Twice in My Life
posted by B on 10/07/01
I've been a pall bearer twice in my life now. You might think it gets a bit easier with age, and time.
The first time I was a pall bearer I was twelve years old. As much pain as I've gotten from both of them, one thing about my style of writing is that I always come back to God or my hometown. Conveniently, this involves both of them, seeing as how I was in Sunday School with my grandmother at the "First Assembly of God" in Danville, Virginia. That should tell you something pretentious about the environment...did they really expect me to believe that it was the FIRST assembly of God? Like nobody BEFORE this church had EVER assembled for God before? From what I've learned from religious television, Jesus and all his friends (called "Disciples," like followers of the Ultimate Warrior) "assembled" in Jerusalem and then went around solving mysteries. And they had a robot, and a flying house. Christianity is pretty cool when you think about it.
I've written before about feeling like the "dumb kid in the smart classes and the smart kid in the dumb classes," but that feeling didn't stop in school -- it's a recurring theme in my life, like Chow Yun Fat swooping in out of nowhere with the Green Destiny to slice away at my self-esteem. My Mom's side of the family is divided up into two specific categories:
1) People at least five years older than me that have children.
2) People at least five years younger than me with children.
The idea behind that list is that I'm years away from someone with blood relation to identify, and that my family is a bunch of slack-jawed yokels who can't keep it in their dirty hillbilly underoos. I like to pretend that hillbilly underoos have pictures of those robot Bear Jamboree robot bears from the mall on the butt. At twelve, I'd just started to see some of the more evil things in the world. The Gulf War had recently ended and "The Bodyguard" had just been released into theaters nationwide...suffice to say national morale was at an all-time low.
Thankfully my grandmother, Gloria, was there to sorta pat me on the back and help me through the problems of adolescence with a kind ear, a kind heart, and a decent explanation on why I should put all my faith into a giant man who lives in the sky. I believed everything she said. Of course I believed everything she said...this wasn't one of those "slump down in the corner and wait church out" Sunday School classes. Since nobody in my family was within five years of my age I was the only person in the class, and she was my teacher. She was my teacher for years...
My grandfather taught the "adult" class across the hall...not really "adult" in the way that Japanese cartoons are "adult"...he wasn't teaching them about midgets with throwing stars or tentacle rape or anything. It was "adult" in the way that they learned the exact same thing I was learning (Noah, smoting, child sacrifice, etc.) only with bigger words, and they got to sip coffee pensively during the lessons. I envied them for a long time, although I've never been a big fan of coffee. About halfway through a lesson one day (about the apostle Saul, and how God blinded him and made him change his name to "Paul" because he tends to be trite like that), my grandmother and I heard screams from across the hall...my grandfather had passed out in mid-lesson. We found out later it was a stroke. He died a few months later.
His time at the hospital had been tumultuous, involving periods in which he was allowed home in a wheelchair, where my grandmother, parents, and I would take care of him. One of the last memories I have of him is him yelling at me to change the television because he didn't want to watch Ren pick boogers out of Stimpy's nose. I remember throwing the remote down on the couch and stomping into my grandmothers room to read her weathered old copy of Charlotte's Web (her favorite book) for the hundredth time...how petty and literate I tend to be.
A few days after my grandfather passed away I agreed to be one of the pallbearers...I was tiny at the time (more tiny than you'd expect me to be anyway) but nobody else would do it. I remember how uncomfortable I felt in those clothes that kept painfully riding up into my crotch like a cheap prostitute. The entire operation took only a few minutes, but the time with a fucking wooden box carrying my grandfather's lifeless body in it, regardless of how bad my shoulder felt afterwards, finally brought out the tears I hadn't been able to cry. I've been to plenty of funerals before, but never for anyone who'd ever said "I love you" to me. Not many people have. I try to keep them close.
The funeral was the second time I'd ever seen my granny cry. She had once, at Christmas, when I gave her a big framed picture of myself and my Mom to hang up in her bedroom, but those were the same tears of joy she'd often shed when she heard a hymn she really appreciated. She'd seen me cry plenty of times -- the first time she read Charlotte's Web to me, the time in Sunday School when she tried to explain death to me...there she was, huddled over in my aunt's arms, like a person...like a person who didn't know why she was even alive anymore.
