I’m going to give folks fair warning: this week’s post is a downer.
Without going into too much detail, my grandmother died last week after a short battle with pancreatic cancer. I knew this day was coming since late spring, and I thought I was prepared for it, but turns out it hit me harder than I expected. And, as is often the case when a loved one passes, I think about how people process grief. Me, I process it in small, manageable pieces, but this sometimes leads me to postpone processing it entirely — and when it catches up to me, which it invariably does, it’s like getting hit by a truck.
I started to realize this about myself when my grandfather died in my early 20s, and I recalled all those thoughts and feelings when I wrote a particular chapter in the fourth Action Figures book. It remains my most personal piece of writing, and I later discovered that it had an impact on several readers beyond the emotion of the situation. One gent wrote to tell me how that chapter led him to face his own prepressed grief over the loss of his own father, which was an incredibly humbling thing to read.
Since grief is very much on my mind presently, here is that chapter. For what it’s worth, it’s mildly spoilery in that it deals with the death of a supporting character.
My grandfather is dead.
My. Grandfather. Is. Dead. I know these words. I know what they mean individually, but not when they’re put together in that specific order. It’s a nonsense sentence that defies translation, a strange, alien concept that refuses to make its meaning clear to me.
A police officer, his hat in his hands, which are folded respectfully at his belt buckle, asks my mother when she last spoke to Granddad. Yesterday morning, she says, before she left for work. The officer asks me the same question. I tell him yesterday morning, when I left for school.
I think I’m the one who says that. Maybe someone else answered for me. I don’t know.
Mom says she realized a little while ago she hadn’t seen Granddad all morning, so she poked her head into his bedroom and found him like that (whatever like that means). Yes, she says, he seemed fine. No, he hadn’t been having any health issues. Yes, his emotional state had been fine. What’s that got to do with anything? The officer apologizes. He has to ask these questions as a matter of routine, he explains.
I’m not even sure why a cop is here. Mom called an ambulance. I guess the EMTs called the police, which is protocol whenever they’re called to an unattended death.
Unattended death. Another phrase that makes no sense. Why are these people spewing crazy talk at us?
Mom’s fingernails dig into my arm. All I feel is the pressure. There’s no pain. She makes a funny noise, a cross between a cough and a hiccup, the kind of sound you’d make if you swallowed wrong. The EMTs excuse themselves as they come down the stairs carrying—I don’t know what it is. It’s a stretcher, that much I can tell, and there’s something on it, hidden by a sheet and strapped down to keep it from sliding off. That would be bad. They could break something.
Mom’s grip tightens. Still no pain.
One of the EMTs returns a minute later. He speaks to my mother in that freaky pseudo-English everyone is using. Possible heart attack. Probably happened in his sleep. No signs that he suffered.
(Stretcher? Maybe it was a gurney. I don’t know what the difference is.)
The officer asks Mom a few more questions, hands her a business card, says he’s very sorry for our loss (our what?), and he leaves, at which point Mom shrinks into my arms and cries.
Mom leaves a huge wet spot on my shoulder when she finally pulls away. Her face is red and splotchy; her eyes are solid pink because the little veins are so inflamed; and her nose drips like she has a nasty cold. Man, I hope she isn’t getting sick.
“I should call your father,” Mom mumbles. “He’d want to know.”
“I’ll do it,” I say.
Mom shakes her head. “No, honey, no, I don’t want —”
“I’ll do it,” I repeat. “You sit. I’m going to put the kettle on, make you some tea, and I’ll call Dad.”
She nods and makes her way toward the couch, shuffling stiffly, like an extra in a zombie movie.
Zombies. Dead people.
My grandfather is dead.
No. Still doesn’t make any sense.
The next day brings with it a horrible clarity. Everything suddenly makes sense. Well, a sort of sense. Maybe it’s more accurate to say I’ve grasped the reality of the situation, as much as I don’t want to.
Sara stops by the house on the way to school. The first thing she does is hug me. She asks how I’m doing. I shrug. I don’t know how I’m doing.
I’m not going to school today, I tell her. Mom needs me. She says she understands, hugs me again. I apologize for ruining her birthday. She tells me no, don’t, I didn’t ruin anything, and she hugs me harder.
