I’m not good at giving hugs.
It’s likely because I hit an early growth spurt, the Big Bird in a sea of little people. My limbs were long, and I’d stand akimbo until the last second, trying to decide if it’s a one arm or two arm effort. I grew into my arms, but I still don’t know where to put my head. Do I look outward, catching glimpses of the freedom that waits after the embrace, or should I nuzzle it into their neck a little for more intimacy?
Hugs shouldn’t be difficult, but what do you expect from that person who walks on the wrong side of the hallway, a frequent dancer in the which way are you going to go? Oops, was that your foot? This way? Uh, Nope, still in your way! shuffle.
Most people would just shake it off, but I replay those touches and every time I’ve used the phrase “You, too!” when it wasn’t appropriate.
“Have a safe flight!”
Stupid, Cee. Why can’t you just stop being awkward for two seconds?
Goodbyes with my grandfather were exceptionally awkward. We would hug, and he’d pull back from our embrace, placing his hands on my shoulder. Even as an adult, his hands made me uncomfortable. During the Korean War, his left hand was badly damaged from shrapnel and his thumb had served as decoration ever since. He was permanently poised for a thumb war, and as a kid I thought his hand wasn’t real, until I noticed it tanned and the other fingers worked just like mine did. He didn’t carry a pen around like Bob Dole, since it was his predominant hand; he continued to use it for feeding himself, using the clicker, and for driving.
After hugs, he’d always say, “Glad you got to see me,” an ironically narcissistic reply, given that my grandfather was one of the most selfless men I’ve ever met. The first time he said it, I think it was just a slip of the tongue, but since it elicited such laughter and startled eyes, he continued to say it for years.
Sometimes, I’d try to beat him to the punch and slip it in during our awkward goodbye embraces, but he’d act like he didn’t hear me.
“Glad you got to see me,” he’d say one last time, squeezing my shoulders with his good and bad hand. He didn’t get to say that before he passed away last week, and I didn’t make it to Ohio in time to say it to him in person, either.
Bereavement policies are meant to mourn the loss and make arrangements, not for saying goodbye, so I didn’t leave for Ohio until after he was gone. My mother kept calling to ask me to make the six-hour drive to make it there in time to see him in the ICU, but every time the doctors said, “it should be a matter of hours,” he’d still be breathing the next morning. I don’t believe in miracles; he was surely never going to recover from the surgery that removed vital organs and guts, but I certainly didn’t want to be the new girl at work who cried dead grandpa and couldn’t furnish an obituary if he was miraculously among the living at the end of the company’s five-day policy.
The religious sect of the hospital said that he wasn’t dying because he was waiting for someone because his decision to extend his suffering didn’t make sense otherwise. So, they phoned me, then my sister, then my father, and we were all instructed to say our goodbyes since we couldn’t be there. I closed the door to my office and stared out of the window as I spoke before static interrupted.
“Wait, am I on speakerphone?”
“Seriously, you had me on speakerphone?”
Hey grandpa, it’s Cee. Sorry I couldn’t make it down; I just started a new job. That seems like a piss poor excuse, but I figured the hospital was crowded enough, and that you’ve already got enough women at your bedside. There was a chuckle.
“AM I ON SPEAKERPHONE AGAIN?”
“DAMNIT, CAN’T YOU JUST PUT IT UP BY HIS EAR OR SOMETHING?”
The religious folks here seem to think that you’re holding on because you wanted to hear from someone, they think it might be me. I don’t think it’s me, but on the off chance that it is, I just wanted to apologize for not being there, but that I’m thinking of you. I love you…I’ll miss you…and… GLAD YOU GOT TO SEE ME.
I chuckled through tears, and no one heard me but him. After years of awkward hugging and farewells, I finally nailed it. He died just two hours later, not because I’d given him permission, but because they finally satisfied the waiting period that the hospital required before unplugging the rest of the machines.
I hadn’t been to southern Ohio in three years, but I was going there last week, even if my grandfather hadn’t died. My cousin was getting married and I decided it was the best location to host my sister’s baby shower so that our relatives could attend. The town where I was born isn’t a place I like to frequent–it’s a backward Air Force town that’s only redeemed by the presence of a Waffle House and good pizza—but it is the sort of toilet town where people get so coated in monotony that they can’t imagine life anywhere else. It made sense to travel there, though, because past experience showed that if it’s not within 10 miles of home or smothered in gravy, most won’t show up. Now that he was gone, the bereavement clock sped up my departure date, and I packed my Mazda with a handful of black dresses, Lola and her Monkeyball, and started the six-hour drive.
At dinner the first night, we drank beers ($5.00 for a pitcher in that part of the country) and toasted to my grandfather, a life-long enjoyer of Miller High Life and PBR. The next morning, as the writer of the family, I was tasked with completing my grandfather’s obituary for the local paper. My grandmother supplied me with three pages of hand-written notes of his achievements in the military, in his career, and family. There was almost one full page of information about dead relatives.
With my sister and brother-in-law in tow, we looked for a place to write while other relatives met with the funeral home. Without a Wi-Fi source, we found our way to Friendly’s, stuck in the land that Starbucks has forgotten. Smoking was banned years ago, but the carpet still retained the smell and the tabletop was peeled laminate.
