I hadn’t even realized Grandpa was sick until I heard the noise in front of the house, the doorbell, the trudge of feet on the hardwood stairs as the white-uniformed men climbed to his room. Minutes later, they carried his massive frame down the curved staircase in our front hall and knocked off the newel post on their way out.
We’d been living with Grandpa MacNamara for two years, when one day he was rushed away by flashing lights and screaming sirens. My mother had taken us to her father’s house after the Divorce and was the second of his eight children to move back home. When he went to the hospital, the other aunts and uncles, along with their husbands and wives, drove or flew in from different parts of the country to take turns at his bedside. He spent two weeks in intensive care, and because 6 and 7-year-olds weren’t allowed in, my older sister and I sat in the waiting room during the long visits.
One day, he died. The news had a strange effect on me, which was no effect at all. Guilty, I crept around the sprawling house that day, studying the adults.
My mother sat in the bathtub crying for hours, finally coaxed out by her two younger sisters. She was like a ghost that day and the days following, and I couldn’t talk to her or touch her without scaring her away or making her cry again. Before her bath, I’d asked her why Grandpa had died when everybody promised he’d be okay, and she’d burst into tears.
The day he died, my grandmother, who was separated from him and mostly a stranger to me, seemed emotionless–smoking her cigarettes and talking on the phone, mostly about “arrangements.”
On the sun porch that day, two of my uncles sat on the white wicker furniture and drank beer after beer. All my life I’d heard that some of my uncles were Alcoholics, and though I wasn’t sure exactly what that meant, I knew it involved drinking beer at family reunions. One uncle was in something called AA, which meant that he was trying to stop drinking beer at family reunions. Whenever we saw him, he’d talk about the Twelve Steps, which I figured were a little like the Ten Commandments, but that day he mostly sat alone in Grandpa’s study, staring at the blank TV screen.
My youngest aunt, Sarah Theresa, was twenty-three and lived on the third floor of Grandpa’s house in her own attic apartment. Sarah Theresa often went to clubs to watch her boyfriend, Brent, play drums in a rock band, and we’d beg her to take us with her, sometimes blocking the front door or sitting on the hood of her Volkswagen Beatle to force consent. Our tactics never worked, and as retribution, every time she left the attic unattended, we’d make a beeline for her lair and spend at least an hour nosing around. Since nothing incriminating had turned up so far, the best we could do was taunt her about her leopard print underwear and then tell Grandpa all the curse words that came flying out of her mouth. We idolized her.
The day Grandpa died, she drank beer and smoked all day, and when she ran upstairs to her attic at one point, she stopped at the attic door and turned around to find me scrambling up after her.
“Stay downstairs, please?” she said pleadingly, and unused to the desperation in her voice, I didn’t argue.
I figured I’d better stay on the landing for a while just to make sure she was okay. I heard the crying stop after a few minutes then smelled a strange sweet smoke in the air. Listening first for footsteps so no one saw me slithering around on my belly, I got down to sniff under the door. Seconds later, I was positive the smoke was drifting out from the thing she called her “tobacco tube.” On one of our stealth missions to the attic, we’d looked down into the yellow glass canister, and puzzling over the water it held, we wondered why she didn’t just smoke a normal tobacco pipe like Grandpa.
After a while, the smell stopped seeping out and the crying stopped, so I gave up my post and went downstairs to the living room. My oldest aunt-in-law, Kathleen, was sitting in Grandpa’s yellow overstuffed chair, crying and hugging her six-year-old daughter, Fiona, instead of her husband, Uncle Frank. Uncle Frank stood nearby, looking out the screen door and grasping and releasing the door handle like he wanted to walk out. A few days before, my cousin Fiona had randomly asked me what having divorced parents was like, and when I told her it was like splitting your favorite doll in half and only being allowed to play with one half or the other, she whimpered while I patted her reassuringly (and somewhat smugly).
My parents had been divorced since I was one, so I couldn’t remember a time when we all had one house together, and you can’t miss something you can’t remember. What was hard, though, was that Alyson and I had a life at our dad’s apartment and a separate one with Mom and Grandpa. To be with someone you loved meant that you were always leaving someone else you loved behind.
Lately, I’d started to feel homesick when I left my mom for the weekend, so I told my dad I didn’t want to go. Even though he said he understood, I could tell there was a difference now in the way he treated me. He’d give me a quick hug and hurry out the door with Alyson, who was always packed and eager to see him after a week, and the lump in my throat thickened each Friday I watched them turn out of the driveway.
