He will swallow up death forever;
and the Lord GOD will wipe away tears from all faces,
and the reproach of his people he will take away from all the earth,
for the LORD has spoken.
* * *
Grandfather had severe asthma. A very intense case of the stuff. As a boy, I remember the sight of his discomfort and I came to dread the moment the next round began. These attacks, which kicked off with panicked wheezes, could start at any time. Assuming you were present, he would scare you to death, hacking away, bent double, leaned over the sink. Sometimes he would even turn almost blue gasping for breath.
Shaky hands would grasp for his omnipresent ephedrine-based inhaler and, from a hunched-over position, begin, with thumb and index finger, simultaneously pumping the mist out to be quickly inhaled. I often went with him to the drug store to purchase more when he would run out. Now I’m told they don’t sell it anymore. Too many side effects.
I was also present for the day he coughed up some buckshot into the stainless-steel basin. The shrapnel made a resounding and ominous clink as it hit the surface with some force. How it had managed to work its way out of his body through his lungs still amazes me. It defies medical logic. He was not the sort of person to fixate upon the past, nevertheless he often brought up this topic from then going forward. It must have left a great impression.
Grandfather was also incredibly shy and reserved. Part of this was due to his impoverished and hard-scrabble upbringing. He had no sophistication whatsoever and never was given the opportunity to develop any. But even so, he felt no loss. He did not lack something he never knew how to obtain in the first place. Still, even with simple ignorance often somehow working in his favor, he always felt profoundly inferior, as did everyone else in that small town. Some were simply more willing to admit it than others. They were all stuck together, too afraid to leave the only life they had ever really understood, always cursing their bad fortune.
His story reveals the complexity and risk involved of daring to better oneself. Rise even one rung up the class struggle ladder and be forced to leave many others behind. Pine away for wealth and green paper, escape, slip away, then face a thousand jealous, uncomprehending faces the moment you arrive home. Comfort yourself with the notion that you have built a brand-new universe for yourself. Try to remember the local color, the common vernacular, while you learn a different language altogether. Never forget the patois, the subtle gestures, the body language, the inflections in speech that mean so much.
No wonder so many stay right where they are.
* * *
I suspect some of Grandfather’s daily struggles were due to an untreated and largely unexamined anxiety disorder. The man never went to doctors unless he was about to die. He had accepted his fate as it was, at least that was my perception. Earlier in his life, so I was informed, this had not always been the case. He complained over-frequently about his health. His wife, my grandmother, had her own set of severe physical maladies.
The two of them were forever engaged in pitched battle as to who was sickest and who felt worst at any one time or another. This constant arguing had made interacting with a younger him at times a chore, but by the time I came around, he appeared to have mostly made peace with himself and the outside world. Blessed are those who mellow out, instead of being lost to anger.
Never did I see him launch into frequent, spontaneous, opinionated vocal op eds the way his son, my father, did. My father, much to his credit, rose a class and a half by hard work and ingenuity, back when one could do such a thing. But it came at a profound cost. The American Dream, realized, is not as cut and dried as it may seem. Often it is a mixed blessing and survivor’s guilt often accompanies even the highest achievement and the greatest pay raise. This is what they never teach you in Capitalism 101.
Grandfather’s cares and thoughts rested purely with the compulsive need to make sure that all moving parts in the textile mill—a place where he labored for almost fifty years—were properly lubricated. By the time he enters my memories, he had long since retired, but I often imagined him earlier in life, with a grease gun in hand, hunched over loud, churning turbines, the air thick with cotton dust. The dust eventually gave him white lung, which worsened his already challenging breathing problems.
He was humble, as he had come through the Depression. Like almost everyone else, the family lost everything, and started over again whether they wanted to or not. They had no choice. He remembered, musing out loud, how rare it was to get fresh fruit in those scrawny days. Christmas meant an orange and an apple, no more. Fresh fruit was rare and treasured. As he grew to be a man, he struck out on his own, moving ten miles from the small, rural community of his birth and putting down roots close to his work. That was expected behavior. Only social rejects, elitists, and communist sympathizers left and stayed gone for good.
