October 08, 2005

Post for a rainy day

RP is under the Chinese curse of living in interesting times, part of which is dealing with the inevitable though hopefully not imminent demise of his beloved grandfather. The question came up about whether it's worse, for those who'll remain, to deal with a sudden death or a long, slow deminishing of the health of those who are passing away. Hard to say -- they both have their positives and negatives. It's hard to watch someone deteriorate to their end, but at least we have a chance to say good-bye.

My maternal grandfather died suddenly when I was 14, and I've been thinking about him on this dreary drizzly day. I wish it would downpour and get it overwith -- I need to walk to the store.

My grandfather was my role model. Growing up without a father around left room for Grampa to do a lot of activities with us kids. Whether it was taking us to the beach or the amusement park, or just going to the airport to watch the planes take off and land and then stop at the A&W Root Beer stand for a root beer and a hot dog, it was always fun to be with him.

He once told me that the clouds make the wind. Huh? Yes. "You see how the clouds are moving through the sky?" "Uh-huh." "They move the air when they pass, that's where wind comes from." Everybody always said I was a bright kid, but I couldn't make sense of this seemingly reversed cause and effect. But, he was Grampa so I believed him.

While driving along some highways that run through steep rocky cliffs we'd occassionally see a sign along the road that read WATCH FOR FALLING ROCK. Grampa explained that Falling Rock was an Indian boy who wandered off one day and got lost. His tribe put up these signs so as to get everyone to keep an eye out for him. I don't remember if I believed that story, but I do remember telling it to my ex- one day as we were driving up to Vermont many years ago -- after which she caught me off-guard.

ME: ....and that's the story of Falling Rock.
HER: Who named him Falling Rock?
ME: His father.
HER: What was his father's name?
ME: [slight pause] Cliff.

I remember when my 3rd grade teacher, Miss Morgan, asked the class to write a short essay about our favorite person. I, of course, wrote about Grampa. She liked it so much that she read it to the class. Out loud. I think I was embarrassed, but maybe that was the day I first thought that I might be able to put two sentences together and make it readable. Still working on that to this day.

Every Sunday was spent at the grandparents' house. After church we headed on over and had lunch. In the summer it always a cook-out. We spent the day there, had a big dinner with various aunts uncles and cousins and great-grandparents, too. Grampa always had a one-liner for whereever the conversation went. Once he walked into the kitchen with a big blonde wig on his bald head and act like everything was normal. And I'll never forget those creepy glasses with the scary eyes painted on the lenses.. **shudder**

Anywho, it was a saturday evening in August of 1977 and Thoroughly Modern Millie was on TV. I'd never heard of it but my mother was excited to watch it. It didn't do much for me, but it had Mary Tyler Moore in it, so it wasn't too excruciating an experience. I sat on one side of the living room, SisterC was across the room on the sofa, my mother was in the "dining room" sitting on her bed.

SisterJ, who was 15 at the time, was in the kitchen on the phone, of course. Then she came over to Mom. "My call was interupted by the operator, she said that there was an emergency call coming in." A few seconds later the phone rang and my mother went back to answer it.

I watched a few more seconds of the movie, then turned to see what was going on. I couldn't hear what they were saying, but SisterJ was in tears, shocked, staring at my mother as if asking if it could possibly be true. Then she ran off to cry in her room; inconsolable.
She, of course, adored him.
After a minute or so my mother walked slowly toward the front living room, put her hands together and bent over slightly to rest on her knees and said -- almost matter-of-factly and with what seemed like a slightly awkward acceptence and inner peace -- "Grampa... just passed away." She turned and walked into the kitchen as SisterC and I just stared at each other for a moment.
I don't remember anything else about that night.

I got the story later. Grampa was sitting on the front porch while Gramma was in the kitchen. My cousin Bri, who was 7 at the time, was spending the day with our grandparents. Bri was in the living room when Grampa walked in through the front door, dropped to one knee and fell flat on the floor. No going peacefully in the night for him; he literally dropped dead in front of Bri.
Gramma came running in from the kitchen and tried to use CPR or something while shouting at Bri to get in the kitchen. Bri was hesitant and Gramma shouted louder "Get in the kitchen!". Bri always called Grampa "Papa" and, of course, adored him.

All I remember about the next day was being in Gramma's kitchen as she kept busy, and my uncle on the phone all afternoon. I can still see him and hear his voice as each call went essentially the same. Understanding that bad news is best delivered straight, he'd say "George? Hi, it's Tom Riley. Bad news, my father had a heart attack and passed away last night." Call after call, all afternoon, as Gramma worked and I sat at the table watching and listening and thinking about how the house seemed so different, as if half of it was torn off by a tornado and where the wall used to be was now the outdoors, wide open and just going about it's own business.

I remember how in the first days and weeks after he died, late at night or in quiet times, I felt like he was there with me. I don't remember how much I doubted that he was, or if I gave it a lot of thought. But I remember shortly afterward when Gramma told me "Sometimes I'm in bed at night and I feel like he's right there with me." I looked at her because I knew exactly what she meant and, maybe concerned that she'd said something creepy, she added "It doesn't scare me; we were close." Perhaps it's hardwired into us to feel the presence of the recently departed loved one. Maybe that's where the idea of afterlife comes from, y'know? Not just a fear of death, but a real sense -- an experience -- that has us believing that the dead aren't quite erased yet.

A blogger recently wrote that the meaning of live is to give life meaning. I think that our lives are most meaningful when we're with those we love; our fellow travelers. And even when the facts of life take away those we've come to know and love we'll always have them with us because they have, by definition, contributed to our own makeup; identity; selves. And often in ways that they, or we, were never aware of.

Posted by Tuning Spork at October 8, 2005 04:22 PM | TrackBack

Thank you for your thoughts, TS. And thank you for sharing your remincences of your grandfather. I found it terribly touching and beautiful. A little late, but I'm sorry for your loss.

Posted by: RP at October 9, 2005 07:08 AM

That was a wonderful story, and tribute to an exceptional man. I'm glad I left it to read for when I had a bit more time.

Posted by: Edith at October 10, 2005 11:41 AM

Thank you, RP & Edith. Your comments give me the warm fuzzies. :)

Posted by: Tuning Spork at October 10, 2005 07:24 PM
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