Thursday, March 17, 2011

"Don't Stand at my Grave and weep...I am not there..."

Six years ago, today March 17th, in an old cemetery, my grandpa, or "poppy" as we called him, shot himself in the head.

This is what I wrote in the days following. It was definitely a form of therapy for me. I read it about once a year, usually on the anniversary of his death. As sort of a tribute maybe? I'm not sure, but here it is in all it's raw glory. It's very long, so feel free to skip over it...I'm not going to claim it's well written, it was composed quickly and passionately, and that's how I've left it. I feel like fixing it or editing it somehow takes away the emotion.

The shrill ring of the phone rudely jarred her from her sleep. She turned over to glance at the clock, it was before six am. A subtle wave of panic washed over her. It was too early, it was Sunday. Whoever it was wasn’t calling just to say hello. Maybe it’s a wrong number, she thought and rolled over to answer. She was a second too slow and the call skipped to the machine. No message, just a dial tone. Relieved, she laid back down. The bed was too warm and comfortable. The baby was still asleep. Immediately after, her husband’s cell phone rang. Suddenly, her heart was in her throat. She knew it was going to be bad. With shaking hands, she took the phone from her husband. It was her mom and she sounded so distant, so mechanic. Then her mother started crying. Through her mother’s tears, she managed to painfully pull the words from the receiver and piece together the story. Her grandpa, her mom’s father, Poppy, had shot himself. Is he ok, she asked? Visions of the thin, old man in the hospital, white sheets, a mass of tubes and wires...but no, there would be no hospital stay. Because he had shot himself. In the head. And he was dead. He was 83 years old, but he didn’t die naturally and peacefully in his bed while he slept. He drove his 1964 ½ Mustang, the one that he bought off the show room floor, brand new and shiny, out to an old graveyard and put the gun to his head. And he pulled the trigger.

Her husband, knowing something was wrong from her end of the conversation, had propped himself up on his elbow and as soon as she put the phone down, asked what was wrong. On the phone, she felt calm and in control. Strong. Stable. But now, now, she found that each time her mouth opened to tell him what happened, tears threatened to assail each syllable and she couldn’t seem to make the words make sense. To her ears, it sounded like gibberish. Not sure if he followed a thing she said, she got out of bed and went into the bathroom. She turned the shower on and as soon as the water began to beat against the porcelain tiles, her tears assaulted her with an uncontrollable insistence. She cried for the old man who was in so much pain, that a bullet, he thought, would be the better alternative to another day. She cried at the thought of his desolation, his loneliness, his anguish. She cried for his daughters. And she kept crying. For herself. Wishing she had known him better. Wishing she had been better at keeping in touch with him. Wishing her son had the chance to meet him. Later, she learned that in his wallet they found a tiny scrap of paper with her son’s name, date and time of birth scribbled onto it. And she cried again.

There was a Minnesotan snow storm and his body wasn’t found until the weekend. Did his spirit soar through the air, free at last from the aches and pains of old age, free from the addicting effects of alcohol? She wondered. Free at last, did he swoop down to peer through the blood smeared car window, to look at the ruined shell that once housed him? Or did he immediately see that blinding, white light where he was at once reunited with his mother, his sister, his father? She envisioned him young and spry and handsome, the way he looked in all the black and white pictures she had seen, proudly wearing his military uniform. Never too serious, the fun young man with a goofy expression, posing humourously. Always a smile. She saw him happy and carefree, like he did in his wedding pictures, his arms around his beautiful new bride. 

She tried not to envision the last few moments of his life, but she couldn’t help but replay it over and over again in her mind, like a movie reel. The gun, the blood. She wondered if he had felt anything. She prayed he had not. She wondered what he thought about those last few seconds. If he changed his mind, after the trigger was pulled. She hoped he never faltered, that he never had a doubt. It would be a horrible thing, she thought, to have last minute qualms about the decision to take your life. 
The next morning dawned, tinged with a heavy fog of disbelief. In silence, she secured her son into the car seat in her parents diesel truck and climbed in beside him, wedging herself in between the seat and a stack of luggage. Her parents were riding up front and they pulled out onto the highway, beginning the 15 hour trip to Minnesota to arrange a funeral and pick up her grandpa’s things.

