It's been 24 years since my grandfather passed away (6/16) when I was 11. It's amazing how his death still lingers in me so raw--perhaps because it was my first such experience that I can remember. The below passage is from Morning Glory, though as I begin another book, Turkey Red, I'm now recalling the passing of my grandmother who, somehow beyond the grave, is willing her life story into me (just as I think all our ancestors do). It takes time to find the way into our lives through family, and we should never be impatient to do so--the arrival will be that much more bittersweet and empowering. The key is to have no fear (because there will be a lot to fear when you start digging and reflecting).
While my grandfather was receiving treatment for his cancer and the blood clots forming in his leg, my family went back to Oklahoma for a visit about two years after we moved north, and only three months before he passed away. Grandpa spent hours laying on the couch stretched out flat, except for his one leg elevated on a pillow—when he got up it was as if that leg were in a cast, as rigid and awkward as having a ladder attached to your hip.
In their small living room, with a picture window overlooking the empty red lot across the street, Grandma had set up a puzzle on a fold out card table so grandpa would have something close by to do when he felt well enough. Placing it in front of the window, Grandpa could look up, hunched over himself and the puzzle pieces, and see the mail come. One afternoon while we were visiting, Mom was in the kitchen helping Grandma wash dishes, and I convinced Grandpa to get up and help me on his puzzle. But maybe he convinced me. I don’t really remember anything but his large fingers struggling to grasp the thin pieces, instead sliding them over to me across the vinyl surface.
“Here’s a corner that looks like it might match your edge,” he said. Then I would reply, “Yea, maybe. Do you think this one matches your pile?” In his focus he didn’t say anything, he just breathed in deep, quick gulps of air
But maybe I didn’t say anything either. I likely sat their in silence with a combination of bewilderment, confusion, and fear—which surely came from not understanding his slow death, the pain he constantly felt, his own inevitable fear of mortality. And that fear came from the imposing, burly figure he still seemed to me, even as his cancer progressed.
When you’re a child everything seems so much bigger and mysterious, richer and shadowy and even exciting when you confront it, no matter if it’s good or bad. I still remember the awe I had for the teasing 3rd graders when I was in kindergarten, who harassed me in a bathroom stall to the point of my being unable to pee and so I just held it in the rest of the day. That emotional and physical pain is something I remember well, and I willingly refuse to use public restrooms in favor of the internal pressure pressing against me—it is almost sweet and comforting, settling my stomach, yet a complete denial of myself.
In the largeness of discovery there is also an intense focus that pierces through it like a sliver of light, a flaming arrow shot toward a target straight and true. The first time one recognizes this trajectory in an event in life, every subsequent moment feels a bit less visceral, and yet much more empowering.
I put on a good face for my grandpa, helping him fit a few pieces together over the course of ten minutes. I’m sure he struggled to focus, I’m sure he counted every second and willed himself to another moment with his grandson. I never once looked up at him, afraid that if I did so he might scold me for noticing his effort, or maybe I was afraid I’d be unable to see him as how he had been before, as I always had and would want to see him for the rest of my life but would be unable to. When he could no longer overcome his body he suddenly, fiercely, asked me to help him back to the couch. “I have to quit! I’m sorry, B.R., but I’ve gotta lay back down.”
He hobbled to the couch, grunted, pulled his leg up on to the cushions and went limp, exhaling the struggle from deep inside. “You should keep working though,” he said, staring into the ceiling, wincing like he’d just stubbed a toe. “I’ll watch.”
I sat at the table a while longer doing as he asked. I found the last piece to a side he’d been working on and carefully dragged the loosely connected trail around the tabletop. In the middle was an island of image—the paw of a grey kitten on a piano key. Outside it was an Oklahoma summer, hot and windy, red dirt blowing across patches of neglected brown grass. Not even two years removed from my accent and this place, I longed for the cooler, darker suburban forests of Minnesota, the sweet-smelling refuge of decay, the way a shaft of light pierced into you from the side through a canopy of maple leaves and urged you onward until there was no more light, just you and the memory of who you were moments before.
Poignant story. He's probably somewhere still watching.
That generation did those puzzles constantly. My own grandfather always had one set up and every visitor was troubled to put in a piece or two. My last memory of him, similar to yours, was watching that vital old farmer sigh as he was unable to lift his arms and quietly say "I don't know how I ever got so weak".
Enjoyed your post, Ben.
Dr R--I like puzzles occasionally because it's just so mundane. And the thrill of surprise when you leave and come back and see the pieces clear as day.
Greg--thank you sir! High praise I know. :)
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