Today’s his Birthday. Or would have been. He died last year on May Fifteenth.
I was called out of class by the secretary. I met my sister by the office.
“What’s wrong?” I asked her. She didn’t know. We speculated while my dad signed us out of school. Suddenly, it hit me. Papa, my grandfather had been in the hospital for a few days now. Could it be?
“It’s time to say goodbye to him.” my dad said. I didn’t cry. I didn’t know what to do. My sister whimpered. I think I might have too, but I can’t remember. We did those things all the way to the hospital, so worried we wouldn’t get there in time. My family and I waited for hours after seeing him once or twice. Eating at the hospital cafeteria, we tried to forget. We left. He didn’t go that day.
The next day, we came back. My mom spent the night with him and my sister and I went to school. When mom and dad came to pick me up from track I asked
“Is he alright?” Their silence answered me. When I see this written in books I think it’s a little silly, but when I write “NOOOOOOOOOOO!!!!!” I assure you, that is what I did. I was on the other side of the gate from the rest of the Track Team. They couldn’t see me. They didn’t know what had happened. I wonder what they thought. I still hadn’t cried, at least not much. I felt a little guilty. Especially because that night I wanted to stay at the party that was happening at the school. I had friends there. Or wanted to have friends there. I don’t think of myself as shy, but others do. Today was the day I had a chance to meet people. It wasn’t the perfect day for it, as I was flopping between almost normal and shock, but I wanted to try. In the end, we decided to go to the party, and I was glad.
Later we told my sister what had happened. I don’t remember what she did. Is it better that way? Or would it be good to remember every detail? I don’t know. We stayed at the party for a while. I talked with a girl, but we couldn’t think of much to do. We saw some other kids in our grade after a while, and began a game of tag. After about twenty minutes of running around, out of breath, my sister convinced everyone to leave. Just before we left, I hugged my dad and noticed my friend sitting nearby.
“I’ve got to go.” I said to him.
“Okay” he said. No questions asked. I admired that, but it was too bad, because he was a new friend. I had wanted to be friends with him for a while, but it’s hard for me to talk to boys especially. Girls too. I have been shunned in the past. Is that why I’m shy? Is that why, when I know the answer to a question I’m silent and let someone else get it right? We left the party but I forget where we went. My grandmother’s house, or mine. I think it was a Friday, but it may have been a Thursday. Either way, the next day I wasn’t in school. I know that we went to my Grandma’s house. It was a beautiful day. The sun shone on my Grandmother’s pool. The branches of her magnolia tree swayed. I don’t remember much of what we did there. I know I talked with my cousins and sister. We lamented the loss, but didn’t really comprehend it yet. It took a few months too.
I remember swimming in my Grandmother’s pool, but having to come up for air constantly. I felt like I couldn’t breathe. I remembered how Papa loved to watch us swim and how he never would again. How we would race back and forth, almost too competitive, egged on by him, but only because he wanted us all to succeed. Not just in swimming, but in everything. Once I wanted to see how long I could tread water for. He sat timing me for an hour and a half, calling out the time every minute. Was that hour and a half a waste of his life? I think not. He seemed to like it. Seemed to love helping me.
He taught my cousin Kate to swim, gently gliding her on her raft along the water, like a gondolier. So gently. He loved the water, swimming almost every day. When he was young and at the Atlantic Ocean with his daughters, my Mom and Aunt, he only wanted to swim on stormy days, when Lightning flashed and flicked through the sky, lashing the water. He would jump into the waves head first, rolling in the deep water, the roiling ocean as fearsome as it was for the German Submarines. He loved history. When I went up to his office I saw, as I had before, a wall to wall bookshelf crammed full of books still in immaculate condition. He would sit all day reading those.
Sunday was the visitation. Nine hours of visitation-ing. I walked into the dark funeral home, and I felt a rush of cold air. It looked like someone’s house, a fancy parlor with an ornate mirror hung above a mantelpiece. Three visitations were being held that day. His, and two old womens. How dare they! They can’t even be respectful enough not cram all the rooms they have full of dead bodies. I’m surprised there wasn’t one in the bathroom. I walked into the room where Papa’s body was. Kate rushed towards me, crying. She dragged me over to the casket. After a moment, I gasped. It seemed as though my breath was caught in my throat. There he lay, in a dark suit, his face plasticine. His eyes were closed. I looked at him for a while, not knowing what to do. No tears left my eyes. At least not the fat droplets that agony brings. After a while, I left. I went downstairs to where a childrens program was on. I looked at it with vague disgust, but felt myself drawn to it. Why? I wondered. Am I that brainwashed, or do I just want to not be here? I turned away and looked at the delicacies that saddened relatives had brought. Brownies, Cookies. Fancy Sandwiches. I couldn’t resist them, even though I wanted to. I took a brownie and ate it, ravenously. I took the dark, steep steps back up to the main floor. I wondered why the steps were like that, like they belonged in a castle under siege. I supposed that business was business. Even when your business was dead people, you had to make money. Oh! Perish the thought. It’s too awful.
When I finally reached the summit, I saw a cage filled with birds of all colors. Finches, Canaries. All little bundles of color and tweeting. “What a strange place” I think now “That has steps designed for tumbling down, and brightly colored things with wings nearby.” Like Heaven and Hell. I’m not sure whether or not I believe in those, or if I want to. Where is Papa now?
The next eight hours were like that. Look at Papa, what was or is Papa. I couldn’t tell. The smell of flowers now reminds me of death. Talk to people, smile. I am social. It sickened me that I could be so happy and so nonchalant. That here I was, when my grandfather, who was so kind, was dead. Dead, too. He hadn’t “Passed Away” or “Moved On” He. Was. Dead. I couldn’t stand being inside anymore so I went on a walk. I was only twelve and couldn’t walk far, just around the building. I did that a few times for the fresh air and silence, both of which were a slight comfort. Did you ever notice that the hum of people talking, is just so awful sometimes? I went back inside and stood by the coffin again.
The next day was the Funeral. What a sad word. Funeral. Fu-Ner-Al. The whole thing sounds stately, but not in a good way. Like a big black house, where the doors are locked all the time, and the people are great and full of gloom. The funeral was at my grandmother’s church, so we drove there. I stepped quietly, slowly, inside. It was that kind of church and that kind of day. Turning into a small room, I saw the casket again. It was as bad as the first time, nearly. Nearby, were all of Papa’s relatives. I won’t go into details about how awful it was when the casket closed. As it was wheeled out of the room, I shouted “I love you!”
The funeral happened. We got in our cars with the little flags on top. I had never been part of a funeral procession before. Driving in silence, we reached the burial ground shortly. His casket was attached to a crane. As it was lowered into the ground, I saw something I hadn’t before. A shiny metal star, reading “Sheriff”. I didn’t know why that was there. He wasn’t a sheriff anymore. He had retired quite a while ago. He was Frank Gasdorf.
I went back to school the next day, back to shy. I was a different person in school, quiet and polite. I was lonely, but I am used to it. I like to think I’m pretty dang tough. Whatever happens is only another obstacle, one that I can overcome.