Will Henderson reflects on the death of his grandfather and how it illuminated the state of their family relationships.
My father’s father died at 8:07 a.m. on Monday, October 18, 2010. I was at the loft that my then-wife, Holly, and I owned. She had invited me over for dinner. She had an ulterior motive. Our son, Avery, doesn’t let her shower in peace when I’m not around. With me there, Holly could lock herself in the bathroom and shower and shave.
My brother, Lucas, texted: “Papa died. Call me.” I called immediately. Avery was in a swing that hung from the ceiling, and I was swinging him, and he was laughing. Lucas was very matter of fact about my grandfather’s death, and how my father wanted me at the funeral, and how Lucas would buy me a plane ticket if I needed him to. He had an ulterior motive, too: He didn’t want to go alone. He wanted us to see how the rest of our relatives look. He wanted us to see how better our lives have been since we never worked in our family’s business.
I asked my brother for my father’s phone number, and I told my brother I was going to call him. My brother recommended I not tell our father that I had had an affair with a man, come out, and that Holly and I were separating.
I hadn’t seen my grandfather or grandmother since December 1998. I wanted Holly to meet them. She met my father at the same time. Once my father and I stopped talking, I couldn’t continue talking to his parents. They didn’t understand why I didn’t want a relationship with my father.
I called my father. He answered the phone, and I said I was sorry. He said thank you. I asked about my grandmother, and my father started talking. My father has few friends and even fewer people that he likes to talk to. I think he likes to talk to me because he feels no obligation to me.
I knew that we would be on the phone for a while.
My grandfather, three weeks before he died: “I don’t know why the good lord is keeping me here. I can’t do anything.”
One of the last full sentences my grandfather said.
At the end, when doctors were measuring his life in days, then hours, my grandfather couldn’t talk because of an oxygen mask that was strapped to his face. He couldn’t write because he couldn’t move his hands. Sometimes he could move his head, but there was little he could do besides motion yes and no. My father said watching his father die was one of the hardest things he’s ever had to do. He used to sleep in the hospital in a visitor’s room. At the end, he couldn’t sleep in the hospital in a visitor’s room. Instead, he drove home and slept and showered and went back to the hospital to sit with his father.
My grandfather searched for a minister the last eight weeks he was alive. He wasn’t a Christian person, but he wanted someone to officiate at his funeral. The minister my grandfather picked told my dad that my grandfather is in a better place and that he was ready to go. My father said bullshit, when he told me this story on the phone about 13 hours after my grandfather died. My father didn’t think this minister knew my grandfather well enough to say anything about how ready my grandfather was to go.
My father said he first saw his father dead in his hospital bed. He had died about five minutes before my father walked into the room. My father first noticed not hearing the sound of the machines breathing for my grandfather, then he realized that the mask was off of my grandfather’s face and his body was still. His father, one of the first people my father has seen dead.
Before he died, my grandfather took 14 pills for breakfast. My father thinks the pills kept my grandfather alive. My father doesn’t want to take pills. My father has a thyroid problem and borderline high blood pressure. My father talks to himself all of the time. I used to talk to myself. People thought I was kind of crazy. Maybe I was kind of crazy, since I haven’t talked to myself since a psychiatrist I saw recommended I take Lamictal. 100 milligrams every day. Keeps me from feeling high highs or low lows. Keeps me from talking to myself. Keeps everything from feeling bigger than necessary.
During that conversation with my father, he slipped between past and present tense. I couldn’t tell him that I thought he was in shock. He said that he had been ready for his father’s death, and when it happened, he didn’t cry as much as say, OK, what’s next. In the years leading to my grandfather’s death, my father spent three days a week with his parents. He drove them to the post office and the grocery store and the pharmacy. Up until the last few years, my grandparents could drive places.
My father’s father is the first of my grandparents to die. He stopped going to school after finishing sixth grade. He belonged to a carving club in Inverness, Florida, where my grandparents and father live. I grew up there, or I say I grew up in Inverness, since I lived there from when I was 12 until I graduated from high school and left for college. My grandfather was a freemason. He thought the freemasons were similar to a religion. He invited my father to join; my father said no. The masons were at my grandfather’s funeral. Friends and family, too. Because he’s a veteran, he was buried in a veteran’s cemetery.
After I finish talking to my father, I call my brother. I told him that I wouldn’t come to the funeral. My brother understood.
He asked what my father and I had talked about (funny, how siblings claim parents with words like my and mine, even though these parents are shared and should be referred to as ours), and I told him. My brother let me talk. Sometimes I wonder if he thinks about our lengthy conversations the same way I think about lengthy conversations with my—our—father.
I was at work, during my grandfather’s viewing. His was an open casket. I know his was an open casket because my brother text-messaged me a photo of our grandfather in his open casket. My phone, on my desk at work, and then a picture on the screen of my phone. My grandfather, dead.
Later, after, I told my brother that I wish I had been there. Not because I think then, there, was my only chance to say goodbye, but because I felt like I should have been there.
People asked about you, my brother said to me, and I asked him what he had said, and he said that he didn’t tell anything about my life that would cause problems.
You know, I told my brother, if I had gone, and if my ex and I were still together, I would have wanted him there. He would have come, and we would have brought Avery, and I would have introduced him as my partner.
My brother quipped that there would have been a lot of grateful people, because our grandmother would have died, upon hearing that I am gay, and her death, then, at my grandfather’s funeral would have saved our family the trouble and the cost of coming back for her funeral.
But I would have wanted him there, I told my brother. He was my family.
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