After Death

My grandpa died 3 weeks ago.

He was ready and it was time, but it’s still a hard reality to accept.

For 37 years, he’s been a part of my life. He’s been there—in his cowboy boots or in his airplane or snuggling one of his beloved dogs or working on one of the many guns he collected—for my entire life. He’s been bellowing across the room at someone or sitting in front of a blaring Western for as long as I can remember. And now there will be no more memories.

He’s gone.

I’ve been trying to write about this for a while, and figure out how to honor him, but it’s proven strangely daunting. Everything I write comes out maudlin or trite. And that doesn’t get to the essence of who he was at all. I want to honor him as he was, and he was thoroughly complex.

He was hilarious. My grandma says that as much of a pain as he was—and he was, often—he made her laugh so much that it was worth it. He was loud and imposing and his anger was explosive and sometimes scary, but he was filled with such deep and abiding love that he was hard to hate. Even when you wanted to, you couldn't. He was charming, right down to the bones, and he was dashing and tall and always well-dressed.

And I loved him. I got angry with him when his rage frightened me and I got angry with him when he was unkind to my mother or my uncle or my grandma. And I continued to love him fiercely, because he loved me just as much. He was gruff and said horrifying things sometimes, but his absolute adoration of the things and the people he loved were contagious. He was human, for better and for worse.

And he mattered to me. He had a huge impact on my life, in ways he would love and ways he is no doubt infuriated by, even after death. I will think of him every time I see a Western, every time I put on one of his old belts, every time I see a gun and flinch, every time I eat ebelskivers, every time someone says, “Goddammit,” every time I hear “Oh My Darlin’, Clemetine” every time I eat ribs, and every time I vote Democrat (he was pissed about that one right up until the end). His flawed humanity is what made him who he was, and I don’t want to forget it. And I’m frightened I will. My family has chosen, for a variety of reasons, not to have a funeral, and so I’m left with this strange open wound of his loss. I’m sure we all are. There hasn’t been any closure yet, any official gathering of people who loved him for the express purpose of talking about him. So I find myself circling, trying again and again to explain him, say goodbye to him, write him in exactly the right way.

After all, humanity is the thing we write.

But I’m also discovering that ceremony is important. There’s something vital about the ritual of gathering to say goodbye to our dead. Something comforting and final about coming together to share memories or cry or express the last of our anger. It’s cathartic, and I haven’t yet found that release.

We keep trying to pay homage in an effort to close the chapter. As I spent the day with my family after the funeral home came to take him away, my Smartner and Smartlings spent the day doing things he would have liked, things that made them think of him. The night he died, I ate egg rolls—one of his favorite foods—in his honor, and we watched a western (a space western, if I’m honest, as I could never really stomach the real thing). Two nights ago, my friend and I went to a local BBQ joint and I ate big slabs of meat, just as he always loved, and I told stories about him with his belt around my waist and his watch on my wrist.

None of these things are enough, but they’ll have to do for now. And in the meantime, I’ll keep writing him, keep remembering him, and keep learning what I can about him – the good, the bad, and the ugly.

Gramps and me at my wedding, ten and a half years ago.

About Shannon