For years, my grandfather’s health has been a swinging pendulum. Every time I would get the call saying that this looked like he had hit a point of inevitable decline, he recover. Sure, these things seemed to be losing momentum for his body, but the pendulum always swung back.
Then the clockwork mechanism finally gave up.
During these years of pre-mourning, my grandfather had asked me to be a pall bearer at his funeral. He said it the way most people end a visit with “Drive safe,” or “See you soon.” Every time we would part company, or end a phone conversation, I would be reminded that he was thinking about his funeral.
It weighed on me, thinking about how myself and my cousins (two of them his other grandchildren) were tasked with carrying him this last distance. At least I knew that we had a role to play.
He had always said he wanted a simple, brief service, so I wouldn’t be contributing my words or memories. Most of us wouldn’t. All he said he wanted read was a short piece he had written himself a few years ago, to say goodbye to his wife and children.
But I could carry him and lay him to rest, and that would be enough.
I prepared for the task, pounding down a scalding hot bowl of chili from The Custard Stand. The place was a favorite destination whenever I would visit West Virginia.
I thought about the apron laid out on the table in the funeral home, which had the title “Junk Food Angel” added to it. It was a nickname I gave him as a child because he loved to make cakes and fudge, and I always wound up loaded with an amount of sugar that was expressly forbidden in my own home every time I would come down for a visit.
I thought about him teaching me how to drive at much too young an age out on his property in his old GMC truck. Teaching me about how to safely handle a rifle. How to make sausage gravy.
But when my family arrived at the funeral home, my dad took me aside. There had been a change.
I wouldn’t be a pall bearer. None of the grandchildren would.
Because my grandfather had asked for Masonic Rites at his funeral. The freemasons declared that they were the ones to carry the casket (or else they wouldn’t do any of the other rites). It was all or nothing, and they were prepared to leave.
With ten minutes to go before the start of the service, my grandfather’s wishes for his funeral were apparently being altered, and some of us were blindsided.
What’s easy and what’s necessary
It was easy to get angry.
For years I had built up this moment in my head; prepared myself to carry a casket and bear this weight. A cathartic moment to put a button on years of close calls and premature emergency trips. The moment had come, and now it would pass.
And then a dozen guys, all strangers, most of them in ratty jeans and t-shirts, show up in their gloves and tiny white aprons and demand to take over.
It was easy to be mad at how the role of the grandsons was reduced to kind of putting a hand on the flag-draped casket as the freemasons yanked it away from us into the hearse.
And as they rushed down the hill at the cemetery, where each of them had driven their oversized trucks separately (causing a pile up in the tiny dirt parking lot), it was easy to fume about the way they’d taken over this whole ceremony, leaving the rest of us to try to keep up as we dodged tombstones, mud puddles, and piles of deer droppings.
Anger came easily, but it wasn’t what I needed.
I needed to be present. I needed to feel my loss, my grief. I needed to be here as part of my family.
This wasn’t the moment I had anticipated, but it was the moment I had, and it was the only time I would get it.
And while I had to work to get there, I came to the comforting thought that I didn’t need to compartmentalize. I didn’t need to pour all of my grief and sadness into a single day that had been chosen for it.
I don’t need to make an appointment for my emotions. I am able to grieve on my own time.
A person’s life is like a song
Every day they add a little more to it: A melody, a rest, another sounding of a pedal tone. And when they die, they stop composing.
Maybe we’re lucky and they leave behind a recording; something we can listen to when we want to remember them and hear that song exactly the way they played it.
Or we might be fortunate to see that they left sheet music behind. It’s up to us to practice it and make our best guess as to how they played it when we want to remember them, but they gave us a strong indication of what they wanted to leave behind.
But sometimes we need to be content with that part of the song that gets stuck in our head. The tune that we can whistle. The barest scrap of the composition, left to stand in for the absent whole.
But it’s something to remind us. Something to carry forward.
Because it doesn’t matter who got to carry my grandfather’s body to where it rests now.
It matters if I live up to my promise to my daughter and make apple butter for her so that she can still put it on literally anything and everything, and so that she remembers she had a great-grandfather that always wanted to make sure she had jars of it, made with love just for her.
It matters that I remember his words, reminding me about the importance of my education; of taking care and ownership of my mind. How one of the last times I spent a great deal of time with him, everywhere we went, he introduced me as his grandson, “the professor.”
When I watch a Western. When I make his recipe for sausage gravy. When I share the road with a semi truck and remember his instructions about never being behind one when going uphill, or in front of one headed downhill.
And I’ll remember his last years, too. And how I won’t want to emulate those parts of the end that put such a weight on the rest of his family. Because you can still honor someone’s memory by taking a different path, so long as you remember why you’re making those choices.
I was not able to carry his body, but I know I can carry a tune. I hope I will be able to stay in the right key.