"Just open your eyes and see that life is beautiful. Will you swear on your life that no one will cry at my funeral?" - Sixx AM "Life is Beautiful"
As many of you are aware by now, I am, in fact, a few months away from becoming a father. And while I did write (exhaustively) about the experience of my first Father's Day from a viewpoint other than as a son, I haven't really gone into my other feelings about the matter, or about many other matters recently, to be honest. That's largely because the last couple months of my life have been an emotional whirlwind wherein I've felt the gamut of human experiential emotions from birth to death, and many things in between.
Very shortly after I learned that my wife was pregnant, my grandmother (who had been battling cancer for years) took a turn for the worse and my brother flew in from Texas and we saw her for what would ultimately be the last time in what was far and away the most difficult experience of my life to that point.
For years, even past middle age, my grandmother was always one of the most vibrant people I've ever met. When my brother and I would go over in the summer as kids, it would almost seem like my grandmother had more energy than even we did. She was constantly moving, cooking, cleaning, volunteering, doing anything she could think of to stay busy. Then, just before my wedding four and a half years ago, she fell, and she was never the same person after that. She got cancer, which started as breast cancer before it ultimately spread to her brain. When I would see her at holidays, she had suddenly become the quiet one in the room who mostly just sat staring off into space.
For the first few years, her condition always seemed the same. She never seemed to be any better or worse off than she had been the last time I'd seen her. To make matters worse, my mother would regularly guilt me about family functions using my grandmother's health as ammunition. I can't tell you how many times over the last few years I heard “This will probably be your grandmother's last (insert holiday/family event here).” Every time, without fail, I would show up and she would be in exactly the same condition as she'd been in the last time I'd seen her. Her cancer was even in remission for awhile before it eventually spread to her brain. So a couple months ago, on my way to see her for what I'd been told would probably be the last time I would see her, I didn't believe it.
Until I walked into her house for the last time. Because of all the times I'd been told she was practically limping along with one foot in the grave and the other on a banana peel, I didn't believe it when it was actually true until I saw it with my own eyes, and I wasn't ready for it. We could only stay for a couple hours because of her fleeting consciousness, and most of what was said she probably couldn't hear or comprehend anyway. Most of the time was spent talking with my grandfather (who was doing as well as one could expect under the circumstances). We tried to act happy, and my grandparents both seemed genuinely excited about the arrival of their first great-grandchild, but it was difficult to share their excitement knowing my grandmother wouldn't live to see that great-grandchild.
A couple hours later, we left. My brother and I got a picture with them and then leaned down to my grandmother's hospital bed to say goodbye, all of us knowing that it would be the last time, and all of us showing the same look of guilt and regret. As I walked out of her house, what struck me the most about the experience was that the last time I would ever say “I love you” to my grandmother, had also been the first time I'd said it.
I've never been close with my extended family. It wasn't anything horrible anybody did to me or anything like that, I just always felt like a stranger in my own family. In the weeks since, I've spent a lot of time thinking about it and without realizing it growing up, I've now come to terms with the fact that I was likely always viewed as the red-headed stepchild with my mom's family. Her family never liked my father, which I can't entirely blame them for as I haven't spoken to him myself in years, but looking back, it sure feels like a “sins of the father” situation. They seemed to like me well enough when my brother and I were the only two grandkids, but once my mom's brother and sister had their respective children, our bloom was off the rose, so to speak, and my brother and I were definitely on the back burner. Again, it wasn't any one specific thing anyone said or did. It was just like we were family in name only.
It also felt like I just plain wasn't good or prestigious enough for them. I recently had a conversation with my brother and he had noticed it too. Back when I was a restaurant manager and he was a high school teacher, they would all go out of their way to talk to him and ignore me because he had a job they were proud of, me not so much. Once I left the restaurant after my father-in-law offered me a job at the company he was looking into starting and my brother was laid off from his teaching job and took a less prestigious one, their entire attitude flipped, and we both noticed. He was no longer the one everyone was interested in, so other than asking about his move to Texas, they all but ignored him, but suddenly now that I was involved in the startup of a business and did big important things, everyone wanted to hear what I had to say. The amazing thing is that a couple of them pointed out to my wife that I was all of a sudden talking more than I ever had before and they couldn't figure out why. No, I don't talk any more than I used to, you just cared more to listen and talk to me now that I'm not a boil on the family's ass. The whole situation really kind of sickened me, to be perfectly honest.