The tiny house he lived in—a house he had largely built himself—was six miles out of town, in an unincorporated section of an extremely ugly part of the state. The name of this little community cannot be found on any map. Maybe five hundred people call it home today. The area is well known for its sandy red soil and its extensive fire ant infestation. Underneath grainy surfaces, the kind that can cause skinned knees if one isn’t careful, was solid rock. The limestone had to be methodically dug up, broken into more manageable chunks, and carted away before most outdoor projects could be completed.
He was a cog in the works. Grandmother was too. That was all two millworkers with no more than an eighth-grade education between them ever thought they could achieve. As the story goes, Grandfather, then a young man, hitched a ride with a rich man in town. Grandfather had never seen a Cadillac up close and personal before and was happy enough simply to take a ride in it. The wealthy man who owned the car also owned the local mill and was looking for help. For reasons unknown, he took an immediate liking to this wet-behind-the-ears country bumpkin.
There must have been something he saw within Grandfather—some potential, otherwise he’d have been too busy to bother. He thought that this shy, introverted, greatly pensive soul would make an excellent manager on the floor. Predictably, utterly intimidated by the prospect, Grandfather took a very menial job on the floor, at a much-reduced rate of pay.
Grandmother, at great contrast, was an entirely different ball of wax. Middle-class women had the luxury of playing housewife, even if their entire existence was ultimately stifling, confining, and unsatisfying. Working-class women like Grandmother started work early. Black women worked as maids and nurses. Even the poorest whites could afford to hire black labor. Blacks had even less social mobility than poor whites, were locked into generations of poverty, and had few avenues to escape.
My father remembers well the series of black maids who in large part raised him. Both of his parents were often at work and not present around the house. Grandfather worked the first shift, from early morning to about the time school let out. Grandmother worked the second shift, not returning home until very late at night. They were often ships passing in the night, and despite the challenges, somehow, they managed to hold everything together. At least for a while, anyway.
On Saturdays or Sundays, when my family would make the trip down, I heard my older male relatives, by then very much showing their age, continue to justify and rationalize why mill work was better than farming. Most of them had been of garden variety yeoman stock, growing only enough to keep themselves and their families from starving to death. Some Yankee with dollar signs in his eyes decided to invest in a factory and everything swiftly changed. The South, once again, offered a seemingly endless stream of cheap labor.
Before Northern wealth gravitated to the previous states in rebellion, hillbillies tended low-quality, rocky soil as best they could manage. At least I work indoors they would invariably say, and one could hardly blame them for that. The long, humid summers were hell on everyone, but especially so on small farmers. Regardless of what some might say to the contrary, spending many stifling hot nights, with the limited benefit that electric fans produced, was a highly unpleasant experience for everyone.
The land they tilled and cursed had once been the purview and sole domain of an American Indian tribe. After the Native peoples were defeated in war, banished, and sent away into exile elsewhere, white pioneers took the opportunity to put down roots and build their own settlements. Large parcels were doled out by the federal government to reward those willing to fight the indigenous people. Land was used as reward for services rendered, often in place of monetary compensation. Pulling together somehow, they kept their families fed, though their diet suffered, and diseases caused by malnutrition were epidemic.
The seed that fell on good soil represents those who truly hear and understand God’s word and produce a harvest of thirty, sixty, or even a hundred times as much as had been planted!
Had I grown up there, I would have quickly become restless and departed for the proverbial bright lights of the city as soon as possible, but then again, I was raised solidly middle class. My accent and vocal inflection are restrained and mild. I do not have, nor will I ever have, any real understanding of a blue-collar mentality and mindset. For a while, I tried, but much got lost in translation and misunderstanding.
