My paternal grandfather died a few days ago. I couldn’t talk about it because his final wish was that no one know until he was in the ground. I knew because my dad was his caretaker…and because of something interesting.
I want to tell you two stories about two very different men. I need to tell these stories. I think…they’re very important.
My mother was adopted. It was a huge secret and no one ever told her who her parents were. My mom’s adoptive parents went to their graves without even mentioning it, but she knew. The blood types didn’t match and there were a few instances of casual remarks from other family members that she noticed. So I’m beginning by explaining to you that my mother’s father was not in any way my blood relative, but he was one of the most important people in my life.
He was soft spoken, never cussed in front of women, and had this almost magical ability to tame animals. He was a mechanic and carpenter so talented that he built a roadster from the ground up from spare parts, and sold it to a collector. He made wooden toys for me, including a giant, rocking biplane. He built the porch on the front of his trailer, and it was so precise and so well made that it will likely outlive the double wide. He always wore a brown hat. He was gentle. He loved peach iced tea and peanut butter. He put it on everything. He taught me how to plant potatoes and watched science fiction films with me every day when i came home from school.
I miss him terribly.
Two months before he died, I found him on the ground in the walkway between our houses. He was calling for help and I finally heard him. I phoned an ambulance and sat with him, gave him water and a blanket. He’d been there for almost two hours. He had tripped going up some stairs and broken his hip. He went into the hospital, where he contracted pneumonia, but even in his 90′s we thought he was spry enough to be fine. I mean, this was a man who fell and bumped his head and had his scalp stapled shut with no anesthetic…in his late 80′s. Then all of a sudden…he was gone.
But let me tell you how it happened.
I was at school, junior high. I was walking across campus during class because I’d been in the office for something. I was on my way to PE. I remember the sun was really bright and I was wondering if they’d make me dress out even though I was late. I was walking up a wheelchair ramp, when all of a sudden I came to a dead halt. It was one of the most stunning sensations I’ve ever felt, because it was absolutely definite, and yet inexplicable. I can only say that it felt like I looked up and saw him standing there, as if he looked at me and smiled, waved at me. I felt the love and recognition of him, as if he was there and I could go running up to him and ask him why he’d come. Except that it was all in my thoughts.
But for a moment, he was there, and the message was clear.
“I love you and I’m gone now.”
I stood there for a moment. I didn’t feel sadness. Just awareness. I looked at the clock. I don’t know why I did.
Thirty minutes later, my name was called over the speaker. I returned to the office. My mother and step father were there. My mom was sitting in a chair and red faced. As I came in she stood up and began to say that he had died. I cut her off and said, “I know. I felt it.”
She stared at me. “What do you mean?”
I told her what I’d felt and the time at which I felt it. She looked at my step father and proceeded to tell me that at that exact moment, she had been in her office, about to leave with my step-dad (they were both teachers at the same school) when she suddenly felt very faint and collapsed into a chair, sure that she needed to call the hospital.
My grandfather was not supposed to die. His death was very sudden, and yet two people, not in any way related to him, felt it.
But this is the story of two men.
My dad’s dad was a cuss. Let me give you an idea. To my understanding, he was a highly trained engineer who designed the rocket propulsion systems used in missiles and other munitions during WWII. He was military. He was harsh, cold, unsympathetic, and abusive to his 13 children. My dad was the eldest, and his namesake. He didn’t catch much of the meanness, and he can’t remember a lot of it because my dad’s own health problems have resulted in some minor brain damage. But I know about it, because my mom and he grew up together, and she saw a lot of it, dealt with the emotional fall out, and even lived with them for a while. When I was born, my grandparents refused to see me. They were convinced my mother had had an affair and “was a whore”. They would not acknowledge me as their grandchild, even though I look like my dad, with some pretty striking similarity. My dad was so furious that he put my mom and me in the car and drove for hours. He parked in front of their house and went to the door, hammering on it and shouting that they had better acknowledge his first child. His dad wouldn’t let him in. He called the police (my dad was a cop), and forced him to explain that he came to his parents house to prove that his daughter was his. This man…never loved me. Never knew me. Hated my mother. And as far as he was concerned, I wasn’t his.
Carl wasn’t the nicest man. Then a while back he had a massive heart attack and quadruple bypass surgery, and was suddenly tolerable. But his kids never got over it. Well, who can blame them? Of the 13, two are cops, one is a nuclear engineer, one died in Vietnam, one was a teacher, one raises dogs, and pretty much all the rest have either been in a mental institution, addicted to something, in the system, obsessively fundamentalist, or miserable. Even the successful ones have two marriages each under their belts. In fact, I don’t think any of them have had successful relationships on the first try.
The man was not nice, but I never hated him. No point. As the years went on, I watched him slowly disintegrate. No need for revenge or hatred. That’s not my style, because people who have been bad…well they have a way of knowing it toward the end. They start to feel fear. Men punish themselves, and that’s fine. I came and chatted with him, introduced my husband to him a bunch of times, because he was blind as a bat and never remembered him. Then a few years ago, my husband and I found a beautiful house that we had been told was taken right out from under us, so we used the money to get a new car (because the old one had been totaled), only to have the landlord return to us and say “Do you still want it?” We no longer had the money. I went to banks, friends, family…it was grandpa who called me back and said he would loan me the money, if I promised to pay him back within a few months. And we did, because I was so stunned he’d offered it that I didn’t want to jinx my karma or something.
As he died, Carl became nicer, then slowly dimmer, then completely lost. At first it was casually civil conversation, then friendly chuckles, help with my deposit, and then all of a sudden he was a billionaire pilot flying recuse missions for refugees, and had no idea who I was.
Then he just died.
But let me tell you how it happened.
I am a world away. Thousands of miles. I was walking up a wheelchair ramp to a restaurant. I was thinking about dinner. I caught sight of some flashing light in a window, and all of a sudden a thought popped into my mind: “It’s about time…it’s finished…you need to call your dad.”
My phone was dead. I put it on my emergency charging pack while I ate, walked back to my hotel, and was about to dial my father, when he called me. I knew. I answered, asking him if he was okay. Something about my voice told him I knew.
“Oh, you’ve talked to your sister?”
“No. I just knew. About an hour ago, right?”
“Yeah, about…well 61 minutes ago.”
“Are you okay?”
“Oh yeah…I’m fine. I’ve been bracing myself for this for months. Remember not to talk about it with anyone, or put it on the internet until he’s in the ground.”
I got a bit teary-eyed. Even though my grandfather was a bastard, he did some good. He was alive. Someone ought to acknowledge that he is gone. Drink some whiskey or something. As I thought that, I sniffled…
And a mirror fell off the wall.
I laughed and said “Yeah, okay…no crying. I got you.”
Two very different men. Two very different roles in my life. One said goodbye. One finally, begrudgingly acknowledged I was his.
I’m an atheist. I cannot conceive of any way that energy can exist in a cohesive state when it flashes off the biological grid, but I do think, that in those last moments, something changes. What senses we have are much bigger than we know, and I think those who are dying become less… precise. They’re floating, and somehow, they can reach out.
I’m grateful for that. I hope when I go, I can reach out.
I’m not in mourning. That’s not how this works for me. I’m alone in a foreign country, missing my daughter terribly and feeling this dull and pervasive sense of “blah”. I don’t know what to do with it. So as usually happens when I am feeling something…
I thought I’d tell a story.