Not long ago, my grandfather made the declaration that he wanted to be buried next to my grandmother when he died. Those in the room with him grew a bit uncomfortable and reminded him that she was cremated. He paused, slumped over as he had become near his neck, and slowly mumbled, “Oh yes, she’s on my dresser.”
That such a man had come to this–a man who had handled large, monstrous beasts of steel through the sky; who laughed when asked how one landed one of those; who fathered and raised four children; who took life as an immense challenge in organization; who knew only near the end (knew fully) the extent of his love for his wife and by proxy, his children–was both sad and expected. The last seven years of his life had been without my grandmother (she died seven years ago tomorrow, 01/21/06) and in those years he encountered a loneliness I can’t even begin to imagine. I could see it both in his long list of DVR’d recordings and in the way his voice would catch when talking about Grandma–it was enough to really get to the the bottom of what we define as suffering. He would often talk of her, how much he missed her, and then there would be silence and his stare would hold steady, looking into the past, past my birth and my sister’s, past both of my cousin’s birth and perhaps all the way to that February wedding day in 1947, to the moment right before that picture of the two of them cutting the cake: my grandmother, her hands small and covered by his large and sure hand, a sparkling smile on her face and my grandfather with a look that said, “I know and you do not.”
This could be said to be his most marked characteristic: his certainty. He would not be told otherwise, even as a young man I understand his stubbornness to be legendary. But what do any of us know of what was truly behind that? Perhaps only my grandmother really knew and that is why their marriage persevered through 59 years; why those same aviary hands would jump just off of the side of her bed when he came into her hospital room shortly before her death and his larger hand would take hers as if they were trying to reenact that same wedding picture.
He always taught me to read the instructions and would frown at me if I had tried to put my toy together without them. There was an impatience surely, but it was an impatience born of his own brand of tenderness. He always tried his best. Let that not be underestimated: he tried, and in an evolutionary joke that this life can be, that is a herculean task.
To borrow my aunt’s astute observations, his eyes would sparkle when telling stories, and were the stories about his children–of which there were four–an off-kilter angle would twist his mouth and you could see the pride and joy practically bursting out of him. At his 90th birthday party, he slowly stood up, all of us waiting in that drab and expected hotel conference room, and he leaned one of his hands on the gold top of his chair. He cleared his throat; his fingernails tapped slowly. Searching for order, he spoke of his four children and that he loved them, telling a story about each. I looked around the room at each and when the appropriate name was called, I could see them brighten and wait, still expectant and hoping for that most complicated thing: their father’s love and admiration. “I love all of my children, very much.” And with that, the man of the hour slowly sat back down and turned to his plate and coffee. And again there was that stare, missing the co creator of his four proudest achievements. He is with her now, perhaps on his dresser, perhaps not; he is at peace and finally in the arms of the order he so strongly craved and imposed.