In 1949, according to the faded and brittle paper receipt, Grandfather had a water well drilled roughly thirty paces or so from the front porch to the adjacent residence. In time, the city eventually extended its sewer system to reach the family home, but that was ten long years later. By the time of my birth, the well had long been boarded up, but the remnants remained. It looked dangerously ramshackle. The mere sight made me instinctively keep my distance, as a little boy, especially when playing outside. Children are often adventurous by nature, but something always told me to keep away from the old well.
I recall how poor the water pressure was. It made for difficult showers, as the water strained, weakly, dripping straight down into the ancient ceramic tub below. I always marveled at how four people had managed to share one bathroom for years. Grandfather, Grandmother, Dad, and Dad’s half-sister routinely fought for control. In addition to that, I was equally impressed at the real skill and care employed when Grandfather tilled a vegetable garden by himself. To me, these tasks seemed like chores designed purely to try a person’s patience or perhaps even be a punishment of a sort. He delighted in the regimentation of it, always managing somehow to make every crop planted in neat rows to grow to its highest, most fecund potential.
Something about farming continued to appeal to him, even after it no longer was his primary vocation. With such a low rate of pay at the mill, growing his own food was not some political or fashion statement, but a strict necessity. And though word of this curious custom would never reach him, Grandfather would have been quite amused to observe the back-to-the-land environmental movement prevalent among some today. He would have considered what he did very primitive and uninteresting, about as compelling as tired small talk.
* * *
But the Comforter, which is the Holy Ghost, whom the Father will send in my name, he shall teach you all things, and bring all things to your remembrance, whatsoever I have said unto you.
Every stray dog in the area found a comforter in his company. He would feed them, no matter how many there were, and this would instill a sense of strict loyalty in the mutts he loved. Grandfather had at least ten bodyguards at any one time as a result. He could also coax finicky cats to roll over and perform tricks, a real skill, a feat I have never observed in anyone else. His life often felt like nothing less than pure tragedy as I contemplate my memories of him. He could have had a career among the animals he loved, but no one ever suggested such a thing to him.
Grandfather had the innate patience it takes to complete laborious and time-consuming tasks, a state of being we sadly do not retain into the current day. Our otherwise instant gratification world often leaves no space or time for it.
One drawback: his people skills were a little lacking. I routinely went with him to get his monthly haircut. Even though it was decades out of style, he continued to get a flattop. Every visit, the barber patiently tried exchanging (one more time) some means of discourse with him.
In between snipping with one hand and maneuvering electrically powered clippers with another, the man cutting his hair threw out a softball question that would have produced a nearly spontaneous, enthusiastic response by most men.
“What did you think about the game last week?”
No reply. Grandfather would put the games on in the background, the way that sports bars and restaurants often do these days, contests that are designed more for ambiance than much else. I rarely saw him follow the action with much interest. Nor did he get caught up in the narrative of sports, which isolated him further. This fact was true for football as much as it was for baseball. He’d been the product of an epoch where most men favored a slower-paced game over the quick, darting, adrenalin movements of the football.
He never talked about earned run averages or slugging percentages as some did. He did not pontificate with great enthusiasm about the best first baseman to ever play the game. His thoughts rested elsewhere, but sometimes it was difficult trying to discern precisely what was percolating up there.
My father was a home-run hitter. He was tall and wiry, skinny. All height, elbows, and broad shoulders. Dad was blessed with a perfect stance. Grandfather’s tobacco chewing habit gave him another reason to keep his distance. He must have felt that others were judging him negatively somehow. Reservations aside, he showed up to every game my father played, a quiet figure hanging back somewhere around third base, repetitively nodding his head up and down, reticent and deferential as always, spitting periodically a fresh stream of tobacco juice onto the dusty ground in front of him.
Sports discarded in the realm of possible conversations, the barber always tried a second time. He asked Grandfather as to whether he’d served in the Second World War, and Grandfather tried to explain the complicated details of his enlistment and resulting swift discharge. He didn’t quite get out a comprehensible reply, but the barber was a nice enough guy and didn’t press the subject.
