Today is the anniversary of my grandfather’s death. Thirteen years ago today, my Grampy died.
I didn’t find out that he was dying until just a few days before it happened; he himself had only known for a few weeks. He’d gone in to the hospital to have his gallbladder removed, but when they opened him up they discovered that he was full of cancer. Riddled with the stuff, was how my father put it. I pictured the surgeons gasping as they peeled back his skin, and instinctively looking away, as if the sight might blind them. I pictured them gingerly sewing him back up, as if they were putting a ticking time bomb back together. There was too much in there, he was already too far gone; there was nothing else they could do.
I’d seen my grandfather that spring, when he and my grandmother had come from Nova Scotia to visit us. When my father told us about the cancer, I wondered if Grampy had already been sick in the spring, without anyone even knowing it. I thought of the secret things your body could do without you ever being aware until it was too late; I thought about how my body, in its darkest recesses, might at that very moment be doing something to betray me, and how there was absolutely nothing I could do about it.
I think that my mother and sisters called my grandfather shortly after they found out he was sick; I know that if they did, I didn’t talk to him. It’s not that I didn’t want to talk to him, it was just that I didn’t know what to say. I needed time to think about it, time to work up the courage. In the meantime, I decided that I should send him an email – that would buy me at least a week, I figured.
I didn’t get a week. He never even saw the email.
I flew to Nova Scotia for his funeral. My grandmother’s house was crowded with relatives, and she and I had to share a bed. At least, we would have shared a bed if she’d been able to sleep, but instead she stayed up all night, cleaning and baking. My main memory of the funeral is how crowded it was; the church was standing room only, with people spilling out onto the street. My grandmother had put three roses at the front of the church, to represent my sisters and I. When she told me this, I started to sob uncontrollably; when my grandmother saw me crying, she leaned across me and hissed to my father, for God’s sake, Frank, put your arm around your daughter.
Every evening that I was there, family and friends would crowd my grandparents’ living room, telling drinking and telling stories about my grandfather. I was underage, but a drink always seemed to find its way into my hand; I felt lucky to have it, because I didn’t have much to contribute to the conversation. For the first time, I realized how little I knew about my grandfather.
The main memories I had of him were filtered through the lens of a little kid watching her grandfather, but the problem was that I wasn’t a little kid anymore. I was seventeen, and more than old enough to start getting to know my family as individual people, rather than just the peripheral roles that the played in my life. Like most teenagers, though, I was totally self-absorbed, and had a hard time caring about things other than myself. I figured that my family was sort of obliged to love me; it didn’t cross my mind that I was getting to the point where I would have to work for that love, or reciprocate the kindness they showed me. The worst part is that on some level, I knew that I was pretty awful, but I figured that given enough time, I would come out the other side of that awfulness as a shiny, mature, newly-minted adult. What I didn’t realize was that not everyone in my life had enough time left to wait me out.
I started trying to figure out my grandfather after that, started trying to piece his life together like a puzzle. I knew that it was too late, but it seemed important. I asked my father to tell me about my Grampy; I started to write things down, tried to keep a record. When I moved to Halifax a few years after my grandfather’s death, I began to look for the places that I’d heard about in family stories – St. Mary’s Boy’s School (which now houses archdiocesan offices), and South Park Street, where I knew he’d lived for a few years while growing up. I bought a copy of A Funny Thing Happened On The Way To The Forum because I knew he’d loved it. I looked for his brother’s picture in the Dalhousie law building. At my aunt’s house I stared at old photographs of him, wondering what he would think of me.
My grandfather was a genius, with a photographic memory (traits that I sadly didn’t inherit). He was funny, too – witty, even, in the way that only really brilliant people can be. He was an atheist, but he loved talking about religion. He had a beautiful voice, and had even sung in the opera in Halifax. According to my father, Grampy had rules about drinking, rules which I still try to follow – don’t drink beer until you’re drunk, just until you feel buzzed; if you want to get smashed, drink hard liquor; wine should be consumed with food; always drink beer out of a glass.
I remember that he loved to teach me things, but at the same time loved to spin a good yarn. My grandparents house had giant glass jars of marbles in the dining room, and he told me that my grandmother had won them all off him. I remember that he expected more from me than most of the other adults in my life, but he was also more willing to respect my opinion and listen to what I had to say.
I wish I could say that his death taught me to cherish the people around me, and make more of an effort to show them daily how much I love them, but that’s probably not true. It did push me to make more of an effort to get to know my grandmother, which is something that I’m profoundly grateful for because she is just the best. But even though I would say that I’m pretty close to my grandmother, I’m the first to admit that I still don’t make as much of an effort to stay in touch with her as I should. I mean to email her more regularly; I know she loves to hear from me, especially when I include pictures of Theo. It’s just that I get busy, or else I procrastinate, or else it doesn’t occur to me to email her until it’s the middle of the night, and I’m comfortably in my bed. Let’s be honest – in a lot of ways, I probably haven’t changed much since I was seventeen.
I dreamed last night that I was in my grandparents’ old house in Mahone Bay. It was a beautiful old place, full of dark polished wood and immaculate turn-of-the-century furniture. My grandparents were antique dealers, and every inch of available space in their house was crowded with a wealth of fascinating curiosities. One of my favourite parts of their house was a “secret” staircase that led from the kitchen to a small upstairs room that adjoined the master bedroom. At one time, that would have been the maid’s room, and the staircase existed so that she could get to the kitchen early in the morning without waking anyone else up; as a child, I would spend hours climbing up and down the staircase, or hiding behind the door at the bottom, spying on whoever was in the kitchen.
I think it was my memory of that staircase that inspired my dream. In it, I was trying to find a secret attic room that I was sure existed. I’d played in that attic room as a child, and knew that it was full of wonderful things. I ran through the house, searching for some way, any way to get to this room, but I couldn’t find it. I just wanted to see the room one more time, but it was impossible. The way there had disappeared, and I knew that it was gone for good.
In a way, my grandfather is a lot like that room. I know that he existed, and I know that he was wonderful. I wish that I could find him again, wish that I had some way of telling him how much I love him, but I don’t. Like the secret room, my grandfather is lost to me forever.
I miss you, Grampy ❤