I don’t handle death well. Not that I have too much experience with it, but the few times I’ve been forced to face it, I don’t feel like I’ve processed it all that well. I was never clued in on how I was supposed to grieve. This whole “human experience” thing should really come with a set of instructions when it pertains to the stuff we don’t want to deal with. No one wants to grieve the loss of someone; it’s not in our makeup. We’re created to feel connected so when part of the circuit system of our life disappears, we’re left to try to rewire ourselves functional again and for most of us, that’s really tough.
My first encounter with death was when my maternal grandfather succumbed to a cancer that started in his colon and migrated to his liver. I was too young to know what a colon was, much less why it would be used to take my Paw Paw away, however, I was old enough to know it made his eyes buttery yellow and I just wanted him to get out of that hospital bed so I could sit on his lap and read with him. When I was at their house, we read books about the adventures of Bugs Bunny, Elmer Fudd and Daffy Duck while my grandmother peeled and cut carrots for us to snack on. Now, that themey, sturdy gentleman had been all but hollowed out by an icky yellowness I couldn’t explain.
Just as I do now, I loved my grandparents deeply as a child. They were giants in our lives, the keepers of our family history and peanut butter cookies. My grandmother made us homemade chicken and dumplings, something we never got at home, and told us stories about my mother and my aunt when they were kids. When at their house, my siblings and I were a boundaryless brood, prone to rummaging through the contents of shelves, drawers and closets in an attempt to discover any tucked away artifact of our mother’s childhood. My sister eventually found and played with the same Barbie dolls with their sixties bouffant hair and cat eye makeup that my mother and aunt played with when they were young.
My grandfather was usually in the garage building something for the church or for his kids. A craftsman, his hands were like broken-in baseball gloves, worn but strong. We routinely spent Easter Sunday afternoon at their house hiding plastic Lisa Frank-colored eggs in the backyard, watching The Ten Commandments on TV and then watching an episode of The Golden Girls for good measure. They loved us and we never wanted to leave.
The yellow ickyness eventually got to him and my grandfather passed away. During his funeral, I sat in a room in my grandmother’s house with my brother and a babysitter—we were too young to really understand the whole funeral thing—and we played with action figures or something trivial young boys could get lost in. My Maw Maw’s house was an old soul, something I’m sure felt modern when my mother and aunt were running down the long thin hallway as children but had now settled into its grandparental stage.
The street names in their neighborhood were homages to the story of Robin Hood. There was Nottingham Drive, King Richard Street, and on Little John Drive, just on the bend nestled behind a maze of tall oak trees, sat my grandparents’ house. It may have been situated in an aging suburb of Dallas, but turning the corner on that fairy tale street, behind the tall trees that touched the hem of the sky, it was Narnia. Being there, under the canopy of oak leaves and imagination, felt full of possibility. Yet, as enchanting as the drive in was, the backyard was even more wonderful; as exquisite a backyard as there ever was.
Robust oak trees shot up like chess pieces across the long rectangle plot of land, stone-lined passageways full of secrets and scraped knees curled around the patio and a short brick wall wrapped around the elevated porch providing no shortage of castles to climb, towers to protect from dinosaurs, and lava moats to leap over. The yard was also a nature preserve compared to our house, teeming with all forms of toads and lizards, birds of every vibrant Texas color, lumbering neighbor cats, and my grandmother’s cocker spaniel Lady, who was every bit as demure and lovely as the Tramp’s Lady for whom she was named.
After much time sitting on the heavy carpeted floor in the small room—a floor that creaked from the wooden slats below—my mother finally returned. With lost tears lingering in her eyes, she hugged us. It was the sort of hug you remember; one that never quite stops. We were happy to be rid of the babysitter but the fog of loss was too thick for us to cut through with childhood naivety. My mother explained that her daddy was now with Jesus, something that sounded like a good thing to me but the sadness in the room told me otherwise.
A couple years prior, during my first year of school, I and the rest of my Kindergarten peers invited our grandparents to eat lunch with us on Grandparent’s Day. Today, this is a holiday that’s mostly become lost in the maze of meaningless days—National Popcorn Day, National Left Handed Day or President’s Day—but back then, Grandparent’s Day meant something and it was celebrated each year at school. Both of my maternal grandparents were excited to spend this special day with their first grandchild and I was excited to show them my big boy school.
They arrived when they were supposed to and I was so excited to see them, I ran over and grabbed their hands—when you’re five-years-old and living a knee-cap level existence, you’re used to reaching up to grab for hands—and we walked together into the cafeteria to wait in line for whatever feast awaited us on their special day.
My mother mostly made my lunch and packed it into whatever lunch container I’d chosen for myself during our August back-to-school shopping: a sandwich, a small bag of chips, a Squeeze-It full of sugary liquid and a napkin where she would write a quick note reminding me she loved me. However, on special days, like today, I got to have a hot lunch from the cafeteria, something that felt far more exotic than it actually was. I hoped there’d be chicken fried steak and mashed potatoes, my favorite, but if not that, then pizza cut in a square would do.