The truth of the matter is this. The Army should never have drafted him in the first place. He was already middle-aged by the time 1941 arrived, had bad lungs as we know, and had been the victim of an accidental shooting when he was a boy. He’d been unlucky enough to be in the line of fire of an impulsive and inebriated youth who fired a shotgun at random into a crowd. Grandfather took the blast badly, particularly on his right thigh and shin. After the superficial wounds healed, the site of the injury always looked shrunken and disfigured from then on. Embarrassed for yet another reason, he always made sure to wear long pants. I never saw him wearing shorts at any time.
Any one of these factors would have and should have automatically disqualified him from service. Even so, they made him go through six weeks of Basic Training over in Georgia anyway, only to summarily and abruptly end his enlistment and military service without much explanation. Grandfather did not complain. Like always, he declined to comment. When sensitive matters concluded, regardless of what they were, he never brought them up again. He resumed working in the mill, being given back his position without much issue.
The boy who shot him grew up to be a man and became very religious. Later in life, he begged for my grandfather’s forgiveness, fully believing that God himself had punished him for his careless mistake. He made at least three personal visits, each of which ended up with guilty tears. Forgiveness was granted with no reservations. Grandfather never bore a grudge against anyone, as best as I could detect. He accepted the man’s apology on its face. After all, he would say, the boy got into his Daddy’s whiskey and had no clue what he was doing.
Following the haircut, the barber would carefully shave Grandfather’s neck with a straight razor, once standard procedure, now only practiced by a few remaining, surviving souls. First, hot lather was applied thickly to the area. The razor, itself an antique, was thoroughly sharpened prior to use by way of an aged leather strap. The procedure took a while to get used to, at first, but in time every customer asked for it by name.
Grandfather would sheepishly look down at the floor as he paid the man his money. I never saw him smile or laugh in public, except for a handful of times. His affect was very flat and restrained. He didn’t engage anyone in spontaneous small talk. He was a quiet, reserved, highly private man who had never chased huge aspirations the way some did. Nor did he maintain friendships with anyone else—instead, he kept largely to himself, a kind loner.
Retirement with a pension was just some nebulous, uncertain dream in the sky until it happened. Maybe he’d get himself to Heaven eventually, and all of this would have been worth it. Belief and faith were understood entities in that universe, speakers of a kind of shorthand everyone spoke. Six days a week they worked. Had the owners of the mill tried to make their employees toil away for the full seven-day workweek, even with the promise of overtime, the protests from workers would have been intense and ugly. In a highly religious time, in a highly religious part of the country, Sunday was for church and church alone.
Now in his eighties, I could tell Grandfather was beginning to slow down cognitively. This sad fact was particularly evident during one drive. Because he had never had the money to pay for more expensive amenities like power windows, he purchased a car with an old-fashioned hand-crank instead. As he sat down behind the wheel, he leaned forward slowly, pivoting on his hips, reaching for the shredded tobacco, merely to make sure that he had it. It was yet another reminder, yet another resurrection of yet another old, ingrained routine, an act most men learned easily in life.
He half-mindedly opened the vacuum-sealed pouch, placed a generous portion against the teeth and gumline. Most of the time, he opted for the right corner of his mouth, but on occasion I saw him use the left. Chewing thoughtfully, plug after plug, then periodically spitting out the window was par for the course with him. However, in this instance he neglected to realize that the window had never been rolled down first.
Evidenced here was his semi-disgusting habit of, once finished with yet another round, spitting the entire contents of his mouth into his right hand, then quickly throwing a spent chunk of Chattanooga Chew or Beech-Nut out of the window when he was done with it. This time, the sopping wad hit the inside glass, then fell straight down in a black-brown heap, shredded bits now stuck in a particularly exasperating crevice between the floorboards and the edge of the door. In short, a mess.
It upset him. I could tell by his abrupt, jarring response. He was such a silent, passive soul that I never heard him scream at other drivers or even vocalize his inner monologue. He let out a peculiar sort of old man whelp at the sight, as if he had seen something he simply could not comprehend to save his life. I saw a pained look come briefly across his face, but it did not linger there for long.
