My grandfather died when I was 17. It was quick, though not painless. I stood in his hospital room on the night he died, listening to his ragged breath and morphine-colored moans, thinking that maybe there was still hope. Maybe he’d get better. I was young, and I know now, monumentally stupid.
The visitation was like a scene from the beginning of a horror movie. The funeral home was old, dusty and dimly lit. The smell of lilies was stifling, and I didn’t know it then, but the emotional charge of the room and its inhabitants would have been similarly overpowering for me as an empath. I felt wobbly and faint. My adult relatives stood in small groups, speaking in whispers. My cousins – all under 10 at the time – played around. The old ones were quiet and mostly respectful, but two of the younger ones ran around and yelled in the room where Granddaddy’s coffin sat.
“Anna, come look!” one little cousin cried again and again, “He just looks like he’s sleeping!”
I wanted to scream at him to stop being so nonchalant about the gaping hole in my heart. But he didn’t know. It wasn’t his fault. I hated him then, though. I hated them all, save for one. If we’re going to get truthful here, that didn’t change much over the years. It dampened a bit, became less about dislike and more about disregard. And there were other factors, general abuses on their part, personality and cultural conflicts, age differences all around. But in general, the way I felt about all but one of them at my grandfather’s funeral is how I feel now – I wrote myself out of their story on that day.
I don’t feel compelled to change my mind, either, especially when I remember how pressured I felt to look at Granddaddy there in his box. The kids were running up and down the center aisle of the funeral home, completely unchecked by their parents, as always. They were yelling at me to look, look at his face, look and see – he’s only sleeping! So I did. And what I saw was nothing. An orange, waxy mask that looked nothing at all like the Granddaddy I’d seen just two days before, alive and moaning in his hospital bed.
This thing stretched out before us was an abomination. Lips too red, skin too tan, suit too crisp, hands too plump. He didn’t look like he was asleep. He didn’t even look like he was dead. He didn’t look like anything I’d ever seen before, or would want to see again. This thing took my grandfather’s face away from me, in memory and in real life. In my memory, Granddaddy is an empty coffin, a silver money clip, a cheesy red white & blue polo shirt worn every Fourth of July, a toothpick clenched between grinning teeth, the juicy pink insides of a perfectly-cooked ribeye, the softness of a gold toe sock, a cheap hairbrush being dragged through my tangled curls, a perfect paper airplane that would always outfly my own rough interpretation, the first desperate fizz of a Cheerwine as the top unscrewed, the sound of a Lazyboy recliner popping back.
I fainted during the burial. They put me in the back seat of one of the limos, and when the family got back to my grandparents’ house, I was put to bed in their bedroom. There I curled up on Granddaddy’s side of the four poster bed, alternating between sobbing and greedily breathing in the remains of his scent on his pillow. My little cousin, the one that I love, stuck to me like glue that day and for many more after. She insisted that she be allowed to hang out with me, and she napped beside me on Nana’s side of the bed as I cried.
Eventually, Nana came into the room to check on us. She stood over me, looked down, and angrily spat out, “There’s no use crying over spilt milk.” The nicest person I knew, the woman who fell in love with my grandfather at first sight as a teenager, who threw me ice cream “tea parties,” and always had time to hear out my heartbreaks, that woman was gone forever that day. I guess to her, my behavior was just as unacceptable as my cousins’ had been for me. I don’t know. We’ve never really gotten along since that moment, and she’s gradually gotten more and more bitter over the years. It’s been a couple of years since we last talked, and that’s how this particular story ends. It’s not fair – but that’s life.