Over spring break, my Grandpa died. I remember my eyes shooting open in the middle of the night, because I’d heard a sound: A single choked sob. My door was cracked open, and I saw that the lights were on downstairs — there was a faint buzzing of the TV in the background, and I heard my dad’s voice.
My first thought was that something terrible had happened between my mom and dad. Their marriage was falling apart. Maybe my dad had admitted to cheating on my mom, and she was crying and he was trying to calm her down. I had no particular reason to believe this, except that I couldn’t think of any other reason why they’d be talking in the basement at 4:00 in the morning, with my dad speaking and my mom crying. Unless someone died.
I heard Mom come upstairs and I knew I wouldn’t fall back asleep without knowing what was going on, so I went to her room, my heart pounding, dreading the worst. She looked at me, tears in her eyes, and said, “Your grandpa has passed away.” I felt guilty for how relieved I was. My parents were fine.
Four days later, we were on the road to Rochester, Minnesota, where the funeral would be held. Grandpa Chuck was my mom’s stepdad, and he’d been married before my Grandma Carol. He and his first wife had had three kids by the time my parents were born, and those kids had kids of their own, and some of those kids had kids of their own. Most of that side of the family lived in Minnesota, so I hadn’t met any of them in my life. This would be the first time I met them — all new uncles and aunts and cousins, or, I guess, step-uncles and step-aunts and step-cousins.
As we went to the viewing, and then the funeral, I observed the people around me. Uncle Matt, my mom’s brother, was quiet as usual, sometimes even indifferent-looking, but once I thought I caught him dabbing his eyes with a tissue — or maybe I didn’t. Three of my new cousins all had the same basic characteristics, and I tried in vain to figure out which was which. My new uncle Steve, with the same white mustache and gravelly voice of my grandpa, stood over the coffin, crying as other men rubbed his shoulders consolingly. My other new uncle Tim stood solemnly to the side, more subdued. I thought he looked more like Grandpa, but everyone told me that I was wrong, that Steve was his spitting image.
Looking around at everything, I thought about how surreal it was. I’d never lost a close family member before; my closest loss was probably my first cat, or maybe my piano teacher. In any case, I’d never been to a funeral, never heard a family member’s eulogy, never heard “Amazing Grace” blaring from a set of bagpipes. I’d never heard a pastor explaining that that we could feel safe and comforted because our loved ones were in a glorious place with God now.
Scratch that: I’d heard all those things before, but only on TV. Being a person that takes in so much narrative means that I’ve always compared things to TV, but as I get older, it only increases. There have been so many times this year when something happened and I thought about how I’d only ever seen that thing on TV — seeing someone at a party doing a line of cocaine, or walking through the clinical, over-lit white hallways of an emergency room, or stepping into a cabin in the middle of the woods.
I’d seen countless funerals on TV, but never in real life, and now it was all happening and it was real. That body in that coffin, which didn’t look like Grandpa at all, really was him. Old hymns reverberated throughout the chapel. The stained glass windows depicted warm chartreuse meadows and deep blue skies. I’m not religious, but as we stood and prayed, I felt that this was important.
Afterward we drove to the cemetery to bury him, and since he was a veteran, there were several men from the Army who shot rifles into the air. The sun was on my back but it was chilly outside, and as another veteran handed Grandma a folded up American flag and spoke softly to her, I couldn’t tell if the tears in my eyes were from sadness or the cold sting of the wind.
After it was all over we went to my new uncle Tim and my new aunt Paula’s house with the rest of my new family. We all drank and ate good food and watched the funny little kids be funny little kids. At the end of the night we went downstairs and Tim fired up a slide projector, and we all huddled around looking at old pictures of the family I never really knew. The lights were dim, and we were all laughing. Part of me felt like I was intruding on an intimate family moment, but I mostly felt happy that I was able to be here, finally getting to know these people I’d heard so much about from my grandparents. Even if they were this fully-formed family, we had Grandpa in common.
When I think of Grandpa Chuck, I think of his stories. I have so many memories of sitting across from him at the dining room table and hearing a story about fishing, or hunting, or his times in the army. On their own, many of the stories were pretty anticlimactic; they were small, subtle, often just about an amusing conversation Grandpa had or something he had to fix on his boat. But there was a quiet force to the way he spoke, something both engaging and calming, and no matter how the story ended, it always felt powerful and complete.
At the funeral, when Steve went up and told some last stories about Grandpa, I couldn’t help but think of how they really did look and sound alike. Steve had that same storytelling ability Grandpa had. As he spoke about his father, about how there was a warmth his gruff exterior couldn’t totally hide, I felt myself blinking away tears. Even if I didn’t believe in heaven or hell, this was an afterlife of its own: my mom, and my brother, and Grandma, and Steve, and Tim and all my new cousins and their children.
I watched a movie yesterday called “The Father of My Children,” by Mia Hansen-Løve. In the movie, a film producer dies, and his family is left to finish his films, while they privately go through their own grieving processes. Toward the end, the producer’s wife comforts her daughters, telling them that though their father is gone, he will live on through his films, his stories. One daughter adds, “And us.”
I thought of Grandpa, and Steve, and the funeral. Maybe it was cliché, but it was true. In the end, that’s what was most important. Our stories, and us.