With time, I discovered other signs of his growing infirmity. He began reverting to old ways. The housekeeper I eventually employed to keep my Grandparents’ home tidy discovered that he had been wiping his bottom and placing the feces-covered bits of toilet paper in the adjacent wastepaper basket. They needed to be properly flushed down the commode, but Grandfather had been raised without indoor plumbing, so in his mind he believed he was back in an outhouse.
In the beginning, and for a while, off-and-on, my grandmother lived with him. Theirs was a relationship that had been fraught with conflict almost from the outset. Divorce in the Deep South of the Fifties was rare and stigmatized. They’d both been married once before. Each had one child from a previous union, and then had one child between the two of them. Mutual friends pushed them together, but avoiding shame is arguably not the best reason to exchange vows with someone else.
They fought constantly, regularly, usually amongst themselves, in private, but on a few occasions, even I was privy to their bickering.
The fact that the two of them worked different shifts made for greater misunderstanding based mainly on lazy habit. Visitors like me to the house often gorged themselves on Oreos. Grandfather assumed that Grandmother liked them. Grandmother assumed that Grandfather did. The message was never properly conveyed and resolved, which means that there was always junk food for the taking when I would visit. But even a routine supply of sweets can’t cover up the elephant in the room.
I remember as a boy cowering underneath a bed in an adjacent room, upset at the conflict taking place in front of me. Dad used my reaction to chasten his parents into playing nice, much as he always had during his life. Sick of the constant drama, my father left home at seventeen, never to return. His half-sister left even earlier, marrying herself off as soon as she could, in large part because she and Grandfather never got along. Though he helped raise her, he never officially adopted her as one of his own. She had her own biological father and rejected her stepfather’s authority and control over her life.
Grandmother was a mass of contradictions and ironies. Holy roller at heart, daughter of a charismatic minister—a man of the cloth who in his youth had been a boxer and a carouser, but not before seeing the light and reforming his ways. Great-Grandfather was firmly convinced that professional wrestling was real. We humored him. He was so passionate and adamant about the subject.
“I’ve been there on the front row! The man bled on me!”
He’d been a sinful man prior to his conversion, but he retained that worldly pleasure. I suppose each of us retains at least one vice.
Grandmother always struggled with some sort of physical ailment or another. Her sisters wondered whether it would have been better for her to have never been born at all, not out of contempt or condescension, but out of genuine pity. She had to retire early from the mill, and for a time, she embraced the role of traditional housewife.
Even before her retirement, she’d tried to keep the family fed when she could, and the black maids pulled up the slack when she was too ill or too wiped out from a grueling job that required her to stand upright the whole shift.
Her moods and her condition went up and down in unpredictable ways. Sometimes she would be confined to bed for weeks at a time. Occasionally, she would lose her temper and lash out. In time, we learned that she had Alzheimer’s and, reading up about the symptoms, her perpetually changing conduct finally made sense in its proper context. To those outside the family home, she was a sweet, very devout Christian. The family was shocked to hear her curse like a sailor when the disease took effect. Wherever had she learned these words?
Her cruel behavior and increasingly cutting remarks increasingly drove my grandfather away. He periodically lived with my family until things cooled down. Once, she kicked him out completely, the byproduct of a particularly vicious screaming fit, and he lived with us for five or six months. My father, seeking to make his own father more comfortable, nailed up an old picture to a wall of what was going to be his bedroom for the duration. Today, I own it but can’t bear to look at it much anymore.
I feel a compulsion to not reduce Grandmother to a minor character. Small town Southern life always offended my sensibilities, but now with age I find myself far less judgmental and far more nostalgic. I still miss her creamed corn. She must have used at least a full stick of butter for each batch, but nutritional concerns aside, I was grateful for the sustenance and never turned my nose up at most things she cooked.