I saw some friends in line ahead of us so I went up to introduce them and to show my grandparents my big boy friends. I turned around to do the introduction but my grandparents were nowhere to be found. It felt like it had only been a moment, a quick jaunt to get the attention of my friends, but they had disappeared. Spinning around, I searched for them as maybe they were lost in the pint-sized crowd, but there wasn’t any sign of them. I asked my teacher where they were, and she said they left.
I looked out in the hallway for them, they’re grandparents after all, they couldn’t be moving that quickly, but they were gone. My confusion quickly shifted to focusing on food again as my teacher ushered me back into the line to get square pizza. The five-year-old temperament is a lot like a brown paper bag being breathed into; as quickly as things implode, they can perk back up again. This is complicated by the fact that most Kindergarten children are blissfully ignorant of the world around them—a perk of being five.
The day went on and after the final school bell rang, I headed home just as I would any other day. My mother was waiting for me as I walked down the alley toward our house; a look of frustration on her face. I reached up and took her hand as we walked into the house and sat in the living room. Frustrated, she told me my grandparents had come back to the house, feeling like I’d abandoned them. I, in my five-year-old logic, tried to explain how I’d just wanted them to meet my friends but what was done was done. I had left them behind, they felt forgotten and we missed out on a perfectly mediocre meal of square pizza together.
But grandparents are resilient—at least mine were—resilient like thick rubber bands or Silly Puddy. Not once did they let it show they’d been upset. I, however, felt like garbage and when my mother handed me the phone to apologize to them, my embarrassment could be felt from my house to theirs across town. Still, they never brought it up again and we went back to Easters, Christmases and carrots until my Paw Paw died.
I didn’t remember grieving my grandfather because I wasn’t old enough for it to click that I needed to. There was a space where he was supposed to go and he wasn’t filling it any longer. I asked my mother about this period of time since so many of the memories leading up the funeral are so clear but after that, there’s an unlikely blank. She said he died in December, making it an unbelievably hard Christmas. She’d spent so much time at my grandmother’s house helping out with my grandfather that she didn’t have any time to put up the Christmas decorations at our house that year. But she said we helped my dad put up and decorate the Christmas tree as a surprise and how it meant a lot to her. That memory became less foggy as I remember being excited to surprise her with something so cheerful.
She echoed my sentiments that I didn’t know how to handle his death but she connected a dot I wasn’t even cognizant of. She said, “That’s when you shoplifted.”
I knew I was a little thief, it’s something that’s lingered in my memory since I took the pen. But oh what a pen it was. There was a small Hallmark-esque store in the shopping center next to the Albertsons and my mother had to go in there for some reason. Near the checkout counter was a tub of multicolored pens and if you were a child of the 90s, you remember them well. They were as thick as a small bundle of pencils and at the top were slim plastic levers of ten different colors of ink. You’d click one of the colors down and the ink would come out in that color. They were usually made of clear plastic as well so you could see the inner mechanical workings of the wonder pen. I wanted one so badly and my mother refused to purchase it for me. So I took it. I put it in my room where I figured she would never look, except she was the mother of a seven-year-old boy so she knew to be alert at all times. When she found the pen in my room, I claimed my seven-year-old girlfriend had given it to me. She didn’t even flinch. She put me in the car, drove me back to the store, marched me up to that counter and made me give the pen back. What’s worse is she made me apologize to the woman for stealing it. I felt like I was apologizing to Oz The Great and Powerful, half expecting angry fire to erupt around me.
But as horrifying as that was, I continued to steal. My preferred theft of choice were small tubes of a short-lived but super-amazing candy from Life Savers called Holes. They were marketed as the holes from the insides of the circular candies and I, for whatever reason, was obsessed with them. I don’t want to imply something as darkly poetic as the Life Saver Holes were filling the hole of grief in my heart and that’s why I only stole those specific candies, but the facts sit where they sit. I would tuck a tube of those candies into my pocket when my mother was at the checkout counter and then eat them in the privacy of the bathroom later.
I got over that on my own with a heady mixture of Pentecostal guilt and fear of eternal damnation. That was right around the time I figured out the importance of not breaking any of the Big Ten. My mother’s explanation for my behavior was that I was the only grandkid old enough to realize this was permanent and my grandfather was gone. This, coupled with the fundamentally empty emotional toolkit seven-year-olds are equipped with led me to act out in ways that weren’t in my character. Turns out, I did grieve his death, I just did so in an out-of-tune and illegal way.
The further I got from his passing, the more I understood how the stories of my grandfather kept him alive in our minds; the place where people are the most alive anyway. The furniture he built reminds us he’s here, as does my brother because he looks like him. It doesn’t make it any less difficult to think about the weddings he’s missed, the grandchildren and great grandchildren he hasn’t gotten to meet, and the life moments he hasn’t physically been present to be a part of, but he has his sturdy hands on the workbenches of all of us, informing the way we think and act, without us even recognizing it most of the time.
Ryan’s book of essays, I Feel God in This Cab, is available here.