The scenery outside the window slowly changed from the familiar Colorado landscape to snow flecked plains and endless farmland, spotted with the occasional antelope and coyote. As the miles were dully kicked out behind the truck’s wheels, she grew very thankful that her son’s attention was intent on the lap top computer that continuously played Sesame Street DVD’s. Constantly perched on the edge of tears, she knew she wasn’t going to be able to continue feigning the calm and collected act if the baby grew restless and started crying. She felt like she had to be the strong one, the stable one. The one her mom could rely on. She didn’t want to dissolve into a useless, weeping heap.

The continuous jostling of the rough riding backseat, combined with the slight diesel fumes that invaded the interior induced her old childhood nemesis, car sickness. She popped a couple of pills made for that purpose and thankfully, they quelled the sickness. They also made her extremely tired. When her son fell asleep, despite the seatbelt digging in her ribs and the cold glass window against her head, she was able to fall asleep as well. When she woke up, she had a kink in her neck and it had grown dark. Even in the truck, she could feel the drop in temperature. They were finally in Minnesota.

They reunited with more family once they reached the hotel. Her brother, her aunt and uncle, cousins and her grandma, even her grandpa’s ex-wife. For them, according to her grandma, it had been a very difficult 40 years of marriage and a very bitter divorce. She wondered why her grandma had come at all. Perhaps, she thought, the relationship hadn’t been as cold as she’d been lead to believe. When people are hurting, she knew, they tend to say things they don’t mean. Maybe that had been the case. That thought was one step closer to being confirmed when she saw that her grandma’s normally immaculate make up was smudged and tear streaked. Her grandma had grown up in Welcome, the small Minnesotan town where they had found her grandpa’s body. The graveyard in which the car had been parked was the same one that held the graves of her grandma’s parents. It was were her grandparents had grown up together, threw crab apples at each other, courted, fell in love, got married and had two daughters. It was the setting of all those black and white pictures she had, the ones of the young, happy couple. The handsome soldier in his uniform, the glowing bride in her impeccable white suit, the artfully crafted waves in her hair. With a jolt, she realized that she was older right now, than they were in those pictures. They were just kids. Now her grandpa was dead and her grandma was left with memories, even the happy ones clouded with bitterness. It was terrifying, she thought, to fathom the passion with which one could convince themselves that their lives had been nothing but a succession of terribly unhappy events. Is that possible, she wondered, to live every second of a 40 year marriage in misery? Even in the beginning? The wedding pictures, they seemed so sincere. Were they unhappy from the start? If she was going to learn anything from this, she concluded, it was how a good man’s fight with alcohol and the many poor choices he made along the way taint every single positive thing he’d ever done. Even after death, for her grandma, the bad decisions he made continue to cancel out every good and kind thing he ever did. Her mom and her aunt seemed to remember only the good things, her grandma remembered only the bad. She loved both her grandpa and her grandma, but it was difficult for her to understand how deep her grandma’s bitterness seemed to run. She tried to withhold judgement, knowing that from her perspective of "outside looking in" she’’d never understand it. She wasn’t there, she hadn’t lived it. She hoped she would never have that particular insight.

Her and her son retreated to the dingy hotel room they would be sharing with her mom and her grandma. Her parents and her aunt and uncle had gone to the house her grandpa had lived in, with a very wealthy old woman whom he had known since his school days. She was hunchbacked old woman who dyed her sparse hair bright red and drank beer with her breakfast, her grandmother told her as she joined them in the hotel room. That woman was always ugly, her grandma said. And she had her eyes on your grandfather from day one. That woman couldn’t wait until we got divorced. And he rushed right to her, didn’t he? Her grandma laid on the bed, suddenly turning the tv on, pushing the volume to the max. The blaring tv limited any further conversation, but she personally thought that her grandpa’s relocation had more to do with the opportunity for food and cheap shelter, rather than any long hidden desire, but she let it go.

Her brother and her three cousins had immediately converged at the hotel bar to drink. To her, it seemed like a flagrant and disrespectful way to deal with her grandpa’s death, in light of the way he lived his life and of the way he died. She was disgusted with them. And she wished with every ounce of her being that she could join them. But she had a baby, responsibilities. She was slightly heartened, because picking your responsibilities over a shot of tequila, didn’t that mean that she wasn’t an alcoholic? Wouldn’t an alcoholic leave the baby in the room and go to the bar anyway? Or take the baby to the bar with her? That was almost as bad, she thought. Reassured, she decided to take her son to the indoor pool instead.

That’s where her parents found them an hour later. Her son was splashing happily in the kiddie pool and she had actually laughed nonstop since they got in the water. She kissed her son on the forehead. There is nothing like the innocent antics of a toddler to make you smile, she thought. She whispered a quick request to the sky, please let the bad genes in this family skip over him. Please. Please let his life be untroubled. Let his mind be peaceful. Give him his father’s sturdy sense, not her own self-indulgent, melancholy dreaminess.