The days and weeks went by, and Sunday School went on as usual....we went back to making a big cardboard diagram of Saul's adventures through salvation, using Duplo figures in construction paper boats to illustrate God's wonders. I'm sure he appreciated it. She wasn't really the same...there was a longing in her eyes, a happiness to be there with me and the Good Book but a look that let anybody with a heart know that she didn't know why she was alive anymore. It took us a while but we eventually convinced her that she was still alive because we loved her, and needed her to keep our own lives justified.
Sunday School for me ended shortly after that...my Dad got a better job up in Lynchburg so we left, and my Grandmother stopped teaching Sunday School altogether. My younger cousins didn't give a crap what she had to say about Saul, once they reached my age they were more concerned with sneaking Newports into their respective houses. I sat up in my esteem-shattering Lynchburg middle school wishing I'd never had to leave, both for myself and for her. As admirable as I want myself to sound, I can't deny the fact that during every visit to her house I pestered my Mom with "when are we going?" a dozen times. Every time I arrived she would squint her eyes and smile, and give me a huge hug. Every time I left, she would do the same thing. I thought that would be in my life forever.
Christmases came and went, each one exactly the same -- a homemade paper card telling me how much she loved me, with a ten dollar bill stuck into the crease...underneath it was always the same message..."I hope this is okay...I would give you more if I could." I would always pass that big framed picture of me (in ugly clothes, par for the course of my childhood) in her bedroom and give her a huge hug. That ten bucks was always a pick me up for me, in a family where Aunts and Uncles deemed you unworthy of a Christmas present once you got pubes. What am I saying? Most of my Aunts and Uncles wouldn't even speak to me by then, much less bother to handmake me a card and give me their last ten dollars. Maybe their kids stole the money for Newports and condoms. Well, okay, maybe just Newports.
Whenever a big event would happen in my life, she was there. On my birthday each year she would be the first to call me, bright and early, firstly apologizing for waking me up and secondly telling me that she loved me. She never forgot to tell me that. In movies, when you lose a loved one there are always feelings of regret and disdain...those "OH MY GOD WE HAD A FIGHT I NEVER SAID I LOVED HER" screams that echo through your mind and shatter your already waning self-love. I always told her I loved her, and scratched her on the head where she liked. Regardless of what people in movies say, you don't need melodramatic feelings to feel the pain.
A couple of months ago I moved back home, and shortly after was awakened in the morning to the sounds of my mother slamming doors and racing out. My cousin Chrissy (which is short for "Christopher" even though she's a girl...and they say "West" Virginia is where all the inbreeding comes from) found my grandmother face down in her armchair in the middle of the night. She'd gotten up to get a glass of water out of the big fridge with pictures of us and inspirational snippets she liked from church pamphlets covering it, and had a heart attack about halfway there. Thankfully my cousin put a hold on her "Save the Last Dance" interracial love quests long enough to call an ambulance and get my reason for believing to a hospital.
She'd had a heart attack...actually, she'd been having heart attacks for a few weeks but they were small, so everyone (including her) believed they were just indigestion or a side effect of dialysis. I went to see her in the same hospital I was born in twenty-one years earlier. When I saw her lying in a bed with tubes up her nose and giant needles in her body that would send Courtney Love screaming away with her arms in the air, I didn't cry. I've been there before...people get sick, they get helped, they get better. It's why we pay doctors thousands of dollars to do nothing during routine checkups and gave Anthony Edwards something to brag about post Revenge of the Nerds. I held her hand and made some casual remark about how she had "bigger televisions hooked up than I do." After a while they took her away for tests, so I said good-bye.
"Promise me you're going to be okay, all right?"
She put her hand on my shoulder. Everything Saul ever did flashed through my mind. Cardboard, Duplo, construction paper, glue, and markers that never worked....
"I can't promise anything, but I'll try."
And with that, they wheeled her away.
A few days later they put a pacemaker in her...yes, the first thing I thought about was the Krusty Gets Framed episode of the Simpsons, and how my granny wouldn't be able to microwave any burritos...and let her go home. I made arrangements to see her that day, and just before I left got another phone call....the pacemaker hadn't worked. She had another heart attack...a bad one...and was rushed to Duke University. None of my cousins visited. I sat in the waiting room trying to convince a seven year old girl that Aaron Carter really wasn't very cool. By the time we got to her wanting to be an Olsen Twin I realized I was out of my league. You got it, dude.
