Celebrating Life in Death, in the Worst Way Possible

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Let me tell you how my grandfather died.

Old man Johnny died before he should have, yellowed and translucent skinned, in a bed of Stromboli, butter, and excess that had taken on the form of leukemia and other ills. It’s frustrating to see someone leave who wouldn’t have to go if they ate better and took better care of themselves. No, it’s not fair to have to go through life constantly restricting your eating and craving foods you shouldn’t have, but it’s not nice to die that way either. Did this make my grandfather a bad guy? Not in the least. It just made him gone too soon.

I never really knew my grandfather, and that’s not from a lack of spending time with him. My brother and I spent plenty of our childhood days in his care, though his guardian duties ceased when he got into a car:

“I don’t care what you have to grab hold of, but don’t you let Grampa get you in the car.”

“Why, Dad? Is he a bad driver or something?”

“You know how bad the Nazi’s were to people? Well, that’s how bad Grampa is behind the wheel.”

If it’s two things we knew as kids it’s that Nazi’s were bad and my grandfather was a death trap on the road. I look forward to the day I get to warn my own kids about my father’s driving. If he’s still around.

            It wasn’t a lack of trying on my grandfather’s part that I didn’t really know him. I just didn’t get him. I was my grandmother’s girl, the only granddaughter, and Gramps was a real man’s man. Tattoos of anchors and other unrecognizable servicemen symbols lay distorted and blue on his forearms, a stint in World War II under his belt, and a temper that his grandkids rarely saw. When I asked him how he met my grandmother he told me he accidently blew up her house while flying over England and had to rebuild it. Close enough, I’m sure. I couldn’t even begin to get into the subconscious metaphors posed in that short little twisting of the truths, but they’re there. Trust me. He loved is grandsons, and there’s no doubt in my mind he loved me to. I don’t think there was ever a time I looked at him and he wasn’t smiling back at me. I loved getting sick as a kid because I got to spend the day at grandma’s & grandpa’s. That meant huge slices of country bread lightly toasted with so much butter on one side that it soaked straight through the paper towel it was delivered on, as well as giving my cheeks a glossy shine. And the Price Is Right was always on TV, turned up to a million decibels. I don’t think my grand folks were hard of hearing, but if they became so I blame people who insist upon looking to the audience for answers. My grandfather would just watch me watch the show and get a kick out it. I wouldn’t even know what the Price is Right was if not for him, because he loved the show, too, but he liked his grandkids happy even more.

            So there. I’m mad he was sick, I’m mad I wasn’t there, and I’m mad he didn’t stay a little longer. Though, I can’t promise I would have had any more patience for him if he had. Death does that to you. Nothing acts as a better “I told you so” then death.

I see a lot of my grandfather in me. I see more of him in my own dad each day. This scares me more then anything else. I need my own father to not go through what his dad went through. I need my dad to play with my kids, to not be allowed to drive them around town, and to watch them watch the Price Is Right, without getting sick, without dying before he’s supposed to. I don’t know how to get that through to him.

So, my grandfather died. Just like that. We all saw it coming a long ways off and knew the signs and it happened in what seemed like 7 seconds. That was it. I should really get around to visiting them, but I’m busy with work and school, maybe he should diet, why does he keep buying silly things, the family is arguing again, and Grandpa’s dead. Just like that. There always needs to be a little dark in light, that’s what makes the light parts the best. In fact, the best part of grandpa’s death was disposal of his ashes.

Grandpa was cremated. A hulking man of war time, indulgence, and chest hair incinerated to the softest gray powder. If you’re on the fence on what to do with your body after death this may help you make up your mind. I for one am all for corpse compost, but that’s a different story.

We probably would have gotten around to scattering Grandpa sooner if it wasn’t for his demise bringing to evidence Grandma’s newly developed Alzheimer’s. It was a nauseating one-two punch, but when you knew these people it kind of made sense.