She heaved her exhausted son from the water and wrapped him tight in a towel. He was asleep before she could pull a up a chair. Her parents joined her. The trip to the house to collect her grandpa’s meager possessions, they said, did not go as planned. The old woman had been drunk and hurled curses at them, physically shoving and pushing and refusing to let them in the house. The woman accused her mom and aunt of killing their father, because they knew he had a drinking problem and did nothing about it. Her heart ached for her mom, she knew how deep that accusation would have cut. She knew how guilty her mom already felt.
In the years prior, her grandpa had been in numerous rehabs and although it’s a great concept, she thought, they don’t work unless the patient is willing. And she knew that when they are brought in under the power of a wheel chair because they are too weak to stand and walk out, well, that then there’s even less of a chance of recovery. She clearly remembered that particular attempt at sobriety. They visited him once and she could recall the little cell that had become his temporary home. A bed. A lamp. On his small well-worn dresser lay her most current school picture, taken her freshman year. In the picture, she was wearing her favorite red rayon shirt. She had been trying out religion that year and a small Marcasite cross hung around her neck. Her grandpa had seen her looking at it and weakly told her one of the male nurses had seen it and remarked on the pretty girl in the picture. I told him the pretty girl is my granddaughter, he had said proudly. She remembered standing there, not knowing how to respond. Her mom had prodded her to say thank you. Thanks, she had mumbled awkwardly. Her grandpa had just smiled at her. Because of those few moments, every little inconsequential detail of that school picture remained etched in her memory. She had stood there and focused on that picture, studying the wrinkles in the shirt, the too long bangs that were falling into her eyes, the crooked collar. It gave her something to examine without ever having to lift her eyes to the old withered man in the wheel chair. Normally a tall, already thin man, alcohol had reduced him to flesh covered skeleton, so weak he could barely hold himself up. It hurt her to look at him, to see him reduced to a husk.

That was the last time she had visited him in one of those places.

In the few weeks prior to his death, her grandpa had disappeared for several days. Her mom had received a call from the old woman demanding that someone come and find him and take him back to Colorado, because she couldn’t handle the drinking anymore. Unfortunately, his disappearing really wasn’t that uncommon and he’d usually return in a couple of days. Somehow sensing that maybe it was time to move him closer to his family, her mom had found him an apartment and tentative plans were made to make the trip to pick him up. And now, just like they’d planned, they had made that trip. But he wasn’t going to be coming back with them.

The funeral was held the next morning. Before the service, she was given a stack of photos and was asked to arrange them on the large boards provided. With a shaky hand, she placed each picture on the board, each picture a slice of her grandpa’s life. In one, he was just a boy holding a gun, standing proudly beside his father and the deer he had killed. In another, he sat on a pier overlooking a local lake, a cap shading his eyes. There was his senior picture, his wedding picture, pictures of him in his military uniform, pictures of him during family gatherings. There was a picture of him taken the very last time she had seen him. It had been taken at her wedding, and he was decked out in his best suit, grinning at the camera. She wished she had spent more time with him then. She wished she could have said good bye.

As the funeral home slowly filled with strangers and she started overhearing scraps of conversations, she wondered why people who attended a funeral always pretended to be so happy and jovial. Wasn’t it ok to be sad? Why make such an effort to be so merry? She was sad, she couldn’t help it and it was exhausting, smiling and shaking hand after hand, meeting cheerful person after person. But really, she was touched by all the people who kept filtering through the door, dressed in their Sunday best. The elderly men who had been her grandpa’s friends gracefully shook her hand and offered quiet words of comfort, their wives all carefully dressed and made up, offering their own words of condolence. There were friends and there were twice removed cousins, great aunts and uncles, family that she had never met. Her grandpa’s family. The people he grew up with, the people he loved. The people who loved him and would miss him terribly. People who knew him better than she ever had. They were full of humourous stories about her grandpa’s life that always started animatedly and then ended with quiet, awkward pauses. No one mentioned the way he had died.