“Call me if you need me, okay?” Sara says.
I try to smile. I try. “I promise.”
From that point the day takes on a strangely dreamlike quality. I experience moments and events that I know on some level are connected by a common thread, but everything that happens in-between those moments refuses to stick in my memory. One minute I’m answering the phone and passing it to Mom, so whoever’s calling can offer his or her condolences. The next I’m accepting a flower delivery. The next I’m playing hostess to a visitor, one of Granddad’s friends who only knew my mother and me by reputation. The minister from Granddad’s church, Reverend Daley, comes by to talk to Mom about the service. She says she wants to get it over with quickly—memorial service Tuesday night, funeral Wednesday, done and done. Granddad would have wanted it that way, she says. I have to choke back the urge to say no, I’m reasonably certain he would have wanted to still be alive.
I spend a lot of the day beating down surges of anger. It rises in my throat like hot acid every time I hear one of Granddad’s friends laugh at a fond memory; every time I read a card, attached to a vase full of festive blossoms, that tells us to take comfort in knowing Granddad is in a better place; every time a caller asks for my mother without saying one damn word to me. Sure, don’t tell me how sorry you are. He was only my grandfather. I sure don’t want your damned sympathy.
I swallow my emotions. I have to. Mom is a basket case. The last thing she needs is me adding to her giant mountain of crap, so each time my temper starts to bubble up, I clench my fists, take a breath, and put on my best neutral face and bravely soldier on. After a while, boxing up my feelings becomes remarkably easy. Practice makes perfect.
Sara swings by again on her way home. Just wanted to check in, she says. How am I doing? she asks. Fine. Do I need anything? No, thank you. Am I sure? Yes, I’m sure. Will I call her if I do? Yes, I will, I promise.
My fists stay clenched throughout her visit. After she leaves, I open my hands to reveal purple crescent-shaped indentations stitched across my palms.
My hands, I now realize, have been trembling all day.
They continue to shake as I try to respond to a text from Malcolm (So sorry about your granddad, call me if you need anything). It takes me five full minutes to type I’m okay, will call later, and several times I come dangerously close to throwing my phone against a wall.
It’s a little after five-thirty when Ben arrives. Mom called him last night to break the news but declined his offer to come over to help, comfort her, whatever—as well as his offer to skip work today. This was a family matter, Mom said, a remark that I took a small measure of cruel delight in hearing.
Ben, for the first time since he and Mom started dating, hugs me. It’s weird and it’s awkward—but not anywhere near as awkward as when Dad shows up on our doorstep.
“Hi, sweetie,” he says, stepping inside to take me in his arms. I feel every muscle in my body release. I practically melt in his embrace. He doesn’t ask me how I’m doing. He doesn’t say anything. He just holds me.
“Carrie? Who is it?” Mom asks, stepping out of the kitchen, where she and Ben are tending to the frozen pizzas that will stand in for a proper dinner. “Oh. Brian. Um. Hi.”
“Hi, Christina,” Dad says. He lets me go and crosses the living room, ostensibly to hug Mom, but stops short when Ben appears behind her.
“Who is it?” Ben says. “Hello,” he says to Dad.
Mom fidgets. My God, she never told Dad she was dating someone? What the hell, Mom?
My fingernails slip into the bruised grooves in my palms.
“Ben, this is my ex-husband Brian. Brian, this is Ben,” she says. Ben, I can’t help but notice, doesn’t get a title, but Dad’s not an idiot. He can read between the lines.
“Oh. Uh, hello, Ben,” Dad says, trading a handshake that is clearly uncomfortable on both sides.
“Brian, good to meet you,” Ben says. “Sorry it’s not under better circumstances.”
“Yeah. Me too.”
“What are you doing here?” Mom says. “I’m sorry, that sounded —”
“It’s okay,” Dad says. “I wanted to see how you and Carrie were doing, see if you needed anything. Uh, I thought Carrie might need to get out of the house for a little while,” he adds.
Mom nods. “That might be good. We’ve both been cooped up since yesterday. Honey?”
“Yeah. Sure. Sounds good,” I say without a lick of enthusiasm. Not that I’m not keen on the idea, but this has been an exhausting day. Bruce Springsteen could walk through the door, and I’d be like, Oh, hey, how about that. Neat.
