The holiday season is not only a time for celebrating what we have, but also what we had. And who.
We would see my grandfather every other Christmas, maybe once in the summer, and his house was layered with dust and memories. He was at a loss for loss, and the slowness in his step was only matched by the quickness in his aging. The days were cruel and settling.
He was haunted by the notches on his timeline–nightmares of storming beaches and fallen soldiers, siblings lost and losing still, and the death of my grandmother that lingered in every corner of a mind much sharper than he wished it to be.
We would sit in the living room and watch him place prunes in his mushroom soup. He would joke about his reasons, and when someone else came in he would make the joke again. He had much humor when he wanted it.
There was a lot of yelling between us, but no anger. We disagreed on many things, but the only words we shared were about the things that would bind us: the local basketball team, my boys, and the Arizona weather. The words were shouted so that he could hear them, and then repeated upon request. The tenderness was not lost beneath the volume.
He spoke of the kindness of my father every time my dad left the room. My father helped to provide the daily assistance that my grandfather needed, not because he was incapable of caring for himself, but because he was incapable of caring. My grandfather started each day by declaring his impending doom, and he slept each night against blankets warm with cotton and disappointment.
Every day my dad would show up, and every day my grandfather would go again through the motions.
When my boys entered the room they were ghosts of me, and my grandfather hugged them with a joy that I can barely remember. They were good with each other, and between my boys and my grandfather there was an understanding that I was somewhere in the middle of, thick with tasks and worry. Together they were bookends of past and future, and they met in the present like it is the only thing that matters.
They would each part with parts of the other, my grandfather’s eyes were suddenly younger and alive with glimmer, my boys somewhat sullen and sweetly serious. The lumps in my throat left me to nodding and losing myself in the shadows cast by sun-smudged windows. Someone made a joke, and then they said it again but only louder.
We would sit there in silence, his a cruel twist of time, and ours a tribute to it.
“I sure do miss her,” he said so soft that I wondered if he knew we could hear him, or if it was just the echoes of his mind falling lightly through an accidental opening. Then he said it again, shook his head and looked deep past the nothing. We all smiled because we missed her, too. We missed her terribly.
“Merry Christmas, Grandpa,” I yelled across hugs and a lifetime. Then we faded into the doorway, and the days that waited ahead.
That was last year, a late December day that started in my grandfather’s living room and lingered down the highway until I was well into another state and tired and ready for bed. He died a few months later. As far as last words go, there are worse endings than Merry Christmas.
I will say them again, and this time all the louder.
A version of this post first appeared on Honea Express
Image: Whit Honea