Note: I wrote this a few days ago.
On my desk, I have a photograph of my grandfather when he was young and stationed in Japan. He’s in his marines uniform somewhere on the U.S. base crouching on a grassy area next to a sign that says “keep off the grass.” He is handsome and smiling and feeling very proud of himself for breaking the rules. That was my grandpa.
My stepdad, Brian, just called. His voice quivered when he said, “I have some bad news.” I braced myself. The last time someone called me crying with “bad news” my brother had died unexpectedly. My first thought was that something happened to my mom. She smokes like a chimney, drinks every night, eats food that is so processed it practically glows (I mean, yeah, it’s delicious but also toxic). I worry that she’s going to have a heart attack or that her canned cheese will finally become sentient and drowned her in a vat of synthetic dairy. Thankfully my mom is okay. But unfortunately, my grandpa is not. He died a few hours ago at the veteran’s hospital nearby.
I don’t emote normally (which is another story or probably a whole book) so when Brian gave me the terrible news I paused for many awkward moments of silence and then said “that sucks.” Because it does suck but also because I didn’t know what else to say. My heart filled with all of the big heavy feelings I couldn’t put into words and weighted me down in grief. My body is heavier as I lay here in the dark thinking about him. He was my last living grandparent and I haven’t seen him since July because of the Coronavirus.
I’ve been told that they’re not completely sure what caused his death. He tested positive for Covid-19 a few months ago but was asymptomatic until one day recently he started experiencing weird symptoms. They think he died from complications due to the virus.
He was not a typical grandpa. He rarely called me on my birthday. He didn’t come to my wedding. And he had the worst sense of humor. For example, after heart surgery a few years ago, I sat next to his hospital bed looking concerned, and in an attempt to make light of the situation he said, “don’t worry, they’re taking good care of me here. They even gave me some viagra to stop me from rolling out of bed.” I crinkled my nose and shook my head at him disapprovingly and he chuckled.
He didn’t bounce me on his knee as a little girl and take me on adventures. He taught me about plants and dared me to touch a bee when I was five for ten bucks. Which I did, to his horror, and got stung. But all through college we had coffee together in the mornings every other day. He’d tell me about growing up in the “old days,” being a marine “back when they were allowed to beat you to death” and the Japanese girlfriend he had while abroad who was beautiful and lived in a house with her parents with rice paper walls. Every few months he’d drive thirty minutes south to Salt Lake and take me to a vegetarian Chinese restaurant because I was young and in college and poor. He was always happy to see me when I showed up unannounced which was randomly and sometimes regularly and other years sometimes sporadically. He had a rough exterior like most men from that time but he rescued every stray cat in a ten-block radius. He would light up when he talked about them, adding, “little bastards,” in an attempt to strip some of the vulnerability from his enthusiasm.
Grandparents anchor a family. I was listening to The Moth the other day and one storyteller quoted a tribe elder and said “you exist because your grandfather existed” and I thought that was so beautiful. (I will find the episode and put it here). They are supposed to be the wisdom that guides and tempers and loves. So I’ve heard. But regardless, they existed, and so we exist. Or, to provide some honest levity, they had issues and so now we have issues.
He wasn’t a t.v. Grandpa (nobody from my family is soft around the edges and typical) but I loved him and we were close. He taught me a lot by accident. I learned that pride will haunt you, a problem that plagued him and my uncle for most of their lives. They had a falling out and even though it was clear that my grandpa missed him, he wouldn’t be the first to apologize and so they didn’t speak for decades and he died without ever making amends. I took note and tried to be different. On the other hand, he absolutely loved to garden and I developed a love for it through him and have grown my own herbs for years. I think of him every single time I see a tomato plant and the way that he’d say, “oh I don’t eat any of it, it’s nasty. I just grow it and give it away” because he preferred pre-made oven meals over healthy anything. Who grows a giant vegetable garden just to give it all away? Vegan ice cream reminds me of him, too. He was lactose intolerant and I bought him vegan fudge bars one year and being the “overindulgent” type, he bought hundreds of boxes from every grocery store nearby and basically lived off of them for two years. Him, in his pajamas, his full head of hair combed to the side, his oxygen tube draped across him due to his emphysema, laying in bed watching NASCAR covered in vegan fudge bars is how I choose to remember him. His blue eyes that are my mother’s blue eyes twinkling, accentuated by the crow’s lines that marked a long and hard life. I choose to remember him as a young marine, pushing boundaries, giving zero fucks, and amusing himself with his minor rule-breaking.
It was this mentality that allowed him to shake off cultural norms in the late fifties and marry my grandma, a hot-toddy-drinking, smoking, swearing, take no shit spitfire who’d already been divorced and had two kids. It was also the reason she divorced him a few years later when he, according to her, was an amazing father but refused to get a real job (he wasn’t the type to work for others and eventually established a business years later).
He was not perfect. But a long time ago I learned that you don’t have to be perfect to be loved and that it’s easiest to accept that people do the best that they can and it’s usually nothing personal. I will miss him and the many ways that he was flawed and odd. I will miss his bad sense of humor, his stubbornness, his stories of getting into trouble, and finding and losing love. I’ll miss our coffee dates where he insisted on drinking “instant Folgers coffee” and his weird obsession with certain foods for months at a time. I will miss arguing with him like when he told his doctors that yes, he does get exercise because he mows his own lawn and it’s a big yard, and I had to remind him that he has a riding mower and sitting isn’t exercise just because your body is being moved via machinery. I will miss the way he responded by scowling and swatting the air as if to say, “oh potato, patata.”
I don’t believe in heaven. It’s okay if you do. I just never have. Ever since I was very young, I felt certain that nothing leaves. We are here and we evolve. I believe that death is an evolution and while my grandpa is no longer “Gordon” he is here in everything, as everything. I like to imagine that he’s become a part of all of the plants that grow on earth. That his energy is now part of the soil that nourishes those plants, too. He’s now oxygen that fills our lungs, and that’s how his essence, his soul, his energy, his strange way to love, stays with us.
I miss my grandpa and I’m heartbroken that I can’t go to his house and slide open his door that was never locked and scream “grraaandpaaa!” and sit at the table among the scattered mail and cat toys and wait for him to call back from his bedroom “Oh Hi! Be right there!” But I think the hardest part is that I didn’t get to say goodbye. 2020 has been a hard year for us all but the hardest is the loneliness, the way people are missing from our lives, and the isolating way that they die. I’m doing better than usual at pushing back against the guilt but it’s still there for not calling more often, for not sending the vegan ice cream I’d planned to for his birthday. But it also serves as a reminder to say the things, do the things, live big, love big, tell the stories, celebrate each other, and waste no time enjoying yourself as you are in this body and in this moment. Because our time as we are now is limited.
Text or call your loved ones today, my friends.
Instead of sending condolences (which I appreciate immensely), let’s do something different. Tell me your favorite story about someone who has passed on in the comments below.