Grandpa’s Wake: The First Time I Touched Death

Old School Circus44 Comments

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.


Grandpa, my sister, me, and an uncle

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).


Mom (far right) and two of her sisters at Grandpa’s house

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.


Never miss a Big Top Family post! Click here to put the Ringleader in your inbox!
Grandpa’s Wake: The First Time I Touched Death

44 Comments on “Grandpa’s Wake: The First Time I Touched Death”

  1. Drew Clarke

    Very vivid and poignant post. I actually have a few tears moving gently over my cheeks and dripping onto my shirt. Your post has triggered an awakening of long repressed memories and feelings. I was in FL when my father died at 52. He had an episode at the beach house. Two of my brothers had to get him in the car. He died before mom could reach the hospital but with his last breath, he reached over, took mom’s hand in his own and squeezed it. My dad’s mother died three years ago. I visited, told her how much she had taught me about life, that I loved her and that it was time for her to let go. She died as i was driving home. When I had just moved to Hanover, I received a call. One of my good friends from the old “hood” and his entire family had be murdered. The day David Mooney called and told me Chris had taken his own life. These are just a few examples.

    I really enjoy your posts. This one touched me in a very personal way.

    1. Ashley

      Thank you, Drew, for your kind words. I am so sorry about your dad and about all the loss you’ve encountered with friends and family. I guess I could’ve said as an afterthought, that even though I didn’t cry at my grandpa’s funeral, now whenever I attend one, even if I’m just attending out of loyalty to a friend who lost their loved one (and I never met them), I just bawl like a baby. Making up for lost time. Thanks so much for reading, friend!

    1. Ashley

      Thank you, Jenn – this comment literally allowed me to let out the breath I’ve been holding in since I posted this. I thought maybe people wouldn’t like it as much since I didn’t use humor. I really appreciate your words!

  2. Uncle Dubs

    Oh Ashley, what a writer! Your detailed observations are so sharp and snappy, we are right there with you as a young girl. Uncle Frank with the door handle. Grandpa’s bag of Fig Newtons. Sarah’s leopard print undies. The little note you slipped into the coffin (wonder what it said!). And the lack of tears until driving away. Our hearts break for this little kid dealing with such big issues – divorce, death, separation and change. Love you, kiddo. Masterful job! This is a post I’ll really look forward to reading again. Good on ya!

    1. Ashley

      Awww, Uncle Dubs, and like this post, you kept your comment CLEAN! A big first for both of us, lol! Thank you my dear unrelated uncle for being such a loyal and supportive reader – I can’t thank you enough.

  3. Lisa

    Ashley, you write with such detail and emotion. I probably don’t let you know enough, just how good you are at capturing life’s most treasured or memorable moments. This post reminded me of my first funeral. I felt removed from it, not really knowing what it meant. I’ve had many moments where I wish I could be that kid again. Great post.

    1. Ashley

      Aww, thanks, Lisa – this means the world to me, really! Thank you so much for reading and commenting – I really have no idea if people are reading or not unless they say so. (I mean, I know that there are people “clicking” but I have no idea who they are)! I really appreciate your words of encouragement – to be honest, this stuff can be draining but I feel compelled to write all of it. Love you, my friend!

    1. Ashley

      Thank you, Danielle – that means so much to me! It always amazes me when people actually WANT to read the things I write about! I really appreciate that you’re reading and commenting – it helps push me through, seriously.

  4. Pattie

    No one shares a memory like you can. I truly feel like I was standing next to you through all of it. And not one F-Bomb. 😉

  5. Anne

    This is why I love language and reading – you truly have a gift. You made me cry, and I just wanted to hug the little you 🙂 Beautiful, simply beautiful.

    1. Ashley

      Aww, thank you, Anne. Hopefully we’ll get to meet one day! You’ve been such a good friend to my sister, and I believe you were put in each other’s lives for reason. Hugs to you, and much appreciation.

  6. Lisa Newlin

    What a sweet and sad story all at the same time! I remember the first time I saw someone in a casket. It was my Uncle Butch, although apparently his name wasn’t really Butch (thank God). He looked like he was wearing lipstick. Then again, I was only 6 and didn’t know him, so maybe that was his thing.

    Either way, he didn’t look good in “Morning Apricot.” He was more of a “Soft Pink” kind of guy.

    1. Ashley

      Lisa, whether or not his name was Butch, that is how I’m going to remember him. 😉 Thanks for reading, commenting, and for lightening up the mood! xoxox

  7. Marsha

    I can’t get this out of my head! Your best yet I was totally drawn in and your recall is incredible, sights, sounds, every detail of the event. You are really an amazing writer! Wish I could have been there to hug that little girl

    1. Ashley

      Thanks, Marsh. 🙂 I’ve been working on this story for a long, long time so in the spirit of honesty, it wasn’t just off the cuff. But because I’ve put so much into it, it’s really emotional and really meaningful to get positive feedback. Thanks so much – love you.