Dad and I head into town, the ride passing in silence, and we land at Junk Food. We settle into a booth and order a pu-pu platter, which I pick at listlessly because I’m not really hungry. Besides, everything I’ve eaten today has tasted like cardboard.
“So,” Dad says. “That’s the new boyfriend.”
“Uh-huh,” I say.
“Mm. How long’s that been going on?”
“I don’t know. Since February. I think since February. Maybe January. I don’t know.”
Dad nods. “He seems nice.”
I shrug. “He’s okay.”
Dad nods again. I make a mental note to feel outraged on Dad’s behalf at some later date. I know they have separate lives now; they don’t have to check in with each other about anything, but Mom should have said something to Dad. Something. Anything. He shouldn’t have found out about Ben like this.
Dad lays a hand over mine and squeezes. “How are you holding up, honey?”
“All right,” I say, but God, am I getting sick of that question. I stick a fried shrimp in my mouth and chew it listlessly. Yum. Fried cardboard.
Dad obviously wants to ask me something, or say something, but he’s holding back.
“What?” I say.
“Could you do something for me?”
“Do you remember how your mother was after Grandma died?”
I think back to two—no, almost three years ago now, but I don’t know what I’m supposed to be looking for. Everything is a jumble of images, most of them involving Mom crying a lot.
“Yeah. I think so,” I say.
“It’s going to be a lot rougher this time. Everything she felt when she lost her mother, she’s going to feel it ten times worse. She’s going to be angry, a lot, and often over nothing.” He sighs, and his mouth twists into something halfway between a scowl and a sneer, an expression that signals he’s about to say something he knows I won’t like. “You two have a tendency to butt heads. I’m asking you to try to keep a lid on your temper, because your mom, she won’t be able to. One of you needs to be the cool head and it has to be you. Please try to be understanding. That’s all I ask.”
Oh, is that all? Well, sure, Dad, you’re not asking anything unreasonable, only that I let Mom throw a fit whenever the hell she wants and smile through it all, smile like it doesn’t bother me in the least.
Like I’m doing right now.
Mom knocks on my bedroom door. “Carrie?”
The door cracks open. Mom steps in. She’s wearing a simple jacket and skirt—in black, naturally—and a plain white blouse. I’m wearing the same thing and, like Mom, my hair is up in a loose knot at the base of my skull. Great. That all but guarantees some asshat is going to try to lighten the mood with a lame joke about us being twins. Why, Carrie, I didn’t know you had a sister, ha ha.
“You look very nice,” Mom says.
“Thanks. You too,” I say politely. I mean, it’s a memorial service; it’s not really the place for bold fashion choices.
“Ready to go?”
Mom gives me a weak smile and holds out her hand. She slides her arm around my shoulders and we head downstairs. Ben is waiting for us by the door. He plays chauffeur, driving us into town. The radio stays off. None of us talk. The atmosphere is appropriately somber.
We enter the funeral home, and I’m hit with a powerful wave of déjà vu: this is the same place where we held Grandma’s funeral service. Granddad’s casket is even in the exact same room, the Sunset Room (oh, what clever symbolism, guys. Bet you stayed up all night thinking that one up).
Mom and I take our positions at the front of the room, near the head of the casket. When Grandma died, I remember playing the role of witness during the service. I sat in the front row next to Dad while Mom and Granddad handled receiving line duties. I remember thinking at the time how nice it was, seeing so many people there, listening to them tell Mom and Granddad how much Grandma was loved.
It’s not nice. It’s hell.
The first visitors, two of Granddad’s bowling buddies, wander in ten minutes after the official start of visiting hours. They introduce themselves to my mother, lean in for a friendly consoling hug and a kiss on the cheek, then repeat the process with me. I force myself not to turn away from the kisses, but it’s not easy. The first guy has Slim Jim on his breath. The other reeks of Old Spice. I give them both a fake smile and a thank-you that sounds completely sincere. You’d never know I really wanted to punch their teeth down their throats.
As the evening progresses, the flow of visitors becomes steadier and my displays of false gratitude get easier and easier. I fall into a rhythm: introduction, handshake, hug, kiss, nod and smile as platitudes are offered, thank you very much, next customer, please. I’m so in the zone it takes me a few seconds to realize that Megan, Kilroy, and Farley Quentin are next in line.
