Writing is full of false starts and mulligans. Were it a sport it would be an inscrutable mass of expletives and rage-crumpled pages. This is not news to me, nor, I suspect, is it new to you. It is the way of the creative mind, iterations of madness that eventually coalesce into something that, if not representative of what we wanted to convey originally, have been organized into such an order as to lie through the rough construction of grammar and syntax.
Maybe that’s wrong. It’s not. But maybe.
I talk about the creation of writing because it is in fact the very last thing I am actually capable of accomplishing. Some combination of self-loathing/sabotage and complacency has placed me outside of the permeable non-vocation of writer. And the further outside the once comfortable bubble of storyteller I get the more my mind dogmatically insists on saying I’m still a part of it.
As you can see, Denial and I are good friends.
Ordinarily this would be my own suffering. A failure I treat like a disease whose cause has not yet been found. Something I carry with me, and whose affects I reveal and inflict upon only those that are closest to me. When I fail to create it was a failure to capture my own ideas/thoughts/alcoholism.
Then death got involved.
We’d met before. He’d taken his sweet time collecting the remainder of my mother after her fall, but death is like that sometimes. Lingers and watches like some darkly curious sociologist. But this time death had moved more swiftly, shucking a soul and leaving a body just long enough to instill a comfortable amount of suffering before taking the heartbeat and disappearing back behind its curtain.
When you lose someone you care about the immediate response is to try and capture as much of them as possible. Items, memories, lies, it doesn’t matter. We hoard them like if we collect enough of them we could piece the lost back together again. Somewhere in all of this a numbness sort of falls over you and an automation of movement and consumptive introversion takes hold.
Maybe that’s wrong. I probably am. Grief is tricky.
Grief is something I do at a keyboard in solitude and sadness sipping at a glass of my preferred cathartic. Grief is the thing that made me swear that I would write and deliver a eulogy at his funeral. Grief is the beast I didn’t have time to battle. Life past and time disappeared and at the day of the funeral I was left wordless, watching others deliver smaller variations of impromptu pieces of memory I was assembling in my head, until every faucet had been exhausted and that time too disappeared forever and I was left silent in a memory I had sworn to make a mark beyond ‘attended’.
So grief modified the agreement. The eulogy became an essay. It would make up for the silence, became something greater than anything I had accomplished before. A prescient snapshot of mourning that would not only allow me to work through the emotional sludge caked under my footsteps, but liberate my hands to type and scrawl without the self-criticism that had haunted me for years.
I started with the wringing of hands. That strange, out of place moment the morning after he died where an expression I’d thought either dead or manifested by the creators of 6th century legend, a dramatic flair slinking and sliding over my hands like some neurotic infection.
I framed the rest of it between drinks, my mind flashing between moments of the last week, capturing how in those moments the world felt so extraordinary and new as to carry the flavor of the surreal. Paring translucent slices of memory reflected through macabre funhouse mirrors, rummaging through the once quiet, if dysfunctional province of my mind—stone walls, cities, and cottages—ransacked and burning.
And just like that it became story. Worse it became about me, about my drinking, my processing, my over indulgence in narrative devices using a grief weeks old as cheap emotional fodder. It wasn’t real. It was a tale. The kind he loved telling when recalling his childhood, but not the one I wanted for him.
And so the writing fell to fiction and from there to pieces. Snippets of language, of narrative nothings spread across the page six word paragraphs, 1000 words scattered across 18 pages waiting to connected and turned into the thing grief had promised I’d create.
I had wanted something real, something true. I wanted the impossible. I wanted memory to be what it is not, which is honest. I wanted to pretend that I knew a man with an intimacy that I never had. He had lived half a century before I had lived a day and no amount of creative maneuvering is going to fill that gulf. I was too late in moving beyond myself to uncover his existence in the context of my own. I am stuck grieving and commemorating a man I could never know beyond my childish remembrances.
He was my grandfather. He was the Scientist who lit a pile of gunpowder in the basement to explain the nature of combustion to a couple of five year olds, the Usurper of Punishment who slipped me malted milk balls behind his back after I’d misbehaved enough for my parents to institute a Sunday Visit Candy Ban, the Loving Giant who would climb roof tops to fetch overthrown Frisbees even after it was more than clear we just liked seeing him loom so massively on the roof. He was the Storyteller whose stories grew taller every time he told them and never stopped being true, because truth isn’t in the events that happened, but in their telling. He was the one who first to tell me the stories that weren’t out of board books or fairytales. The stories that hinged on outrunning stray dogs and bouts of escalating childhood violence that only a grandfather could deem fit for children. Through his words or his DNA he was the one that instilled in me that love of telling stories, those great and glorious lies that bind us all together.