The actual service was a blur to her. She didn’t cry. Every word the pastor spoke seemed to disintegrate in the air long before it reached her chair. She stared hard at him, trying to make his speech make sense, but found she couldn’t concentrate. Her eyes started wandering to the expressions on the faces of the people around her, but watching their grief quickly made her feel like she was observing something she had no right to see. She hurriedly looked away. She sat beside her brother in the row behind their parents, aunt and uncle and she was thankful to be sitting where she couldn’t see her mom’s face. Her brother held her sleeping son and she clenched tightly to her brother’s free hand and studied the legs of the chair in front of her. The service ended outside with the twenty one gun salute, the simultaneous shots making her jump. Her son slept blithely through it. People quickly dispersed and a large majority of them converged at a small café, where her grandpa had his coffee every morning. His cup hung on the wall. With extreme reverence, the café’s owner removed it from the wall and presented it to her mom. That small gesture was so personal, so final, it hit her harder than the entire service had.. She went outside and stood on the vacant street so no on could see her cry.

Standing on the snowy sidewalk, her tears cold on her cheeks, she found her mind wandering to the book she had so carefully picked out for her grandpa that past Christmas. It was about a downed war plane and the survivors of the crash. As soon as she saw it, she knew it was exactly the kind of book he would enjoy. She wondered if he had ever had the chance to finish it. When you’ve decided to die, do you even bother finishing the book you were reading? Do you really care what happens in the end? She decided that her grandpa would have finished it. Like her, he had a passion for books and she didn’t think he would let one go unread. When her grandparent’s were still married, her grandpa’s bookshelves lined the walls in their basement. She remembered just sitting there, in awe, looking at all of the books. The shelves were populated with Zane Grey, Steinbeck, Hemingway as well as hundreds of authors she had never heard of. Some were so old, bits of cloth would come off in her hands if she handled them. Some had elaborate gold curlicues along the spines, some clothed in crumbling dust jackets. One was affectionately inscribed to her grandpa from his long dead mother, others were stamped from libraries and schools. There were also new ones, but it was the older ones that she was drawn to. All those stories were told before she was ever born and she was eager to read every one of them. When he grandparents had divorced and he had moved to Minnesota, he entrusted all those incredible books into her care. It had been so overwhelming at the time, to realize that she now was the owner of all those little bits of history. And she had intended to read everyone of them. But life, like it has a tendency of doing, got in the way and she actually read very few of them and the books remained boxed and stored away. Standing there in front of the café, thinking of all those books, growing musty in their boxes, she felt like she had somehow failed her grandpa. She made a vow that as soon as she got home, she would buy as many bookcases as it took to get all those books out and display them with the dignity that they deserved.

That afternoon, she crunched through the snow and stood in the freezing wind along the banks of the lake her grandpa had always fished at. She huddled with her family and silently cried as she watched her mom and aunt pour her grandpa’s ashes out of a plastic bag into the frigid waters. The water clouded and as the ashes swirled around the rocks, they slowly dispersed, leaving the water clear once again. She wondered if he stood unseen among them, watching his earthly remains twist in the water and slowly disappear. Maybe he stood beside his daughters, who held each other and cried, his arms tightly around both of them. Maybe he was already gone.

Before they left Minnesota, her mom and aunt had managed to retrieve his things from the old woman, who would herself die several months later. But for her, there would be no mourning family. Just an auction that sold all her belongings to the highest bidder and quiet talk around town about how she had died choking on her beer.

The Mustang, her grandpa’s prized possession, was sold to a local man. As important as the car had been to him, one gunshot managed to turn it into a crypt. It would forever echo with terrible images and painful memories. No one in the family wanted to keep it.

That left one piece of unfinished business. On their way out of Minnesota, her dad pulled the truck off of the freeway and onto a bumpy road that led to a small, unattended lake. Tall cattails swayed in the wind, dipping into the water. Her dad got out of the truck and walked to the bank, a small gun dangling from his hand. She tried not to look at it, but suddenly it seemed huge, monstrous and it was all she could see. It made her feel faint. Her grandma who was sitting in the front seat, saw it. Is that what he used? Her grandma asked. It’s just a small gun. I would’ve kept that.

Her grandma never failed to surprise her, but those few words paralyzed her with shock. She had no idea how to respond to such a callous remark. Then, quietly, her grandma spoke. No, she said. Forget I said that. I wouldn’t want to keep it."

She put her hand on her grandma’s shoulder, her grandma reached up and squeezed it tightly.

Her dad threw the gun into the lake. As soon as the water closed around it she pictured her grandpa. But it wasn’t the same terrible image that kept replaying in her mind the last few days. It was her grandpa healthy and well, stretched out on a sofa reading a well thumbed Louis L’Amour book.

And he was smiling.


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