Grief Is a Heavy Blanket

As I write this, my grandfather is dying. The family is gathered around him to say goodbye.

Grandpa has lived 97 years of a life filled with hard work, personal pride, admirable style, strength of will, serious accomplishments, good old-fashioned homesteader skills, World War II medals, dazzling stunts--horsemanship and roller skate tricks and tying cherry stems into knots in his mouth--survival through unspeakable tragedies and traumas, and a marriage of nearly 65 years characterized by a rarely witnessed level of mutual devotion with my grandmother.

Also meanness. I've never known anybody as mean as my grandpa could be. He was a master of shocking, heart-stopping, shame-as-a-weapon emotional cruelty, focused mainly upon his children. It took a break sometimes, and laughter and tenderness slipped through, but it never went away or even retreated to a safe distance. I think punishment was a love language of his. I think it was a protective charm, a blessing marked with blood, a family heirloom. I've heard the legends of his own father, twice as mean as Grandpa, a German butcher who cooked for American troops in World War I. A man other Germans thought of as mean, who carried a last name that wasn't German at all, a name that hints at an earlier family migration from somewhere colder and meaner than Germany, a desperate flight from a persecution that has taken a couple of centuries to escape.

Grandpa can't be mean anymore, and neither can the rest of us, who learned it from him.

Two days ago, I got the call that it was time, and I went and sat by my grandfather's side. My grandmother has set out two rows of chairs on either side of his bed so that he can be surrounded by everyone who comes by to love him, now that we can, without any fear or reservation. All five of my grandfather's children are here. We are gathered around him in overlapping shifts. Sometimes, for a few seconds, he can open his eyes and see us all around.

I wanted to say something. I wanted to touch his handsome silver hair. But I couldn't say anything, and that felt right, because he can't hear anyway. And I didn't want to wake him up and make him feel the pain of the injury that is ushering him out. So we all sat with each other and spoke gently to each other and made a hum of warm presence and woven conversation about anything that floated through our minds. From our bodies grew that full house aura, that press of grownups close together talking in hushed tones that lulls little children to sleep in the evening at a big family gathering.

Grandpa has five children, my mother and two aunts and two uncles. Each one of them is talented and intelligent and generous in their own particular ways. And also strange and also broken. And they all know how to push each other's buttons in the ways only siblings can. They know the exact locations of each other's open wounds and the scars that never stopped hurting.

This is the first time I've been with all of them, and everyone is gentle together. Nobody has the will for anything but care.

Our grief is a heavy blanket. It is a cloud, gray and wet and chilly, and at the same time it is a thick comforter, warm and soft and weighted with memory. It's a dream feeling. It's a prenatal hope.

I am sleep-drunk with it. I could sleep for twelve hours a night if my cat would let me.

I love my family. I love my grandfather, more perfectly now than ever. Together, we are drifting toward peace.


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