious, pitying stares of the old). I took out my book, but began to think instead. The nurse called me; I didn't understand my name; she called again. When I went to her, the men smiled kindly at me. I gave her the information she needed, sat back down, put my book away, and let myself think instead...
He is not the first I have lost since being here. It's so surreal a loss, the loss you will never know because you were not physically there to experience it. In a way, it is no loss at all. Mr G, Steve, Cookie (though she was a dog, she counted as human, at least counted herself as such), and now Pop - they all are both doubly lost (because even the losing has eluded me) and not lost at all to me - there is no closure. Pop will be the first for whom I write a "public" elegy. So, too, will we here give him our own service - a service on the sea, because he served in the Navy during the Second World War.
But it is important to avoid sentimentality. Pop and I had by no means an ideal grandparent-grandchild relationship. We saw eye-to-eye on very little, if on anything at all aside from our mutual love for my mother's Christmas sticky buns. There was his sexism; there was his racism. There was his joke about the old telephone he had picked up in a ruined Japan during the war which now sits on my father's bar; pointing to the Japanese characters on its face, he asked: "You think it says Jap-bell?" A joke my father has appropriated as his own. There was the day my mother had to physically drag me from the room after I had disagreed with him about something: it was not my place to argue with him, she chastised me; besides, she continued, he was old and too set in his ways for me to change him.
But, as he aged further & I matured, our relationship - or at least my feeling for him - softened. He softened, even so much so that I felt safe introducing Rasheed to him. I began to spend a few hours beside my grandmother on their couch before each "leaving" (whether to Champaign or Savoy or London or Brighton-via-London) going through old photographs. But more, I began to identify somewhat with him. My grandfather was one of those tough old bastards who just don't die. Though understanding it as inevitable, I think I never quite believed he would. After surviving heart attacks and heart surgeries (yes, that's plural), he kept on. In his 70s, he took up roller-skating. In his 80s, he was still driving. After my own surgery, I began to understand what this meant in a way that I couldn't as a child, when his surgeries actually happened (though his scars running purple and snakelike down his white chest chilled me as a child when we all went swimming in Sunday Lake; I suddenly recall him standing waist-deep in water, putting the pier together at the beginning of one summer). Against all bodily probability, he continued to live. And not only live, but do. He continued, after his surgeries, for many years, to take trips up to Sunday Lake with the family, where he fished & sometimes swam (and largely, sat in the sun or at the campfire, ate, drank, & generally enjoyed life). Mortality, be damned!
I recall my last meal with him. Beef-a-Roo (for all of the Illinois natives) at the last house he and my grandmother lived in together before she moved to her own apartment and he was put in a home as she was unable to take the care of him that he needed. He had onion rings, and tempted me to eat them with him; I ate the fruit salad my grandmother & I made together. (Mortality, be damned, up until the last!) We ate off paper plates. I teased him ("Have you been behaving?" "You know I'll hear about it if you're up to your tricks!") - as so many old men like to be reminded of their scruffy boyish glory days, making him smile and laugh his worn-out laugh. I told him about my plans for England, shouting, so that he could hear me, but I don't think he paid too much attention. I wondered where his mind was: maybe revisiting his own trip to England (one of a few, I think), decades ago? He had come on business, with my grandmother (the trip that gave her all her ammunition to protest very vehemently against my coming; better to stay at home, get married, and have children) - they had driven "on the wrong side of the road" with one of Pop's work friends who "drove way too fast!" and who had in a restaurant ordered my grandmother a "just terrible" dessert, "thinking he was giving her a real treat" - said she. I wondered what Pop remembered - I realize now I'll never know. I wonder what streets he wandered here; what pubs he drank in with his work buddies (because I know he would have). But, leaving that day - I stood on the step, in the doorway, to look back one last time - he was unable to stand up from the table, and I looked back into the room, into his face, and into his eyes which were suddenly a bright, clear, blue - the bluest I had ever seen them, as if a light beamed through them; it lit his entire face which was suddenly smiling ever so slightly, childlike, but knowing. And standing there on the step, looking back into his eyes for what must have been only a few seconds but felt like long minutes, I knew then that it was the last time I would see him.
Though there are so many other things (his 50th wedding anniversary; summers at the house on Belvidere; the war; the painting) - I will end here for now. There will always be more to be said, and somewhere, another elegy by the sea, a novel, I will say it.