My mom asks which tie I like best as we stand over the open drawer. She asks me variations of the question all day: when do you think we should have the service? What verse should we use for the prayer cards? Which casket do you prefer, the bronze or the silver stainless steel? I’m afraid to offer my opinion, lest someone use it to make a decision.
My aunt found my grandfather this morning, on his back in bed, still warm, robe on, hands clasped over his waist, almost like a prayer, almost like a gesture of ok, take me now. I was sitting at my mom’s table, drinking tea, when her sister called to tell us. We had gone to see him for dinner the night before.
My eyes pass over the maroon paisley, the navy stripes and land on a red tie whose pattern is made by texture, small raised and depressed squares. It’s familiar. Did I give him this tie? Did I give it to my dad or stepfather and it got passed along to him when they were done with it, much like the cotton sweaters and old Polo shirts did?
I wanted to write a eulogy for the service. I had, in moments of morbid prescience, taken notes for one after some of our weekly phone calls, the calls we’d had regularly since I moved to California. The calls I would make on my way to work, as I sat in traffic on the 10, or on a Sunday, as I drove up the PCH for lunch in Malibu. The conversations where I got to know my grandfather as a person and not just my Grandpa.
The signs were there at his last dinner, if I had looked at them. He had difficulty eating, taking slow, disinterested bites of mashed potatoes, of his single slice of turkey garnished with cranberry sauce that came from a rectangular package like the jelly containers you see in a diner. He didn’t want dessert. He kissed me goodbye, told me he loved me, and patted my arm when I said I would see him next month, a placating gesture offered to an oblivious child.
I would have picked the red tie, but my aunts choose the more traditional maroon print. They put it together with the suit found hanging in his closet, which he’d had tailored recently to fit his shrunken body, skin hanging loosely from his bones. It’s a funeral suit. He has left numerous copies of his death directives in various places throughout the house. There are so many logistics of dying.
In our last phone conversation, his voice was more upbeat than it had been for months, maybe since before my sister died nearly a year earlier. I heard the smile as he told me that hospice would be starting soon, that Meals On Wheels was already delivering lunch and dinner every weekday. I put him on speakerphone as he described what he’d eaten that day and texted a friend who is a grief counselor to ask if there was another kind of hospice that didn’t mean the end. She wrote back while he was still talking about pot roast: no.
I burst into shaking sobs as we stand around his bedroom discussing his burial outfit, much like I did in that phone conversation when he told me he was ready, that he’d had a good life, that he had accepted it. Five hours after he is gone, surrounded by what is left behind from his good life, I still have not.
The next door neighbor’s cat, who had left white hair all over my grandfather’s lap the night before, paces on the front stoop, insistently meowing when no one will let her in. She looks ragged, fur matted and clumped in uneven patches, as though she has been in some suburban street fight. We are late for the funeral home, holding the maroon tie and tailored suit, and leave the cat sitting on the top step, staring at the closed door.
I remember so few details from those phone calls. Just: the softening of his tone over the years, impatience giving way to tolerance. Also: the encouragement and support when I quit my job, telling me I would be successful no matter what I did. And: the mmm that eventually changed to I love you too, that finally became I love you, initiated by him, at the end of every phone conversation.
The day after we visit the funeral home, planning visitation in New Jersey and a burial in Pennsylvania for the following week, after I have written my third obituary in a year, I drive by myself to Connecticut for the writing workshop that has brought me back to the East Coast. Much like I went to one in Italy a few weeks after my dad died, and like I traveled to Australia a few weeks after my sister died. I worry that there is something inherently wrong with me that I can keep moving after they no longer can.
The sun beats down on us at the cemetery in Pennsylvania, feeling almost as hot as it did in July, when we brought my sister’s ashes up to my grandfather’s family mausoleum. The caretakers swept the dirt and spiders from the marble room before we arrived. The smooth box holding Kelly’s remains sits on the windowsill beneath stained glass, exactly where we left it. I drape purple and pink flowers from today’s arrangements on top of her, careful not to cover the plaque that bears her name. I slip one of the prayer cards from my grandfather’s service through the seam of the box without opening the lid. My mom adjusts the ceramic purple butterfly I brought back from Guatemala that is hanging from a framed picture of her on that sill. It slides through her fingers and shatters against the marble floor.
All of the notes I emailed to myself, the makings of his eulogy, have disappeared. I search my entire computer by key words: Grandpa grandfather Joe 94 95 96, all of the ages I might have referred to him as in these emails. There is no record of anything ever having been written after our phone calls. There is no record of the stories he has told me. There is no record of anything.
I wonder how you prepare yourself to die. What kind of fortitude it requires. How long it takes to accept it, whether you ever really do. I wonder if you can simply lie down with your hands clasped over your waist and think, I’m ready now, and that’s it. I wonder what it feels like when you know you are leaving people behind, people you know are not ready to be left.
On one of those calls last year while I drove up the PCH, he asked me what I assumed was the beginning of a silly riddle. If you take all of the things I have done in my life, and subtract the things I can no longer do, what is left? I waited for the punchline, another of the ridiculous jokes he told that I would roll my eyes at. When I didn’t guess, he repeated himself, so I humored him. I don’t know, what?
I think about all of the labels my grandfather could have used to describe himself that no longer applied when he posed that question to me on the phone: son, brother, husband, musician, president, carpenter, fixer of everything. I think about all he had lost. I think about the labels that remained until the end: father, grandfather, great-grandfather. I think about how he told me they were the most important labels. I think about how they still weren’t enough to save him, how nothing was enough to save him, nor my dad, nor my sister and I wonder how we can all just go on, knowing that we can never save anyone, knowing that we, that I, eventually have to accept their loss, and keep moving. Just me.