I even remember the strain of corn she used. It was called Silver Queen, with white, almost translucent kernels, tender enough to be cut off the cob with a sharp knife, then sauteed for an hour in a bubbling mixture of butter, white flour, pepper, and salt. It can be found in greater quantities as one approaches the beach, but those with a good eye can, at market, pick it out from the tough field corn often fed to livestock.
She gave money she didn’t have to televangelists and to everyone who billed himself or herself a person of God. Grandmother was a preacher’s kid, after all, and didn’t stand a chance. She would hide the religious literature that arrived in the mail and the plain proof of where she had forked out cash to sustain private jets and adoring congregations of charlatans big and small. But I knew all her hiding places. I used to be more sympathetic, feeling this to be a minor grievance, that is until I learned a few more crucial details about the way she conducted her life.
She’d carried on a totally brazen, lengthy affair with the man who lived two houses over. It concluded when Grandmother ended up getting breast cancer and, as was the standard practice in those days, her mammary glands were completely removed in a majorly invasive and frequently humiliating surgical procedure. After that, the other man cast her aside, abruptly and without any thought to the contrary. She spiraled into a period of intense, debilitating depression, a respite from which she would only experience every now and again for the rest of her life.
Grandfather silently took her back. I’m sure he must have known about the affair the whole time, but I never heard him bring up the issue again. That was how he was. Grandfather accepted his lot in life and, as Kipling put it, never breathed a word about his loss. He never delighted in someone else’s discomfort, at least that I could tell. Speaking for myself, there was a lot to learn from the old man’s approach to life, though these lessons were never realized until I was much older.
Regarding Grandmother, I learned how to chart her moods by noting the frequency and quality of her cooking. That became my own case study of sorts. I saw her flawlessly prepare a dish of lima beans and pork chops in a cast-iron skillet, a recipe she found in the red-and-white-checkered Better Homes and Gardens cookbook, which I have since dubbed the white person’s cookbook. My rationale: every white person in the United States has one. Check and see. Presuming you’re Caucasian, I bet you’ll find one of your own somewhere.
Eventually, inevitably, stroke followed stroke. Each one wiped her out a little more. In a year’s time, her condition had to be monitored around the clock. The merry-go-round series of home health care aides hired explicitly to care for her bathed her and helped her to the bathroom. But I knew that was only a stopgap measure. I knew I’d need to pursue other options quickly and began calling around to nursing homes in the area.
I found one about fifteen miles away, but first had to resort to the kind of sleight-of-hand everyone must take on when an elderly person needs constant care. I had to completely liquidate her savings (she never really had much), plead to the state that she had no discernible income aside from Social Security, and in so doing, thus qualify her for Medicaid. Otherwise, it would have taken thousands upon thousands of dollars I certainly didn’t have and couldn’t borrow.
Though it has been several deliberate years since I have stepped inside one, I can still conjure up in my brain the smell of a nursing home. The dubious perfume of hand lotion and stale urine is the odor that greets one upon entry. I never looked forward to any visit and, frankly, often felt guilty for evading her presence as regularly as I did. The last three years of her life she barely spoke to anyone, now a total invalid. The machine in her room automatically kept her bedsores away. It produces a very distinctive sound and timbre, a pitch I now associate with desperation.
I prefer to think of her in my early boyhood, back when my grandmother would write a spontaneous letter to my father from time to time. She meant for it to be read by everyone in the family, if we wished. My mother would leave it out on the kitchen table for us to peruse. Today, it’s just another dead tradition.
Grandfather spent the rest of his life as her caregiver, without complaint. He was utterly lost without her, though as always, he never vocalized his true feelings. In part, this was due to the way he had been brought up. As I’d come to understand it, his own mother was a cold, unloving, callous old bird. It must have been difficult for him. I know it would have been that way for me.
The fact was further hammered home and reinforced when I spoke with Grandfather’s siblings and close family relatives. I never heard them criticize him for any reason. They justified and rationalized his behavior and demeanor by saying that unfortunate circumstances do often make a dramatic impact in everyone’s young life.