  8. Jamie Renee

    This is only the second blog of yours that I have read. After explaining my incessant laughter to my husband as to how a barn really is an asshole, I found this post. I saw the word grief, and since I am attempting to deal with that myself, I thought I would look there. At this moment, hundreds of people, made up of mostly my family, are in another state a thousand miles away from me. Being that I just popped a baby out, I can’t be there. Your blog post made me realize its ok that I haven’t cried for my departed uncle. You described your family and how they reacted, and that’s the one thing I have cried about, not being there with them. When someone passes you have to deal with the oddest things. Suddenly smells, colors, textures, tears are all that the world is made up of. Especially when you have to learn how to grieve.
    I can’t wait to explore your site here more!

    1. Ashley

      Thank you, Jamie, for visiting here twice – and I’m so glad this post happened at a time that was meaningful to you. Grief is just a multi-faceted thing, and I haven’t even begun to touch on all its facets because I’ve only lost aunts, uncles, and grandparents thus far. Even as an adult, it’s as scary for me as it was way back then, though I have some different coping mechanisms. You’re so right – it is an odd process. I wish all the comfort in the world to you and your whole family. (And best of luck with the new baby too).

  9. Mary Widdicks

    I love your stories so much. This one is so touchingly innocent. Your confusion and isolation from the very adult concept of death and mortality is so well described. We tend to project our feelings onto children, but really they experience these things much differently than we do. I love your comment about the Old Spice smell. Even as a child, you had a sense that something would be different, but to you as long as his smell was there his memory was too.

    1. Ashley

      Thank you so much for reading, Mary. You know how much I admire your writing. This one was close, very close, to my heart because I actually started it years ago and finally finished it. This blog has given me the outlet to push a lot of old memories through to actually writing them but it helps tremendously to get the feedback of writers I so admire. Thank you for reading and commenting.

    1. Ashley

      Thank you, Stacey! You’re so kind to say that – I’m ready for my book too but er, I guess I need to try to write it first? Something I want to do but it’s daunting. Thank you sooo much for reading and commenting and encouraging me.

  10. Uncle Dubs

    I raise my glass to f-bombs
    To naughtiness and poop
    And cheers to Nora Ephron
    Tom Robbins yer a hoot

    But when you write so lovingly
    So poignantly and true
    The Good Lard says white dovingly
    Dubs, you can’t work blue!

    1. Ashley

      Thanks so much, Ariel. That’s exactly the goal, so I’m trying to test it out here and see how people respond to some of these stories. Thank you so much for responding supportively!

  11. Drama Queen's Momma

    WOW! Just wow. You are an amazingly talented story teller! I felt like I was watching a movie of your childhood. And slightly jealous that I cannot recall events of my childhood so vividly. Well, maybe a couple. Thanks so much for sharing this post on #BlogDiggity this week! I can’t wait to see what you will bring to the table next week!

    1. Ashley

      Aww, thanks, lady. When you have a childhood that was constantly in flux, you are able to recall details much more easily. I appreciate you taking the time to read and comment, xoxox.

  12. qwertygirl

    I too am only a second-time visitor, but I admire your ability to handle both humorous and serious subjects well (the barn-asshole one was my first visit as well). Very moving.

    p.s. I think I had that necklace too! At least, I had one very much like it. Was it on a leather cord? Mine was. My mom brought it to me from a business trip.

    1. Ashley

      It WAS on a leather cord, qwertygirl! That’s so crazy – do you think they were being sold in the airports? Thank you so much for reading and commenting – I have lighter stuff on here too but I’m going through a phase. 😉

      1. qwertygirl

        I think you may be right. It was right at that time when they doing that I [heart] NY tourism campaign, so they were promoting the whole “Big Apple” thing and I suspect they were in the Hudson News (or whatever they had in the 80s that was like Hudson News). But that’s so funny! I have no idea what happened to mine, but I loved it.

        I’ll look around here (when I’m, you know, not at work 🙂 ). Because I’ve heard good things about you from lots of the other gals (Foxy Wine Pocket, est. 1975, etc)!

  13. Samantha

    I felt like I was walking right next to you in this! Chills, woman! I totally had a couple spots where you could’ve been telling my story. Like the time a lady at church asked about my father and I cheerfully answered “He died!” I was 5, so the look of horror on her face was priceless. I was really confused. 🙂 I continue to be impressed by you!

    1. Ashley

      Thank you so much, Samantha. It’s funny-not-funny but when you shared this post on FB, I was wondering what part resonated with you the most about your dad’s death and that part came to my mind. It’s hard for kids to process…takes a while for sure. I’m sorry to hear about your dad passing when you were so young. 🙁 Must’ve eventually had a big impact on you. Love you, my friend I’ve never met! Thanks so much for supporting the Big Top.

  14. Julie

    I don’t know how I missed this one. I too had a very close relationship with my mother’s dad (only we called him Pop). He had the same smells as your grandpa. Brought back some pretty great memories reading this. Thank you my friend.

  15. Pingback: Meet the DC Cast: Ashley Allen

  16. michelle

    I’m crying now. My mom and dad were divorcedand that was all I knew. My dad died a few yrs ago. I never knew him. He sent me letters from jail. Promised to visit. Never did. Still don’t know how I feel about it. Loved your story.thank you

    1. Ashley

      Wow, you should write YOUR story, Michelle! Probably a lot more interesting than mine. Thank you for reading and commenting! I’m so sorry for your loss. I wish somehow I could make it better. God, that sounds really lame. I wish I could give you a big fat squishy hug.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *