This essay was chosen for The 2014 Colton Review at Meredith College.
I have a very interesting family. One may expect grandchildren of a recently deceased man to be uncomfortable, quiet, or maybe even upset at a funeral; however, that thought obviously didn’t occur to us as we are playing Red Rover and catching up on each other’s very interesting lives at our separate elementary schools. Our parents, as light-hearted as they try to be, occupy themselves with greeting friends and family before we proceed into the dreary service. I have never experienced a death of somebody that I was attached to in my seven years on this planet, nor do I find strangers pinching my cheeks and telling me that they are sorry for my loss as a good way to spend a vacation in North Carolina. This isn’t at all what I would like to be doing, especially under these circumstances.
I understood what happened to my grandfather: our schools taught us the negative effects of smoking, and I knew it wasn’t good for him. Mom used to request that he smoked outside, for she didn’t want the secondhand smoke around us kids. Plus, the smell wasn’t too great in the first place. Grandpa was funny, though, because he always found loopholes. I remember mom complaining to daddy one night that she smelled smoke from the bathroom while Grandpa was supposedly taking a shower. I don’t know if he really was smoking or not, but the idea of his rebellious streak was always entertaining to me. When I heard him fall in the bathroom one night when he was getting ready for bed, I knew right away that his smoking habit finally caught up to him. It was scary and heartbreaking all at the same time. I knew he was gone: I don’t know how I knew, but I just did. After Grandpa died, Daddy explained to my brother and I that Grandpa’s heart couldn’t work anymore because he didn’t take care of it. I am never going to touch a cigarette and I am never going to put my family and friends what Grandpa is putting us through. It isn’t worth it. And it’s gross.
He was always such a gentle man, but I was aware that he kept a lot of things from me. Due to my age, I knew little to nothing about his past or what happened in his life that led him to live with us on a military base in Florida. I asked him one day, in our normal spot on our cushioned swing, what made him move from his home in North Carolina to Florida and his only response was “It is what it is.” I didn’t think much about his answer to my question. I shrugged it off and asked him another after another about the most random topics. He used to say that a lot when he didn’t know an answer to something or if he simply didn’t want to respond to one of my pestering questions. Grandpa was one of the most patient individuals that I remember having in my childhood; that is probably why I enjoyed sitting with him outside, swinging, just wasting the time away. He always had Wint O Green Lifesavers Mints in his pockets and he and I would eat them throughout our many talks. As soon as he heard me crunching on one, he would pull out another for me to have. His pockets reminded me of my favorite movie, Mary Poppins, because he had an endless supply of mints just as Mary Poppins had an endless supply of whatever she wished for in her bag: once one pocket was empty, he would simply reach into another without hesitation. He smelled like these mints as well as cigarette smoke, and it was an odd and yet favorable smell to me. With his scruffy voice and his soft eyes, my grandfather was a really interesting person to me. He had something to say about any topic, but he wasn’t one to speak his mind unless you specifically asked him to. I wouldn’t say that he and I were particularly close, but I enjoyed his company and I liked to believe that he enjoyed mine just as much.
The funeral home smells like old people, decaying flowers, and sadness: it smells like hopeless abandonment. You could almost stick out your tongue and taste the tears that people have shed while in this building. It is dark, despite the countless number of lamps all around the room, and the only noise is that of hushed conversations and the giggles of my cousins as they play games with each other. It is cold, too, which I find suiting for this place. I guess this is what death is like. Samantha, two months older than I, is raised as my cousin although she is actually my dad’s youngest sister: this is her father’s funeral. Throughout the night, I keep peeking at her to see how she is doing, but she shows no emotion of grief or sadness, so I try to portray the same in order to not appear unnecessarily dramatic. I don’t know if she feels sorrow about all of this. I’m sure she does to some extent. The way I see it, I have no right to be upset about my grandfather dying if she seems okay. She hasn’t ever talked to me about him, but, then again, she and I haven’t been close growing up, either. I try to play along for a while in the many games that my cousins want to play, knowing that I may not be able to see my family again for quite some time, but my heart isn’t in it. In fact, I don’t want to do anything other than get out of my itchy dress and go home and see my cat. I don’t belong here. Then again, going home to an empty seat on the swing doesn’t sound appealing, either.
From our seats in the service, I have direct sight of my father and Samantha. My chest feels heavy and my eyes fill with tears throughout the service, but I refuse to let myself be upset if they aren’t. You are pathetic, I tell myself. Hold it together, Brooke. I try to think of things that make me happy: my friends back at home, reading books, cuddling with my cat, the smell of my mom’s perfume, Disney movies, hair bows, family, and Grandpa’s mints. Warm tears spring out of my eyes before I can catch them, and mom squeezes my hand to comfort me.
I glance over to daddy and see that he is allowing himself to cry freely. I have never seen him so vulnerable, with his chin quavering and his eyes misty. He rarely shows his emotions. Daddy refuses to even smile in family portraits, although I think that it’s because he wants to look like the Beatles. He always keeps a calm face, much like his sisters, and one can only guess how he is usually feeling. I look over to Samantha, whose head is buried in her sister’s lap, crying. The rest of the cousins are sitting quietly, bored, probably thinking of another game to play after the service or what they’ll have for dinner. My own brother sitting beside me is getting restless in his seat. They just don’t understand; they didn’t know Grandpa like I, daddy, or Samantha did, and I honestly pity them.
After the service, I walk up to grandpa’s body and take a good look at him for the first time since before he had a heart attack. His face, caked with makeup, seems so plastic, unreal. His laugh lines and wrinkles are smoothed out and his eyes remain closed, despite the people surrounding him to see him for the last time. I don’t know why, but I can almost picture him sitting up and laughing, telling us that this was a joke all along. I grin to myself, knowing that the idea was an impossible one, although it is something that I could picture him doing. Daddy and Samantha gather around the coffin along with others, standing strong and yet thoughtful.
A family friend reaches his hand into the coffin and fixes grandpa’s collar. “He was a good man,” he says to a friend, still looking at my grandfather’s face. My hearts stops and my eyes bulge. Did he seriously just touch a dead body? What if he isn’t really dead? What if grandpa’s hand reached up and grabbed this man’s?
He must have noticed that I saw him, for he motions to me and tells me that I can touch my grandfather’s body if I want to. I loved my grandfather, but I was scared to touch him. What if he came back to life at this moment and reached for whoever was touching him? What if his still body plunges out of the coffin right now? I know that it’s an absurd thought, but it could happen, right? “Brooke, it’s okay. Look,” mom says, touching grandpa’s sweatshirt, “Nothing is going to happen.” After a few moments of hesitation, I glance at my father and Samantha, both who do not seem to mind, and I reach my hand in, trembling. The once warm face of my lovable grandfather now portrays a masked, powdery, stiff, and cold substitute. A part of me wishes that he would open his eyes, knowing that I was near him, wanting to let me in on his little trick, but he remains still.
I look up to mom, my fingers still lingering on my grandpa, and I start to cry. She comes to me and holds me and I finally let out all of my sadness that I’ve allowed myself to bottle up. I don’t care if seeing me will make daddy feel worse or if Samantha and my cousins will judge me for not being strong. I am glad that circumstances in his life led him to live with us. I am glad that he and I had talks while on our swing. I am glad that he and I shared a common love for Wint O Green Lifesavers Mints, which was our special bond. My grandfather was entirely too young to die; he was a normal middle-aged man that should have been able to see me grow up. Even more so, he should have been able to see his youngest daughter grow up. He is going to miss out on so much now. But that is life. Sometimes things aren’t fair. People are born; people will die. We just have to embrace what life gives us when we are given opportunities, even the small ones like giving your grandfather company on a swing after the school day is over. This is what life is all about it: is what it is.