This treatment made him the person he became, though to his credit he always let me know he loved me. The act was difficult for him, one could tell, but as in observing his silent ways, it was obvious that the effort was something he had scrutinized heavily, processed within himself, and resolved to follow from then forward.
Come to think, I could sometimes coax a smile from him from time to time, as could his animals. He purchased two Chihuahuas that rarely left his side. They gave him great pleasure. Unfortunately, sadistic children in the neighborhood treated the little dogs meanly, and in response they clung even closer to him. I could never get anywhere near them, at the risk of losing a finger.
They both snapped and barked at anyone who wasn’t Grandfather. I always kept my distance.
I remember good times. Grandfather clearly delighted in teaching me how to identify white oaks from red oaks by the shape of their leaves.
“Red oaks have jagged edges, like the arrows of Indians. White oaks have rounded leaves like the white man’s bullets.”
Perhaps not the most politically correct sentiment these days, but he meant nothing malicious by it. Addressing race relations, he let loose with only a handful of uncomfortable, dated views. When another January rolled around, time for the annual King holiday, he always spoke positively about the legacy of Civil Rights. My mother’s mother, a grandmother of a different sort altogether continued to refer to Black folks as “colored.” The word would always be delivered in a deliberate stage whisper, but delivered, nonetheless. This was her private complaint and her compromise with the status quo.
Grandfather believed that black folks needed to stick to their own kind rather than forming relationships, much less marriages, with whites. But those views were not voiced with much regularity. He had few, if any, bones to pick with any person or group. He was not especially political.
Grandfather taught me about the value of silence. This was well before I became a Quaker, worshipping in expected waiting for the prompting of the Holy Spirit. Every Sunday, I seek to find something meaningful in silence, and as the phrase goes, still waters run deep. In Grandfather’s mind, every second did not have to be filled with idle chatter or verbal placeholders. To this day, I admit that I struggle with the concept, accustomed as I am to being heard. Insisting to be the center of attention was never much of a priority for him.
* * *
I heard the siren that morning but was in the process of preparing to leave for work. Grandfather usually headed out to the nursing home to spend time with her. How he managed to spend hours in her company, day in and day out, was something I could never fathom.
By the time I arrived at the scene, wounded parties had been taken by medical professionals to hospitals. Cars had been towed to junkyards. The only thing that remained was the intense, scattered energy that always hangs thickly in the air following an accident.
A witness noted, I thought quite shortsightedly, “He’s an old man and has lived a full life. And after all, he wasn’t wearing his seatbelt.”
At that moment, I could have punched the guy who said it, but I was in shock at the time and too disoriented by grief to respond. I’d told Grandfather numerous times to always buckle up. If you rode along with him, as I often did, he’d put his seatbelt on, provided you asked him to do it first.
Alas, I was not present with him that cold and rainy morning. I have always believed that my presence would have saved his life.
Upon arrival at the hospital, surgeons leapt into action to save his life. Fearing massive organ damage, they opened him up from stem to stern. And yet, they found nothing especially problematic or alarming, nothing to give evidence of what the surgeon had initially feared. By that time, I was at the hospital myself and I recall well the nonplussed look of a surgeon who, metaphorical hat in hand, informed me that all the work they had performed had revealed few internal injuries.
Grandfather was moved from the ICU to a regular room the next day. I’ll never forget the row upon row of yellow, anemic, plastic, oval-shaped brackets that held him together, and the mass of tubes inserted into his body. I knew it would take a long time for him to totally heal up, especially at his advanced age. At best, he’d be in the hospital for months.
Noting that he was fully conscious, I knelt by his side.
“You’re going to get better, Grandfather.”
Staring straight ahead at the ceiling, he contradicted me. It was the first time he ever had.
“No. I’m too old.”