The next time I saw my grandmother she had too much makeup on, and her hands were posed to hold a rose and a photograph of my Mom, and my Aunts and Uncles. It didn't even look like her...she was well into old age before I ever came meandering around into the family, so I can't even imagine what she was like at my age. I don't know if she ever made sarcastic remarks about television shows to her friends, or if she quoted her favorite movies. I don't know if she had her own "Dave Macchia" to make Lean on Me "EXPEDITIOUSLY!!11" jokes to. I don't know how or when she lost her virginity, or if she dated before my grandfather, or if she regretted having so many children. Standing there with my lips to her forehead I could only think of a few things...
I thanked her for trying to give me something happy to believe in.
I thanked her for not making fun of my crappy construction paper boats for Duplo Saul to ride in. I thanked her for liking the dumb picture I had taken for her for Christmas, even though my eyes looked crossed and I'm missing a few baby teeth.
I thanked her for all the times she'd wished she'd given me more than ten dollars.
I walked away past my parents as they shut her casket. I told myself not to cry in front of my Mom, since she was having a hard time as it is...but I couldn't stop it. They rushed up from the back of my head and smashed into the back of my eyelids like...like...like some wrestler. I don't know, it's one of those times when a wrestling reference just doesn't fit. And the sad thing is that I can't find another way to cope with remembering it.
The funeral helped remind me of those Danville is for Retards jokes...the pastor at my Grandma's new church (the newer church, anyway...the First Assembly of God was sold and turned into an African American revival center) was supposed to sing an inspirational song about Gloria Thompson waking up in Heaven's Courtyard to be serenaded by angels...but forgot to rewind the tape before he began.
A few seconds go by...
This happened half a dozen times, so between our tears my cousins and I sat there laughing. I'd like to be ethereal enough to think that it was given to us as a reminder that life goes on, but after the initial realization that the Danville clergy is on par with the 4th place finisher in the Special Olympics (the one who isn't as good as the down syndrome guy who won the bronze) we all started to get that look in our eyes. The same look she had when my Grandfather was put into a hole in the ground and covered with muddy dirt...the look of longing, the look of loss and suffering and the nagging feeling that we lost what we were living for.
On that rainy Monday afternoon I was a pall bearer for the second time in my life. I was a little bigger this time, almost ten years older, but the situations didn't change -- it was still slippery going up the hill, I volunteered since nobody else wanted to do it, and my stomach still turned over and over wondering why I, why the same twenty-one year old who'd spent their whole life listening to her words and reading the books she loved and making crafts that street performers would be embarrassed to sell had to carry the person he loved most in the whole world in a box that kept trying to dislocate his shoulders.
She was my teacher for years...and I didn't know anything anymore.
The days and weeks are going on now...my Julia Stiles-like cousins are still going crazy crazy crazy for the first Bad Boy 4 Life who offers them Newports. I still wake up to the sounds of my mother crying sometimes. I still feel bad for wanting to leave her house so quickly after I arrived, and I still want to believe in something...a big invisible man in the sky, a guy who was blinded because his name started with "P" instead of "S," cardboard scenery, anything to keep these memories of the one person who said "I love you" to me the most in my head forever. She really did...she said "I love you" to me three or four times every time I talked to her. Not many people have ever said "I love you" to me. I try to keep them close, but they always keep going away...
I don't know if I have the look in my eyes right now. I know life will go on without her, and I can still make wrestling references that nobody gets and I can still say "We should be together too" at the end of any sentences I can't think of jokes for and get a cheap laugh. The 1's still go after the exclamation points. But for some reason I can't seem to put my heart back together.
Just a few minutes ago I finished wiping all the tear stains from my copy of Charlotte's Web. It's not about anybody's grandmother, but it does say some things about her that I will always remember. It doesn't get any easier with age, or with time.
"She never moved again. Next day, as the Ferris wheel was being taken apart and the race horses were being loaded into vans and the entertainers were packing up their belongings and driving away in their trailers, Charlotte died. The Fair Grounds were soon deserted. The sheds and buildings were empty and forlorn. The infield was littered with bottles and trash. Nobody, of the hundreds of people that had visited the Fair, knew that a grey spider had played the most important part of all. No one was with her when she died."