My Grandfather, Ten Years Gone

I was reading Night. You know, the book by Elie Wiesel? I was in Mrs. Wright’s English class. Seventh grade. I was sitting in the back. At the left. I was wearing the same damn uniform fleece coat I always wore, even in summer. I was thirteen.

It was too soon.
It wasn’t uncommon in those days for my mother to check me out of school without warning. Maybe I’d had a doctor’s appointment I didn’t remember, maybe my brother was sick and she didn’t want to make the commute twice…maybe I had some appointment I’d forgotten about. The dentist, maybe.
Were it so easy.
I remember closing Wiesel’s book, remember making some quip about how I had no idea why I was being checked out early. No idea at all. Mrs. Wright liked to antagonize me. I’m sure she implied I was trying to skip out on her class. That was never true. I liked her class.
I wish I never had to go.
I remember the short walk downstairs: the high ceiling of the upstairs atrium, the banners hanging in the last sunlight that had any color in my world for many years. Mrs. Wright’s room was the closest to the stairs–unless you counted the copy room or the girl’s bathroom (I didn’t). It seems funny to me now that so short a walk could mark so great a journey: sinister and unfair. Magical the way deceit is always magical. Footsteps echoing on the laminated stairs. Yellow sunlight.
Do you know what the funny thing is? I can’t remember if both my parents were there. In the principal’s office. I’m sure they must have been. I can’t even remember which principal it was. Joanna Burley maybe? Or Lou Pappalardo? I suppose it doesn’t matter. I remember the words. Bleak, broken. I do not remember who spoke them. Mom or dad. I can hear them, their cadence but not the voice. I can hear the tears, but cannot recall whose eyes it was that dropped them. Mom’s or dad’s.
“Grandpa died.”
Disbelief. Confusion. It wouldn’t scan. I waited, thinking there would be more of an explanation, thinking that it must be my mother’s dad–he always seemed so unwell, who out-lived them all. I remember the fluorescent lights of the office seemed suddenly very cold. I remember that same broken voice explaining what had happened–I think it must have been my father…whose own father was dead. I do not remember the words, or the look on his face. I remember the screaming. I don’t know if anyone else heard it, or if it was for my ears and soul alone, or if they did hear it perhaps it sounded different. It was low and piercing: the tearing of metal somewhere deep in my soul–the tearing of my soul. I started breaking then, who would shatter in the next twenty months. I had never really hurt before, not truly, nor felt creation tear along the fault lines within me.
Ten years ago. Today.
It was not the end, was not even the worst. That would come a year later…the day after my birthday, when my grandmother died. But the green-stick fractures that set the stage for that awful day were laid then. In that office. By that broken voice…and all its words meant.
I still waited for an explanation. His heart had given out, they said. That wasn’t good enough. That was how. I wanted WHY. I was Catholic in those days, and dreamed–but for a very public crush–that I might one day make a priest. I looked there for a why, for that quiet place I’d learned to find within myself where I felt what I thought was the Love my teachers spoke of. I couldn’t find it. There was only the screaming. I know now that I am fortunate to have suffered so small an amount of tragedy in my life. Were I still Catholic, I might speak of how blessed I am. Were I ever stupid, I speak only of my good fortune. My luck. That I did not suffer more, that death was the worst of my trials. Good deaths hurt us. Great ones unmake us, for a time, as I was unmade. Great deaths need not be as they are in stories: the hero holding the narrow way against death and darkness. Great deaths are measured only by the closeness of one’s soul to the departed…and my grandfather and I were very close. He was not my world, as he was my grandmother’s, or the bright north star as he so often seemed to be for my father. But he was a world, and it was a comfort to know that in the vast and human universe there was a place and a person so defined by his compassion, his brilliance, by the depth of his knowledge and his capacity for good. It was as if–by virtue only of his presence in my life–a great darkness and danger was kept at bay, and with his passing the world grew a little stranger, a little more frightening. Indeed, when I walked numb to my mother’s van to go to the house–my grandmother needed us–I remember the sunlight had changed. It was silver now. Not silver. Gray. I don’t know when it changed back…but it was not for several years, not until almost I left home for college. All the world was gray, muted…remained muted. I could not change it back. I could not stop hearing that hollow scream that rattled in my soul like a broken tooth. “Why?” it asked. “Why? Why? Why? Why?” Over and over, day and night for weeks. “Why? Why? Why. Why.” Until it was not a question, and that it was no longer a question broke me.
The next year was hard: it claimed my mother’s mother, then my father’s mother, then my mother’s father last of all. It nearly claimed me, for I was neither well nor happy then, nor indeed very wise. My suffering turned septic in me, turned me sour. It made me the worst person I had ever met for a very long while. That is why I have so very few friends left from high school, and why I value those friends I have no so highly. I suffered until my suffering was wholly self-made, as do a great number of us. I was still broken somewhere in my soul, the whole of me rattling with that screaming question that was not a question. Was rage. Was only rage.
Things changed, I grew up. I fell once briefly in love, lost that, and briefly I met real evil, and saw real suffering. I think that contextualized my own crises…broke me again. But I broke back together, though my new shape was strange to me. The sun is golden now, as it should be.
Only there are clouds now, and today the clouds are dark and close. Ten years gone. I am ten years now removed from my grandfather and the world of compassion and wisdom he represented. Ten years removed from him, who was the surest link to my Italian heritage. Ten years removed from that hideous day in the gray sunlight where more than a dozen priests escorted his body from a cramped sanctuary. They sang the Salve Regina, and would sing it again for my grandmother little more than a year later. Their voices broke in the spring air, and faltered. And choked. It was a song they reserve for their brother priests, and though a bishop was there they sang it–and he with them. I judge funerals now by the standard of his. By the hundreds there, by the sorrow deeper than any cloud of memory ten years gone. Great deaths unmake us–such is the force of the life ended, the weight of it. Would that we all lived so well and so wondrously as to create such grief by our parting…
But more than that…would that he were here. He would have hated that I wanted to study English. It would have brought me no end of grief. I’d have bourn every second badly–would bear it gladly now. A day is fast approaching where I long to knock on that screen door, to enter that narrow kitchen and approach the flattened armchair where he sat–ever by his phone–and lay my book in his hands. “Told you I could do it,” I’d say. And grandma would smile from her own chair. She’d try not to laugh.
“Oh, Christopher!” he would say, voice too big for that low-ceilinged room, “I never said you couldn’t do it, only that you really should have tried harder in math!” I’d shrug. We’d laugh. Grandma might tell him to leave off. “But I never doubted you!” He’d add, defensive. “You’re my favorite, number-one grandson!”
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