First Grief

It was November sixteenth but the tree, lights, and other decorations were already setup at the funeral home. My grandfather had died of lung cancer five days earlier. I was nine.

At the visitation, I stood in the corner facing the tree, my back to everything else. I was afraid to see the body in the casket. My mother, in the middle of the room, was speaking to friends and acquaintances. Together they were mumbling memories and laughing when they could. My father, by her side, hardly said anything. My brothers and sister were playing in another room separate from the weight and reality of this one.

I kept my distance from all of them. I felt safe in isolation. I walked over to the table against the window upon which lay a collection of old pictures that had been gathered and arranged by my mother’s aunts and uncles. Because they were old and precious I was instructed not to get too close to them or touch them with my bare hands, but I was allowed to look.

Behind the pictures, on the back half of the table were scattered spruce needles and holly branches and clumps of cotton imitating snow. Among these wild things was a neighborhood of ceramic houses, the kind with little lights inside. Together they cast a reddish glow across the floor of the room. My memory of that night is dim and red and marred by shadow.

My mother touched my shoulder when it was time to leave. She asked if I wanted to see Pop-Pop. Without answering, I left by the door at the back of the room.

I started walking home before my parents had gathered the others. Running to catch up, my sister handed me the coat I had forgotten. I was just beginning to shiver.

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I tried to prepare a few words to say at the funeral. I didn’t know my grandfather well. But I wanted to say something.

I began with what I thought I remembered from what I had been told: he had served in the Marines during the Korean war. He had enlisted. He must have been brave. That’s how I told the story: I said that he had enlisted in the Marines and had gone to Korea and had fought through the rain and the snow and the gas and the blood. And that he had come back.

I did not know how many times he had fired his weapon, so I didn’t say. I did not know how many people he had killed, so I left that out. I did not know how many time he woke up short of breath, but I imagine it happened most mornings.

Mine was a thin understanding. In his lifetime, I never grew taller than his elbow. I never spent time alone with him that I can remember. I did not visit him in the hospital. We never had a conversation.

After writing what I could, I got ready for the funeral. I only had two ties and both of them were striped patterns of primary colors. If I had been older or taller, like my brother, I could have borrowed one of Dad’s serious ties.

I went downstairs holding the pages I had written.

My mother asked, “did you write something for Pop-pop? may I read it?”

“No.” I forced the pages into my pocket firmly.

Dad said, “time to go.”

Back in the room with the casket, the yellow light diffused through the curtains seemed to weigh heavy and thick on the rows and chairs of people.

I looked down at my shoes as strangers shared stories of my grandfather from a microphone at the front of the room. Most of them said the same or similar things. My aunt played two hymns from the organ in the back of the room: “The Old Rugged Cross” and “Nearer My God to Thee.”

I didn’t want to stand to read, but I had decided to do it. As I approached the microphone, I passed the casket and saw the body for the first time. At once, the muscles around my mouth tightened and I could hardly open my jaw. I tried to say “he was my grandfather” but no sound came. Turning to face the room full of people, I began to cry. My vision was so blurry because of the tears that I couldn’t read the pages. I kept blinking, trying to see clearly. From my right, my father came and took me in his arms. He was strong and warm. From my left, my mother came and took the pages from my hands. She began reading on my behalf.

“It was the summer. While everyone else was signing up for jobs, my Pop-pop was signing up for the Marines. He was more brave than all of them put together…”

She struggled to read my handwriting.

“Even then he wasn’t afraid of death. He was ready to face it. He knew that we can only survive what we face…”

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My mother let me sit in the front seat on the way home from the reception. When we were nearly there, she looked at me and said, “You taught me something about my Dad today. He was always a hard man — hard for me to understand. But I had never thought that he was a brave man, too. What you said about him — he was just like that. Brave like that. Just like that. And sometimes more. And sometimes less.”

I leaned my head against the window. I held my ears which were still ringing from the crowds at dinner and the gunshots of the honor guard at the cemetery.

It didn’t rain like it sometimes does at funerals. It didn’t snow either, even though it was cold enough. It just got dark earlier than it would have in the summer.

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this piece originally appeared in the spring 2017 edition of Dialogue [49.2], the Creative Journal of Calvin College.