We ordered drinks to be polite, and when it became clear that our server wasn’t going to have any other tables during the lunch hour, we ordered a basket of fries to bump up our total. She was disappointed that we never ordered a Jim Dandy or a Fribble, but she was quick to refill our unlimited iced tea and we tipped 100% for the extended use of a table in such a depressing establishment.
The newspaper obituary, for those who have never written one, is the blandest, most stripped-down version of a person’s life, death certificate aside. The traditional format is stating the name, those who preceded the deceased in death, and those who are still alive. Then there’s a short blurb, VERY short, about the deceased as a person, which usually just states where they worked, who they drank with, one to two hobbies, and a final sentence about the arrangements. I wrote, while they watched.
“Can you Google the V.F.W post?”
“Can you spell Sasebo?”
“Should you use an oxford comma on obituaries?”
I finished it quickly, but it didn’t feel good. The folks that write phonebooks or write blender manuals probably get more enjoyment from their craft than I did that day. It was edited and submitted, and $371.00 later, my grandfather became a birdcage liner, a piece of wrapping paper, or a surface for peeling potatoes. My grandmother didn’t want us to add a photo, and when I saw it in the Sunday paper, even though I wrote it, I didn’t recognize it as my own writing (or my own grandfather).
So, here goes nothing.
My grandfather died at age 82, following complications from an unexpected bowel perforation. He was complaining that his hip hurt just a few days earlier, and X-rays showed that he had a cracked pelvis, though the doctors seem to agree now that the majority of the pain he felt was due to the undiscovered stomach issues, not his hip. He asked my grandmother to call him an ambulance in the middle of the night, but she decided to drive him to a hospital 45 minutes away, even though she had already taken an Ambien. We are lucky we didn’t lose both of them that day.
He’d been married to his second wife, my grandmother, for 54 years. For a long time, I didn’t know that it was the second marriage for both of them because they never talked about the blended family in blunt terms. Still, he had five daughters that he loved so much that he was willing to share one bathroom with them until they all got married and moved out. He had a dozen grandchildren, 11 girls and one boy, that he helped through major rites of passages including: underage beer drinker, blue gill fishing, marshmallow toasting, forehead can crushing, Dean Martin singing, poker playing, bologna sandwich making, sun soaking, grass cutting, boat docking, pier jumping, Drumstick eating, pocket knife wielding, panhandling, Frisbee tossing, bubble blowing, birdhouse building, and the art of Christmas tree decorating.*
*My grandmother hated Christmas decorations, but my grandfather insisted that they always decorate the entire house for the family gathering. Over time, the grand layout of model trains, dancing Santas, and Snowman candy dishes evolved into scotch taping poinsettia lights to the plaster archway by the kitchen, and using the same 4-foot Christmas tree each year. Instead of dismantling the fake tree and removing the tinsel, my grandmother cleared a spot in a storage closet upstairs and unceremoniously stored the festooned bush there 363 days out of the year. Knowing that the tree wasn’t trimmed with care each year was more devastating to me than realizing that Santa Claus didn’t exist, and I cried the first time I saw her take it up the attic stairs.
He loved to gamble, and would let me spend my allowance on Swedish fish, real Coke, and pull tabs at the VFW when I was eight. He helped me cheat at this old wooden bowling arcade game by knocking over the pins with his claw hand after the ball went whizzing by. He watched Westerns nonstop, and I would sit on the floor and pout because Black and White movies are pointless, and he’d just say “let her suffer!” in a John Wayne voice when my grandmother tried to coddle me. When I moved in with my grandparents one summer, I told my grandfather I was a vegetarian. He proceeded to make bacon every morning and told me it was there just in case I changed my mind.
Sometimes he would take me to Reds games, but it wasn’t apparent that he liked baseball. We would always leave in the fifth inning and he’d try to convince me that the game was actually over. As a compromise, we’d listen to Marty Brennaman in the car as we drove home. We’d be back in the house before the ninth inning was over, so I’d never know the outcome of the games.
When I was in college, I invited my boyfriend home for Thanksgiving, because his family lived in San Diego and it wasn’t convenient or affordable for him to fly home. I assured him that my family would love him, and made out in front of our dormitory waiting for my grandparents to pick us up. When they arrived, the look on my grandmother’s face was one of displeasure and fear because I didn’t think it was important to tell them he was African American. After much embarrassment for them, and some coaxing, we started the drive. We were fortunate we didn’t lose them that day, too. By the end of the weekend, my grandfather decided that he liked this gentleman very much because they both had ties to the Navy, and he gave him a firm handshake and a salute with his dead hand when they dropped us off. Even several years later, my grandfather still asked about him and asked why we weren’t together and married. He referred to my next boyfriend as, “the old man” and the “cradle robber” since he was considerably older than I was.
He was the peacemaker in a family of mischievous deviants. A diplomat, he could explain away every misunderstanding, every passive aggressive attempt at baiting, every wrong doing, and every tear. He stood up for himself when he needed, but he was happy to play ignorant to most disagreements. He gave all of his daughters a quarter once a week and told them each it was because they were his favorite.
He meant a lot of things to a lot of different people, and he was the glue that kept our family together.
They don’t let you put any of those stories in the paper, though.