I was sorry that Fiona was going to have to miss her mom and dad the way I missed mine, but I was glad, too. There was one less family to be jealous of.
At 11 am the next morning, the doorbell rang, and strangers with serious faces and dark suits came through our front door with an enormous coffin. They carried it to the dining room, and after the dining room table had been moved out, they set up a kneeler in front of it. When they lifted the top, there lay my grandpa in his best suit with his hands folded neatly across his chest. There was silence in the room and the adults bowed their heads, then choking sounds broke out among some of the aunts while Uncle Frank and Uncle Brian agreed that Grandpa “looked good.” Dizzy and feeling like I was seeing the room through a peephole, I struggled to find my mother amidst the throng of family members, finally giving up and sinking into a chair.
All day long at my Grandpa’s wake, people I knew and didn’t know milled through the house eating and drinking, whispering to each other as if they were at Mass, lighting vigil candles in our dining room, and kneeling in front of my grandfather to say Our Fathers and Hail Marys.
The phone rang and rang, and my grandmother answered it using phrases like “passed away” and “deceased,” but as the day wore on, she seemed not to hear the phone anymore. I went into Grandpa’s study and started to pick up every time it rang, taking down messages, feeling secretarial and important. One time, a man asked for Tom MacNamara, and I responded brightly, “He’s dead.” I listened to the man’s condolences and just hung up, drumming my fingers impatiently until the next call came.
By nightfall, the guests were gone and many of my relatives had gone to bed save a very few. When I heard my mother’s door close for the night, I got up to tiptoe down the front staircase, carefully avoiding the creaks. The dining room was empty for the first time all day, and I peered at the coffin through the flickering darkness of the candle-lit room. Approaching my grandfather cautiously for the first time in my life, I both hoped and feared that he would wake up and tell me that he was still here, that he was still himself.
As I got closer, though, I knew that he was not himself. The air around him had a medicinal smell so unlike the sweet, spicy smell that would announce his presence in a room. He was not smiling and pink, bright with the blushing complexion that all the MacNamaras, and even I, shared. A tight, unnatural expression crossed his lips, and his face was yellowed like someone had smoothed iodine over his broad cheeks. I reached out and touched his hand and then, bravely, his face. His skin was icy and smooth, strangely lacking the dry, stubbly texture it always had. My heart was pounding, and I was afraid I was doing something wrong, that it was wrong to touch the dead, but I was trying to recall my grandfather in this dead man.
He was wearing the gray suit he wore to Mass, and it reminded me of all the Sundays I came stumbling down the stairs, always late, finding him waiting patiently for me at the bottom and singing, “Here she comes, Miss America!” I thought of every trip we made to the Big Star grocery store, when at his fingertips, anything I wanted dropped magically into the buggy, and how he’d open a bag of Fig Newtons right in the store and nibble on them while we shopped. I thought about how he’d always share spoonfuls of his after-dinner bowl of orange sherbet, and how mad he got when he caught us watching “Porky’s” on HBO, and how he threatened to cancel the cable but never did.
I thought of the pendant necklace he’d bought me on one of his business trips to New York—a round, red metal apple with a bite missing from it—and the fuss I’d made when I saw the Oreo cookie necklace he’d gotten for Alyson. I was so jealous that I never thanked him for mine, and panicked, I realized that I hadn’t even seen it in months.
I’m not sure when I started actually talking out loud, but I went on for what seemed like hours, naming all the things I would miss and apologizing for all the times I’d been bad. When I was so tired I could hardly keep my eyes open, I stopped talking and sneaked out to find a pen and paper in the drawer of the kitchen hutch. I scribbled down a note, and after tucking it in his silk-lined pocket, I turned and padded off to bed.
I didn’t cry at my Grandpa’s wake, nor at the funeral. Not a single tear, or whimper, or complaint. I tried to feel my grandfather’s death as I watched my family sob through the funeral; watched the tears and arguments spill out over his Will in the months that followed; and heard my dad’s frustration at my mom’s plan to move us hours and miles away. I wanted to cry because not crying made me different, but the harder I tried, the less I felt.
It wasn’t until I looked out the back window of our brown Chrysler Cordoba, watching Grandpa’s house fade away, that the tears started to come. I realized suddenly that I could no longer smell the rooms still scented with Old Spice and pipe tobacco, the “Grandpa” smell that had lulled me into forgetting he was gone.
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