Something that I learn is that I can be sadder.
My grandpa died two years ago today. I was with him, as were his three living children, his great-granddaughter, his dearest family and friends. We stood at his bedside as phone calls came in, put on speaker so he could hear his loved ones say goodbye and they loved him. I marveled. I marveled at what that took to make that phone call. How many of us would do that? How many of us have the courage to call a dying man, who cannot respond, serenaded by the loud, articulable breathes of the ventilator? I marveled at my grandfather, lying there dying, listening, unable to say goodbye and I love you too. At a man lying there, surrounded by love, knowing this was the end of his life and not knowing where he was going next. We encircled him, we held hands and we sang. They gave him drugs, they took the ventilator out, I left with Vesta before he died and went back to his empty apartment where I put my exhausted toddler to bed, ordered Chinese food for the family and friends who would come back after he was gone, and broke a heart shaped glass dish that I prayed to God did not have a strong significance to anyone, especially not him. I was pregnant with Harvey. I wanted to tell my grandpa before he died but I didn’t. I had only just told my mom days earlier and we were still in what I used to know as the “danger zone”, the first trimester. I wasn’t telling many people yet and I didn’t want to say it to him in that room full of people. I have wished I did. I have imagined that he just knew, in the inbetween state of alive and dead. Six months later, Harvey was born and died and sometimes I think the not telling was reflection of the whisper that Harvey was. The same as how he stopped kicking every time Danny put his hand on my belly. A way of saying, I’m here but I’m not staying, I’m here but I’m not here. Another way of not connecting with the people who would love him most. After Harvey died, I wondered if Grandpa knew, in his inbetween state, that I was pregnant and that his sixth great-grandson would follow him, shortly, into the abyss. I wondered if Harvey was there with him as he left. I wonder if the left together, Richard Duncan and Harvey Richard, in some way, into that place with no time and no space. I wonder if my boy escorted him out and if my Gramps escorted him in.
Six months later, they took the ventilator out of my son’s mouth. Even in those most intense moments, it wasn’t lost on me that I sat with two people, 91 years and 2 days, who died in the same way. Taking their last breaths, hours later than they would have, without those machines, surrounded by people who loved them, people who sang to them. Oh, the people who would have called Harvey, if we’d only thought of that. These two deaths are inextricably linked in my mind, in my being. The eldest and the youngest of my maternal side. Two Richards. My son died the same day my grandfather’s son died, 19 years apart. His name was also Richard. Somehow there is a connected and complete circle there. A connection between those three men and would-be man, with me, all lost and broken in the center of it. Somehow it brings comfort and somehow it makes it worse.
I was so sad when my grandpa died. Today, I thought about her. I thought about that woman who wailed into the phone at the news of Kim’s sudden and untimely death, who cried for four days straight after her aunt’s slow and untimely death, who buckled at the funeral of her other grandpa and who just two years ago got to at once witness this grandpas sacred transition and mourn him all at once. I think of her and now I marvel at how sad she thought she was. How unbearable these losses. How do we live without these people? Without their wisdom and anecdotes and quirks? How are we a family without all of our members? Today, I long for her. I long for that sadness. That sadness that, it turns out, was in fact bearable. I miss my family who are gone. But for me, as the niece and the granddaughter, there was some sense. They would all die before me. My uncle and aunt, far, far, far too soon. They should both be alive still, to this day. Before they died, I couldn’t imagine my life without them but I never imagined they would be with me my whole life. None of my family who are gone. Except Harvey. Except for this sadness that I never imagined I would bear, never imagined I could bear. I turned away from movies and stories about children gone. I gave my condolences and then turned away from people I knew who lost children because I couldn’t imagine it, I could even bear the thought. And in terms of Vesta, I still can’t. Even though I know exactly what it’s like to lose a child, I cannot imagine the loss of another, I cannot even bear the thought.
We can always be sadder. (Not a word but I’m using it anyway). I’ve turned on the news the last couple of days for the first time since Harvey died. I haven’t been able to handle extra noise feeling so overwhelmed already, let alone news of endless and constant tragedy. But all of the sudden, I’ve turned it on when alone in my car. “When the parents of the American journalist beheaded by ISIS last week learned of their sons death…” which quickly became a story about the origins of the organization and a gel-political commentary, I was stunned. I was stunned that we can say such a thing, we can hear such a thing, and move on to something else in the next breath. All I can think about our the parents of a beheaded son and what that must be like. A couple days later, I heard a report of clinicians working with people with incredible PTSD in Kurdistan after they have suffered “the worst forms of torture imaginable”. I believe that I have experienced PTSD from the loss of my son and that I still do, but not like that. Not from unimaginable torture. It can always be worse. But that doesn’t help. Inevitably, putting myself in a larger context of suffering takes my down a road of several days of feeling worse and worse for myself. Just the same as seeing the “first world” complaints and struggles people post on Facebook everyday or hearing them in my own head does. I wake up every morning to a life I don’t want, that has gone off the rails of security and plans and innocence. I want my son alive, I want the ability to have another child, with the man I married, within the marriage and family I thought I had. Now, I even have thoughts outside of that: I’ll adopt a baby on my own, I want to own a house, I want to feel like I can easily support myself and my daughter. But these complaints, these silly wishes that lead only to some false sense of security and comfort don’t help either. They take me down too.
When asked “how are you?” my grandpa would say one of two things: either “I think I’ll make it through the day” or “I’m in good shape for the shape I’m in”. I would always give a small giggle, polite yet awkward, at these replies. But now, I think I understand them. He lived to be 91 years old. He lost his son, mother and wife in three years time. He was hit by a cab at 87 years old, breaking every bone of his pelvis and most of his ribs and he learned to walk and swallow and laugh again, against all odds. He knew he might not make it through the day. His son literally dropped dead at 40 and his wife died unexpectedly after a routine surgery. He knew in his bones, in his broken grieving heart that life is fragile and we can’t necessarily count on it to last. He also knew such great grief, the heavy burden of getting through days without those who were so important to him, so central in his life. Every day after those losses, I’m sure we’re long, long days and he knew he only might make it to the end of the day with all of that heaviness he carried. He accepted his shape. The shape of a man who’s life was full of adventure and chaos and love and joy and heartache and confusion and grief and, those last several years, pretty intense pain and struggle to literally and figuratively get back on his feet. I don’t know if he truly accepted it but the saying of it, the mantra of “I’m in good shape for the shape I’m in” harkens to some truth, some knowing, some acceptance.
Almost daily, I bolster myself with one or both of those phrases. “I think I’ll make it through the day” I whisper to myself. I have lost certainty but not hope. “I’m in good shape for the shape I’m in” I’ll think loudly inside my head. I’m a fucking mess, but I’ll be damned if I don’t carry this mess around with a little bit of grace, a dash vulnerability and a whole lot of resiliency.
2 days and 91 years and so much to learn from them both.
I love you, Gramps. I love you, son. Even if you don’t want to, Harv, learn a little tennis for the old man.