Ever practical, he then informed me that I ought to sell the remnants of his car for scrap. I wasn’t quite ready to be confronted with the sight of the wreck, but eventually worked up my courage to peek. It wasn’t pretty. I was amazed that he survived. The driver’s side door was totally caved in, a huge divot where the other driver had plowed into his car. The force of the impact had thrown him clear across the seat, slamming into the passenger’s side door.
* * *
I received a panicked call at home from the hospital. He was so desperate to leave that he’d ripped out many of the tubes and wires. Horrified nurses had discovered him standing upright, astride the bed, ready to leave, when he was clearly in no condition to do so. I have always believed since then that he simply willed himself to die. During the night, hooked up yet again, he removed the tube that was helping him breathe. Once again, it was the lungs that did him in—a final insult.
I honestly can’t remember much of the funeral. My mind went totally blank and much of the next four days are a blur. Well, that’s not entirely true. The minister who delivered the remarks directly alluded to a previous instance where he’d come out to the house when my grandparents were once again at fisticuffs. This was an unnecessary observation to make even privately to close family, to say nothing of an entire religious service.
As we all do, in a trance of some sort, numb and disbelieving, I made all the necessary calls to every remaining person and every remaining entity. In a way, I was glad to have much to do for a few days, because it kept my mind from fixating and ruminating about what had just happened. It was then that I learned how complicated and time-consuming it is to report someone’s ultimate demise. Tying up loose ends took forever.
Every year I visit the gravesite to pay my respects. I scrub away with cleaner and paper towels, because I know that same old, cursed, red, gritty dirt will have caked onto the shiny marble surface. While there is no way to stop that old residue from coming back, it makes me feel momentarily better to have the surface clean, just like he’d like it. Tobacco spitting aside, he was a tidy man, possessed with a desire to keep things in their own order and their own space. I know he would have appreciated the gesture.
Included within my memories of the man are his idiosyncrasies and quirks. For his entire adult life, save the times my grandmother or a maid was around to cook, he ate a very bland, repetitive diet, composed largely of collard greens, cornbread, and fried potatoes. His ordinarily formidable patience did not extend to the act of preparing food for himself. He cooked everything double quick, heated up on high, eager to be done with the task. I’ve decided to put an effort into celebrating his life. I prepare all his favorite foods when it’s time to make the journey.
This is my body, broken for you. This is my blood, poured out for you. Do this in remembrance of me.
Every year I make the pilgrimage. Every year I follow the same rituals he did for so many years. Sadly, his memory grows fainter with every passing day. For a long time, I tried, through force of will alone, to demand somehow that my brain would agree not to file too many beloved memories of him. Every now and again, my memories of earlier life, and many of him, resurface. I know it might be ten years more before I recall them again vividly, or even at all, really.
I remain deeply and profoundly grateful to have had a relationship with the man. He was a gentle soul and a haunting one as well. Due to one of those eerie coincidences, a Polaroid was taken of the two of us sitting together at the kitchen table, three days before the accident. He nervously grins at the camera. I’m clowning around. I wish I hadn’t been so silly. It distracts from the gravity of the occasion.
The picture now adorns my desk, along with this passage.
He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away.
Kevin Camp was first published in essay form in a 2010 book entitled Quaker Rising, which included the written works of young adult Quakers across the United States and Canada. Now slightly older than a young adult, but still mostly young, he enjoys writing about the intersection of theology, politics, and art.
A proud member of the Religious Society of Friends, Camp lives in Hoover, Alabama.
WHY WE CHOSE TO PUBLISH “Grandfather’s Lungs”:
We rarely publish memoir-like pieces such as this because they too often fail to tell a sufficiently compelling story. In this case, however, author Kevin Camp has crafted a story that takes characters from his life and depicts them as he would like them to be and not how they necessarily were in real life.
The trick is to make fictional characters real to the reader, and we agree that Kevin Camp has achieved that here. On top of that, he has also given us a well-crafted setting to match his superbly crafted characters. The result is a compelling story that not only feels real but resonates from start to finish.