I suppose with enough time, enough distance that will be what really sticks with me. But not now. Those old and cherished memories, little pieces I carry with me like clapper bells jingle feebly against the new and now thundering of the bell of a church on fire. A week stretched to one or two forevers as death watched him struggle to sleep, lucid enough only to scratch at the discomfort his failing body inflicts on him.
It’s so vivid, so bathed in that perfect clarity that panic offers that it’s all I can do to try and hide behind pragmatisms, coldnesses disguised as comforts. I tell myself he was 82. He was a grandfather. He was a dozen children’s grandfather. It was his right, in some higher sense his obligation. A life, necessarily finite, making room in the larger, functionally infinite super-organism. A simple continuing transition of one generation to another.
I suppose if one were to pull out far enough, either with time or emotion that might carry some weight to it, but up close death, like most failures, is rarely so graceful.
The problem was small at first, during the best of it. A small stroke, the kind that had happened before and left him befuddled, only lightly misshapen in his recollections. The details were the same as I’d heard through the distant grapevine the family keeps open for such things; some small details punctuated with the old man more pissed off by the inconvenience than the prognosis and the understanding that he would be home by week end.
Here, I imagine there is a place in some unproven infinity of universes that that is exactly what happened, where by some miraculous tilt of his head while sleeping the blockage continued its journey through the body, unperturbed, broken away by some kickstarted biological protocol. Here too, I am already a novelist living sparingly up north, fretting over how I’m going to top my critically lauded first novel and the megafaunal spider epidemic is just starting to fall into tenuous remission.
But that place is not here. Here is the place where the man who fell asleep that night did not emerge with the rising of the sun. And then the grapevine, slower this time, as if tasting it for some sort of untranslatable joke, made this known as well.
It’s hard to pin the week together. There was the elevator, the first time ascending to the sixth floor. There was the pit in the stomach digging for hope, settling for anxiety. A meeting in the hallway. Empty-hearted greetings. A jab at the disorder of my hair. Some oblique attempt at preparation, a lowering of expectations before the door opened and we were ushered into the room like some mixture of wake and zoo exhibit.
Eye contact with the man in the bed. Mute, but selectively mobile. Glimpses of what should be hidden in the face. Talks of guns for the sake of reaction. Jokes, forced laughter. Side glances away from the bed, breathes taken in dry gulps. Silences dressed in something unrecognizable, some mixture of heartbreak and humiliation. The end of the first day concluded by a look of recognition as I took his hand, telling him to give’em hell, and in those words bringing forth an understanding as visible as fire in the eyes.
The walk back to the car pocked with little blips of optimism in the back of the head, that miracles were not only possible, but a readily available prescription. Just a matter of patience, the right combination of words, the right question jotted on a pad and uttered allowed. But the delusion didn’t last.
Then the next day, maybe two: deterioration. Slow and steady. The hospital room changing, the man in the bed is different. Irises clogged with passing shreds of something that might be himself. Not gone. Just somewhere else. The man that spent the Sundays of my childhood explaining the science of a bullet through a combination of lecture and flame, vaporizing unfathomable large mounds of gunpowder in the name of science fluttering away in place beyond the reach of study. A body once full of aching will and wry, intelligent eye reduced to something as simple as a vessel, a symbol, for the most interested to tear their hearts across.
The change in rooms. One white, sterile, riddled with the movement, the promise of help, resurrection, whatever’s needed implicit in every foot fall. Hospice is made of dark wood—oak, mahogany, cardboard, I’ve never been any good with diagnosing wood—lights dimmed like a Mexican restaurant as if trying to acclimate one’s eyes to the void.
Then came the sedatives, the cessation food and liquid, the swabbing of the mouth for some light comfort, the sound of nature documentaries filling the dark of the room with something besides that foreboding silence preceding the inevitable. I’ll never be sure whether any of those things were more for him or the one’s watching him. Whether there was enough of him there to appreciate what was and wasn’t done.
I don’t suppose it matters.
The best you can hope for is that there was still room in him for dreams and that when the final period hit the page, the book it completed was a good one.