Last weekend, Facebook thought it’d be a good idea to greet every single user with a banner about Grandparent’s Day.
Whether your grandparents were alive or not.
I wrote this essay over a decade ago; I republish it here for those of us who felt pain when they saw that banner.
I saw the last dead leaf fall off the massive oak tree in my backyard. It slowly spiraled towards me, brown dry body gently tossed by the wind. A brief jaunt upward, another lazy loop downward.
It took five minutes to fall five feet.
With a final melodramatic swoop, it landed at my feet with a nearly inaudible crunch. It was curled inward – explaining the parachute-like descent. The tip was reaching towards the stem in an unconscious dying mockery of humans being born. The body of the leaf was dead and brown; parts crumbled off of it when I tried to pick it up. It was rough, dry, like her skin.
Especially the skin on the back of her hands; she’s been trying to work around the house since he died, keeping herself busy, and hasn’t bothered to take quite as good care of herself. Her hands are rough and liver-spotted; it would be easy to imagine that it was a natural camouflage to help her hide. Not from predators, but from her own thoughts, the ones that she can keep in check until late at night, when she turns and he’s no longer there.
She sent me some of his clothes, calling to insist I try them on to make sure that they fit. It was strange, to wear a dead man’s clothing. The fact that the dead man was my grandfather only intensified the emotion.
They arrived in a box not long after he had died; I honestly hadn’t expected her to deal with it so efficiently. I am still not sure whether or not that was a good thing. Sorting through the clothes she sent, some were obviously worn, but others – others came intact with store labels and price tags.
They were, unsettlingly, exactly my size.
In recent memory his limbs resembled sticks; his cancer-inspired thinness were an anorexic’s dream. These clothes are not that old; at some point not long ago he must have been as large as I.
“You’re going to die eventually,” the waitress says, putting the pizza on our table. “Everybody dies sometime.”
Normally I would relish this kind of conversation, but it’s just too strange. I know too much; the shirt I am wearing was his, and had no tags, implying he had worn it at least once. I am suddenly, uncomfortably aware of the virtual certainty that there are still some of his skin cells in the shirt despite having gone through the washer. My reaction to this awful understanding is worsened by guilt over being repulsed by, essentially, some of the last remnants of my grandfather’s body.
“Nope,” I say, paraphrasing a line from a comic book. “I figure everybody dies because everyone else is doing it. Not me. I’m strange like that.”
It doesn’t work. Not well, anyway – she goes away, but her thought lingers in my mind, feeding on my thoughts. The connection in size between my grandfather and I is too hard to ignore; he grew – if that is the right word – to be thinner than I. At some point, we were the same, and I cannot ignore it.
Blissfully ignorant, my son eats a slice of pepperoni, and I wonder. Will someday my son’s child parse through boxes and papers? Will they take the time to sort out a life from among the detritus that ends up in Goodwill donations and massive yard sales? It wouldn’t bother me so much if I knew that the markers of my life would not just be someone else’s trash.
Sometimes I’m not even scared of dying; I dream of running up to the Divine – a little boy again – bursting with the things I’ve seen, the things I’ve done, the things I’ve learned, the beauty and agony of the world.
Just like my son, when he tries to tell me about what he did at school today.
As I bow my head, my son asks me why I’m crying over my pizza, and I cannot draw breath enough to tell him.