Thursday, January 09, 2014

What a family does. {Part Three.}

Read Part One here. 
Read Part Two here.

It is Wednesday. I've been back in Charlotte for two days, following my weekend in Atlanta to visit my grandfather in hospice.

In day-to-day life, when my brain is overly occupied with e-mail and checklists, it's strange and almost surreal to think of him fading, failing, uncommonly silent except for his wheezing breaths.

Even though I saw it. Even though I held his hand and kissed his head.

Truth be told, the last weeks feel almost like a road trip gone horribly wrong, Advent in reverse, a draining dream - and when I wake up, it will be Thanksgiving Day again, the sun will shine through the windows onto my grandfather as he eats and laughs at the table. We will do the weekend over, we will sing in church together, no ambulances or IVs, nothing will go wrong.

Last night, I drove down the street where balls of colored lights float high in the trees, bright in the cold dark. At the stop sign I pressed the brake and whispered his name, crushed my eyes closed with tears, kept going.

Something is changing, Christmas is changing, life is changing.

This morning I sit on the edge of my bed and yawn, only beginning to get up, dragging myself to get through another day, only three days until I go home again, go back to holding his hand.

And then the phone buzzes on my dresser.

I know but I don't.

My father's name is flashing, waiting.

I know but I don't.

I answer and his voice, muffled and thick, speaks it into the air. "The chaplain just called. He died this morning."

I know but I don't.

My body feels light and my heart is fluttering fast and my eyes blink a lot and this is what my life is in its first moments without my grandfather on the earth.


I get dressed because. I eat food because. I go to work because.

There's nothing else I can do?

More than 200 miles away, my family gathers in my grandfather's room with his body, lungs no longer wheezing, hand no longer squeezing. To get there in time, I would have had to start driving before he even died. I would have had to know, somehow.

And still, I know but I don't.


We make dinner tonight, my love and I, chicken pot pie, one of our favorites. There is muscle memory in our movements, counter to oven to fridge to sink, comfort in crust, cream, carrots.

In the middle of the recipe, I stop. Put my arms around him. He tucks his chin into my neck.

Holding on.


It is Friday.

We drive home in the middle of the day and arrive just in time to drive to the funeral home. The visitation is full for three whole hours, people milling, talking, even laughing, while my grandfather's coffin lies open at one end of the room. An American flag is draped neatly over the bottom half of the coffin. Soft spotlights shine on his calm face.

His face, my grandfather's face, Pop Pop's face, like a wax statue, a replica, himself yet not at all. Wearing a nice dark suit and red tie like he might be heading to church. But no joke in his eyes, no crinkles in his mouth. Still and silent, while friends stand before him, pay their respects, tell old stories, joke on his behalf, embrace each other, embrace his family.

It is a gathering that he would have reveled in, shaking hands, chatting merrily, exclaiming over the din. It contradicts my life's logic to see his body lie still in the midst of the buzz of so many friends. Can't he hear us?

And so I begin to begin to realize, to understand, to know.


The crowd drips away. Soon it is only the lone echoes of us, his 23 survivors. Missing his voice.

One of my cousins lingers by the coffin. She'll turn 13 tomorrow, the day of the funeral. She touches his hand, feels his cold skin. Her eyes well, and I go to hug her.

My brother's girlfriend joins us. She's a nursing student. Between classes and clinicals, she's spent the last weeks alongside us in the hospital rooms, helping the nurses, visiting, hoping. Family. She puts her arm around my cousin's shoulders.

Suddenly my grandmother is here. I feel her body warmth next to me as she stares down at his face. 63 years together. Tonight she has been solid, even smiling, greeting friends she has known for decades. Now, in the silence, she streams tears. "I can't believe it." 

We envelope her, and my heart cracks open.


Saturday. Winter solstice. The shortest day of the year.

It is gray and strangely balmy as my brother and five cousins surround the back of the hearse just after 9:30. Under a small canopy, my grandmother sits in the middle of the front row, flanked by four sons, one daughter. The rest of us crowd around them, with a great number of friends who have made their way down the sloping wet hill towards the grave site.

My grandfather's grandsons take careful hold of his casket and lift. They are 14, 17, 18, 24, 31, and 39 years old. Men now, in this moment stoic-faced. And yet I can't help but see them as the children they were, messy-haired boys with big grins who, running around the backyard, could never picture a day like this. A day when they would have to steady a coffin and walk.

The boys our grandfather once carried now carry him to rest.

We all hold one breath.


We have always been good at gatherings, this large and loud family of mine, but for so many to come from scattered cities on such short notice the Saturday before Christmas nearly knocks me down. 

There are close to 60 of us. We get bottlenecked in the church narthex right before we process into the sanctuary. 

My grandmother has been going to this church for more than seven decades. She watched her father speak from this pulpit. She waited in this space on her wedding day. And now she waits again. We wait with her. 

I hear the congregation rise before I see them, clothes rustling, feet tapping, hands shifting in and out of pockets. Their standing is our signal, and so we begin to walk.

People are packed into every row, so many faces, he was loved, he was loved. At the reception, there will be countless more, embraces and laughter, tears, shrieks of joy. My cousin from Boston, my maid of honor, my dad's best man, my childhood friend who changed her flight to come. Right now I can't see them, can't make out one from the other, but the energy streams through, the room is full of light. 

We inch our way down the aisle, I am covered on all sides, part of this being, one heart, a family, how can we be one and yet so many all at once? The air is strung through with communion. We are rooted in each other, rooted in him, rooted through time and space, sorrow and grace. 

He was loved, he was loved. We are loved. He is loved.

Rich, red Christmas poinsettias spill over the altar.


Hours after the memorial and reception, after visiting and saying "Goodbye," or "See you tomorrow," and changing into comfortable clothes, my immediate family finds ourselves at our friends' annual caroling party, full of people, food, laughter, song. Ever year, I relish pulling my chair close to my grandfather's so I can hear his low bass jauntily following the notes. It feels as if he is just out of my line of sight, perhaps at the table of snacks and desserts, or slipping into the den to check the football score, as he is apt to do. But I only have to feel the aches in my feet, head, heart, to remember reality.

It is odd to sing Christmas songs, to feel that sparkling mystery come out of my mouth when death and starkness have stood so near. It is so good to gather with friends who have known us for years, most of whom came today and put their arms, voices, hearts around us. They stop between carols to tell stories of my grandfather, to toast him. We raise his name together, "To Frank!" My eyes drift to the corner of the room where he should be.

I perch on an ottoman next to my friend who booked an earlier flight to come to the funeral. She and I grew up together, built our stories, sang our songs, moved to different cities and always make sure to come home. The day her father died - we were 17 - I tore into her kitchen, held her with all I had. She knows more than a fraction of what this day and week have been like. We sing together, her hand on my shoulder.

What joy to know, when life is past,
The Lord we love is first and last,
The end and the beginning.

The words froth and rise in my throat, salty tears finding their way out. Christmas lights blur, babies coo on the couch, a dog rolls over. Voices blend, they come from us and yet they don't, we let them go and they make their own way. Harmonies find life above our heads, drifting past the cold glass window, into the dark night and the world.

He will one day, oh, glorious grace,
Transport us to that happy place
Beyond all tears and sinning.
Amen! Amen!
Come, Lord Jesus, crown of gladness!
We are yearning for the day of Your returning!

Somehow, he is here.

For the rest of my life, I will know but I won't.  

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