So, Gramps got cremated and came back to us in a biodegradable urn, as specified. The urn was bright anything-but-manly-man teal, not as specified. It was big, one size fits most, I guess, and looked like the largest Easter egg you could ever imagine. Only there was death inside of it instead of candy and sunshine. And, aside from being a remote yet possible consideration for new age art, no one wanted it in their house. Aunt Lisa didn’t want it, too many emotions, my parents didn’t want it, too sad, and Grandma, too many memories (both there and missing), didn’t want it. The only thing to do was to scatter Grampa’s ashes or bury the urn itself.

It was months before I got a call from my father resolving this. He said that he’d come up with a plan and the family had agreed to it and he’d like me to be there. Absolutely, not a problem, way to go, Dad, for taking charge. People say something about “it’s the thought that counts”, “the best laid plans of mice and men”, etc. None of those people had a grandpa to scatter.

So the our little clan piled into various vehicles, my parents, my aunt and uncle, my cousins, my brother, my boyfriend and I, and we drove North. We headed to this park about an hour or so from our home. Once we arrived at our destination my grandmother chose to stay in the car. This particular area happens to be a beautiful place and we had all been many times growing up to enjoy the beautiful grounds, waterfalls, hiking trails, sunlight glinting through the bows of the trees. You can all but hear mother nature humming contentedly to herself, and it’s all very, very public.

            It was a Sunday and people were enjoying this day same as we, with their loved ones, and smiles, and nature. Well, not exactly same as we, what with the human remains in my dad’s backpack and all, but pretty close. The waterfall, as always, was beautiful and thunderous, but completely surrounded by people and we wanted privacy, due to the emotions we were all about to share. We also didn’t know if what we were about to do was exactly considered legal.

By the time we found a nice shady spot away from people, the river spewed forth by the falls had become a stream, but nervousness has a way of making people stupid, and we felt it was good enough. My father’s trepidation made him tiptoe to the center of the brook, set down the backpack, and remove my grandfather’s ultramarine cocoon.  We all watched, quietly, thoughtfully, sadly as he gently placed the urn into the water and waited. And waited. There, in the shallows, the urn, my grandfather, was stuck in a misjudged mere two inches of water and mud. Any reverence we were feeling as a group began to fade into nausea and panic. And not a sadness induced nausea either, a full blown uh-oh nausea with a side of fear. Our drawn mouths gained the company of our furrowed brows. In short, we went from saying “Goodbye” to all, but sceaming “Oh, shit.” Luckily, my father is the captain of our hoard and knew precisely what to do.

As if reading our newly turned Neanderthal minds, Dad picked up a stick and proceeded to poke Grandpa. I don’t know if you know, we certainly didn’t, that biodegradable urns actual crumble in water. Especially when poked with a stick.

The urn broke into many large, bright pieces, obviously not natural to the surrounding wood. A portion of Grandpa got caught in a breeze and swirled over the stream. By that point we were far more appalled then reverent and it seemed we all thought the same thing: Hold your breath, lest you choke on some hunk of Grandpa! The rest of his dust drifted in chunks down through what little current there was or sunk lazily to be mixed with the rest of the mud.

And we all just stood there. There was once a man who died, was burned, remains packed up in a hideous oblong vessel and was totally fumbled by his family.  It became intimately clear to us, no longer tearful, but embarrassed, that we all had botched this man’s entire afterlife. And if he could have watched us all on this day I think my Grandpa would have roared with laughter.

I don’t think my grandfather had ever had so much fun. I’m not one for the after life and God and metaphysics, but I think, on that day, when the ashes of my grandfather floated down stream, in broad daylight, in a public place, much to the horror of his loved ones, that it was better then any episode of the Price Is Right.

I learned many things from this experience, but one lesson sticks out in particular. I know that most people have the feeling on more then one occasion that they don’t want to be seen with their family, that they simply don’t want to be associated to their kin.

Those people got nothing on me.

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