what do you say about a grandfather who couldn’t remember your name? a grandfather who we only got back in touch with a few years ago? a grandfather whose house you lived in for a year and a half while he rotted in a nursing home?
harry was not my grampa. he never earned that affectionate nickname. i was lucky enough to have grown up with grama’s second husband, george. he was quiet, like me. phone conversations got a little bit silly with how tight lipped we both were. but i remember having a lot of fun with him. he taught me to swim, drove me to second grade and tried to dry my tears with a silly song about a peanut on the railroad tracks. the only line i remember was the punch at the end… “toot toot!! peanut butter!” he was a wonderful, caring man who looked out for my well being. even when i was mad at him for making me take the dog for a walk to get some exercise because i was getting chubby in those preteen years, i knew he cared. i was so proud this afternoon when mom remarked about how george adored me. grampa george would’ve turned 99 earlier this month. and i realized he’s been gone for 20 years.
harry died this morning. i found out in an email at work and i surprised myself by saying shit and bursting into tears. my boss sent me home to be with my mom.
frankly, i expected her to be more broken up about it. but she wasn’t crying. my auntie barb, his other daughter, wants nothing to do with him. but my mom forgave and forgot. in her late 40s and early 50s she decided better late than never and formed a relationship with her long lost father. she feels very proud (and self-righteous and judgemental of her sister for chosing another path) about this, and i’ve struggled with it for my own daddy issues, but i’m happy for her and i admire that ability to allow a new relationship with him.
harry left the family when my mom was just a baby, after a mental breakdown. one night he got into bed with grama and pulled his hand out from under the sheets, bloodied from scratching at his penis and exclaimed, “look! the blood of christ!” this memory always conjures a kind of stupefied laughter between us when we retell it at family gatherings, but how fucking creepy man… what was grama thinking then? what happens when you realize you’ve married a madman?
grama moved on, worked and raised her children. george and harry actually knew each other from church and the neighborhood and when my mom was 11 or 12, grama married grampa george. even though i don’t remember hearing about harry coming around for those ten years, it was unspoken after the wedding that harry’s place as a father to my mom and aunt had been taken. every once in a while i think he got to visit with them. the next thing i remember hearing about is his disapproval of my mom’s marriage to an african man, and his certain… if not lack of understanding, then genuine disdain for a biracial baby. me. i was aware of other racism in parts of my family who i spent more time with, so i didn’t even really consider harry. i have a way of completely closing down any emotion at all toward the people who have rejected me for reasons i can’t understand.
harry drove the city bus. when my mom worked downtown, occasionally she would find herself paying a fare to her father. she would cheerfully say, “hi daddy!” and hop on. she had a complete lack of hard feelings that i could never wrap my head around. i remember one holiday season with him buzzing the security door of our apartment and bringing us unwrapped ugly knit hat/scarf sets (all in one piece) for christmas. he didn’t stay. he just dropped them off.
several years later he started coming around. he and his longtime lady friend, anora, would invite us to dinner at perkins or something and we’d all sit around with awkward smiles and obligitory catch-you-up-on-my-life monologues. i never really cared, i went because my mom wanted us there. i didn’t stifle my little sister’s genuine and sweet friendliness by telling her what i knew. but one thing i could never get over was that he couldn’t remember my name. when he would search his memory for it in my presence, he reminded me of my little sister as she was just beginning to talk… “llll llllalllll llla lllla …” it was so offensive to me.
his wasn’t a hateful racism, just ignorant. he actually became pretty close with my sister and my stepdad because they gave him their time and energy, and probably most importantly their openness. i was never interested. i should probably work on grudges.
eventually his lady friend died, my mom had long since had the idea that anora was insecure and wouldn’t let harry see his old family. mom clung to this reason for his lack of initiative. and with anora gone, my mom did spend more time with her dad. gradually she took more of a role in his life, became a caregiver and took care of his business affairs, hired nurses for him when he started getting older, weaker, sicker. when one full time nurse wasn’t enough, and the emergency room visits got more frequent, she checked him into a nursing home. shortly after she asked if i wouldn’t mind moving into my grandfather’s house so it remained occupied; in return i would put my rent into a savings account so i could buy a car, a house, whatever at the end of my stay. it took me a little while to agree to leave my safe haven of uptown, but i agreed. it helped me buy my house today.
living in his home, going through his things in preparation for a garage sale, i got to know a little bit more about him. his obsession with books on religion and boxes upon dusty boxes of the religious tracts he used to hand out to even his family. cash stashed everywhere – in books, in pockets, in dirty old boxes. an interest in health and science. an absolutely mind-numbing pack-rat-icism. mail, magazines and memberships from the 80s. artifacts that to me were convincing arguments of anything from religious fanatacism to out and out insanity. he was always an off guy with a lot of questions and faulty logic – especially about religion. searching and never finding, donations to wacky evangelists, an interest in seventh day adventists. sweet as my grama is, she would be one of the rare people to visit him first at home, then at the nursing home, and answer his questions to the best of her ability.
and now he’s dead.
but why did i cry?
i cried for a truly pathetic man whose blood runs through my veins. and i don’t mean pathetic as an insult, i say it with compassion. he has spent the past two and a half years in a nursing home that i’ve only seen on his birthdays and maybe if my mom was occasionally successful in convincing us to go after our joy-filled family holidays, the joy seeping away in the presense of this sad man who could barely open his eyes anymore, who doesn’t share our history and laughter and time spent together. i cried for a man who maybe realized far too late that you have to work hard on your personal connections to win the loyalty of your family and friends. i cry for a man with so many questions and so few answers, but a faith that hopes that it will get him somewhere.
i cry for my fear that i will end up in the same place as my grandfather. a crazy old fool dying alone in a nursing home with a hospice nurse singing the old rugged cross, still nervously wondering about where i’m going.
it’s for people like my grandfather that i hope salvation is real. the journey of the unwaivering faithful is one thing, but a happy ending for those that have questions and doubts and fears… but still want so badly to believe is where i hope God reaches a loving hand toward us.
so long, harry. i hope you’ve found answers and peace.