However, after thinking about it a lot more, for my part, I know I certainly didn't go out of my way to ever do anything to correct the situation, so I'm really not blaming anyone. As a matter of fact, I'm 30 years old and to this day I don't think I've had five minutes of conversation with all of my four cousins combined. Again, not blaming anybody because I could've approached them just as much as they could've approached me, so at this point, it's water under the bridge, or spilled milk, or I'm too old for this crap, or however you want to phrase it.
The simple fact was, a couple months ago, I was walking out of my grandmother's house for the last time, having just said “I love you” to her for the first time as she lay dying on a hospital bed. I also realized that I didn't know her at all. And at that point, the question of “Whose fault is it?” was utterly meaningless, because blaming one person or another changed nothing. The bottom line was my grandmother was dying and I'd never bothered to get to know her like I suddenly wished I had. For the next couple weeks I was extremely conflicted. Do I try to drive a few hours to see her a couple more times before she passes? Would it change anything? Would I be any closer to being able to eventually tell my child about the great-grandmother they just missed getting to see? Would she even be lucid enough to talk? Would seeing her more just make it harder every time I left? Could I even handle the goodbye again?
After a couple weeks, my mind was made up for me, because she passed away. I went up for the viewing the day before the funeral, and all that day, all I could think about was my own guilt for not having done more to get to know the woman in the casket ten yards from where I sat. My mother, though obviously upset, was trying to be optimistic about the baby as she kept introducing me and my wife to people as her “son, daughter-in-law, and first grandbaby.” My grandmother even had a ribbon that listed her as a mother, grandmother, and great-grandmother, but all I could think of was that if she had been able to hold on until February, she could've met her first great-grandchild.
As it turned out, I did get to have one last private conversation with my grandmother, that I will undoubtedly remember for the rest of my life. My brother and I (who were pall bearers) initially went to the church for the funeral service in the lead car, but from the church to the cemetery, the two priests would need to be in the lead car, necessitating one of us to ride to the cemetery in the hearse (or the carriage, as they preferred to call it). I knew my brother wouldn't be able to handing riding in the hearse, as he had missed the viewing due to having to fly in from Texas and he was in much worse shape than I was the day of the funeral, so I quickly volunteered to ride in the hearse, just a few inches from the casket. I got in a few minutes before the driver got in and we left the church, which I am forever grateful for, because it allowed me one last opportunity to say what I needed to say. I apologized for thirty years in which I never managed to get to know her. I apologized for the fact that the first time I ever said “I love you” was when she was on her death bed. I told her that I had taken my grandfather's advice to heart and would always appreciate my own wife more than he had, because you don't know when that's over. And I told her that in the months before my child is born I'm making a list of everything I want my child to learn from me and I promised her that her first great-grandchild would make more effort to get to know and appreciate family than what her first grandchild did.
As I escorted my grandmother to her final resting place, I couldn't help but feel that somewhere, on whatever plane of existence she may or may not currently occupy, that she would've understood and forgiven my missed opportunity, and that she really would be happy knowing that in some way, she was making her grandson and her unborn great-grandchild a better person even as she was moving on to the next great adventure herself. And it was at the point that I noticed the silver lining for the first time in this whole experience. While our physical bodies are vulnerable, that vulnerability exists only to the physical. The bad things that can happen to our physical bodies cannot affect the lessons we've taught, the lives we've touched, or the good we've left behind.
My grandmother, who three months ago was a stranger to me, has now become much more than she ever was as a living person. She's a reminder, an example, an ideal. And that's something that cancer can never take away from her. It's funny how life, even in death, can be strangely beautiful if only you look for it.
P.S. Just bear with me, it's been a very unusual time in my life recently. I promise I will be getting back to the meaningless stupid shit you're all accustomed to very soon.
people sure hope I'll be getting back to the meaningless stupid shit because all this serious stuff is killing them