Jun 12, 2008

The Far Shore

When I got the call, I was underground. The subway was crowded, chilly and damp. The Green Line screamed around the bend so loudly that I actually had to ask my mother to repeat herself. She couldn't; once was hard enough. My father took over the phone. He began in his best "we-must-accept-the-inevitable" voice. Before I had time to respond, the train started again, and as the car dimmed my phone went dead.

Grandpa came out of his coma at the last minute to kiss Grandma goodbye. She kissed him, he kissed her back. She kissed him, and he was still, and she knew he was gone. The church had sent roses for their 57 years of marriage, and a candle burned in the corner. A group of singers sneaked in, just minutes after he died, and sang for them.

I slid off the train and walked over the bridge towards home in the fog, and in my own personal fog besides. The rain started and stopped every few minutes. My feet and my mind went numb.

Four days later, after my graduation had slipped by, we buried half his ashes.. It was a scorching hot day. Grandma tipped the urn in to the hole in the church garden and began to scoop the dirt back in to the hole with a clam shell. Each of us got a turn with the shell, as Grandma spoke to him. Bill, she said, we're burying your ashes here in this beautiful place, and we love you. Nobody else could speak. People walked by on the street, only 10 feet from our gathering in the garden, trying not to look at us. We couldn't see their faces through the tears, anyway. We left the clam shell in the hole, in the end. A piece of the ocean, to make him feel at home.

The rest of the ashes sat in a bronze urn shaped like a pineapple, on the wood stove. Grandma thought he'd get a kick out of that; living in a pineapple. I could almost hear his chuckle just around every corner. I kept expecting him to be seated at the dining room table, eyeing a plate of cookies keenly. His leathery, shaking hands would extend slowly across the table, so slowly that everybody else, engaged in conversation, hardly noticed. In this careful manner he consumed a diet that consisted mainly of dessert. Nobody would argue.

The pineapple will live in Maine, in our little cabin, where all our hearts escape to, until Grandma dies. Their ashes will be mixed together and spread over the forest, and out in to the ocean.

At the service, the next day, I played a little trio with my parents, for Grandma, who loves the sweet gentility of Renaissance music. Then Ashokan Farewell, a simple folk tune, for Grandpa, who sang everything off-key, but with an quiet, woodsy expressiveness that was unmatched. I looked out from the balcony at the hundreds of people in the chapel. I didn't take a deep breath before I started. I didn't even think. I just put the bow on the string, and drew it across.

His picture, a twinkly photo from 5 years ago before Parkinson's set his face like a mask, sat on the altar during the service. It seemed so horribly wrong to see him up there, in the little brown frame, instead of with us in the pew, nodding and sparkling at the people across the aisle. I couldn't look at it. The service wore on; it was more than 100 degrees in the church and I couldn't tell sweat from tears. Amazing Grace, his favorite song, began, but I couldn't make a noise. I mouthed the words.

At the end of the service, the minster read a poem that Grandpa had written, less than a year ago. It was for the grandchildren, but I'd never heard it. I think they were saving it for the occasion. The last line read, "I would like them to know that I am an honest man, who likes to help people in need."

Good enough, as he always said to me with an air of awe and appreciation. I can hear his thin, wispy voice saying those words perfectly, with so much grace. Good enough.

*This is the same Grandfather of this story. He only lived in the nursing home for a month or so. The family decided that he was not given enough respect or freedom there, and he moved back home, which is where he died.


Elizabeth McClung said...

You make the living part of dying, the part that comes after so beautiful, so eloquent and full of love that I was happy to be crying, to read about a man so obviously loved, who through your writing, I almost feel I know, who would find it a "kick" to be in a pineapple.

I particularly liked his last line in his poem. I would have liked to HAVE known him, to have met him.

Thank you for sharing such an intimate experience with such grace.

Cygnet said...

Thanks so much, Elizabeth. He was a really, really wonderful person. One of my favorite memories: a few years ago, when he was still sitting up and talking but not really moving around much, I got him talking about skiing. He was a world-class skiier, and he got really excited about teaching me how to land in the proper telemark position, so much so that he got up off the couch and bounced around the living room in the telemark position, much to the amazement of everybody else. My grandmother also told me that several years ago he went on a walk with my cousin, and although he hadn't moved faster than a slow shuffle for a full year, the cousin said "Hey Grandpa, race you home!" and he got up and *ran*. After not even picking his feet off the ground for a year.

I'm sorry I didn't see your comment earlier - nearly all the email notifications of comments get sorted as junk mail, for some reason. Really must fix that.

Anonymous said...

Elizabeth Riley! Coded message from Brazil!

You'd better write something (anything!) to me soon! I am going to the US soon!

Mysterious person
renatoaranha@gmail.com hehe