“Hi, Carrie,” Farley says, looking up at me with his big, soulful Frodo Baggins eyes.
“Hey, buddy,” I say, kneeling down. He throws his arms around my neck and squeezes tight, and my God, this is the first time all night I give a damn about anyone’s sympathy.
“I’m sorry about your grandpop,” he says.
“Thank you,” I say, then I stand to get my hug from Meg.
“Hey, girl,” she says. “Mom and Dad send their love. They’d have come themselves, but Dad didn’t want to be a distraction.”
Yeah, a seven-foot-tall rock guy does tend to draw focus. “I understand,” I say, and accept a hug from Kilroy (who, to his credit, keeps it brief and chaste).
“Carrie?” Mom says inquiringly.
“Oh, yeah, right. Mom, this is Farley, the boy I babysit for sometimes, and his brother and sister, Kilroy and Meg.”
“Mrs. Hauser,” Kilroy says with a small bow. “I hope you don’t mind that we came by.”
Wow, that was positively gentlemanly. Didn’t know he had it in him.
“No, of course not, thank you,” Mom says before her tone turns curious. “I’m sorry, you two look familiar somehow.”
“We have those kinds of faces,” Meg says.
“Devastatingly handsome faces,” Kilroy says to me. There we go, back on familiar territory. “Hey, we saw the others on our way in. I think they’re stuck at the back of the line, so we’re going to go keep them company.”
“Okay. Thanks,” I say, and I return my attention to the parade of faceless mourners. I can’t say how long it takes for Matt, Sara, Stuart, and Missy to reach the head of the line, but their arrival marks a distinct shift toward the familiar. Until now, the vast majority of visitors invading my personal space were utterly unfamiliar to me. They were all Granddad’s friends or Mom’s friends from work, but now people I know are the rule rather than the exception. Mr. and Mrs. Steiger accompany Matt, and Dr. and Mrs. Hamill are with Missy. Stuart is sans parents but has buddied up with Malcolm. By coincidence, Dad is right behind my concentrated clump of friends, and behind him I catch sight of Jill from the Coffee Experience, who is chatting with Natalie and Catherine, who cross-chat with Mr. Crenshaw.
It hits me now how one person’s life can overlap other lives in unexpected ways. I’d have never expected my grandfather to have common ground with the woman who whips up my mochaccinos or one of my friends or my boyfriend.
Stuart reaches us first, and Mom, who’s managed to make it this far with dry eyes, starts to tear up. “Mrs. Hauser,” Stuart says.
“Mrs. Hauser? What happened to calling me Christina?” Mom says with a small chuckle. She pulls Stuart into a long embrace.
“Greg was a really cool guy,” he says.
“Yeah. He was.”
The line dwindles out after Dad finally gets to us, and people settle into their own little cliques to chat before the service proper. My group owns the hallway outside the Sunset Room. I bring Dad over for a round of long overdue introductions. Dad, meet my friends, my (not really a) math tutor, my (not really) youth service group coordinator, my barista, and last but not least…
“Dad, this is my boyfriend Malcolm,” I say. “Malcolm, my father, Brian Hauser.”
“It’s nice to finally meet you, sir,” Malcolm says, shaking Dad’s hand. “I’m sorry it’s not under happier circumstances.”
“Yeah. Me too,” Dad says, and they start talking. They refer to me, nod and gesture at me, but they don’t actually say anything to me.
No one is saying anything to me. All the conversation is happening around me, near me, about me, but none of it is directed at me. Once in a while I get a “How are you doing?” or “Are you okay?” or what’s supposed to be a reassuring hand on my shoulder, but they’re all empty, perfunctory gestures. I’m the hostess of a party no one wanted to come to.
Reverend Daley announces the start of the service. Everyone flows into the Sunset Room. Seats fill up quickly. Standing room only. Mom sits in the front row, Ben on one side, me on the other. Dad sits next to me and completes the human chain of clasped hands.
The reverend passes a smile over the assembly and begins the service, which he promises “will be brief because, as you all know, Greg Briggs was a modest and uncomplicated man who would no doubt take issue with me showering him at length with praise.”
Soft laughter ripples through the crowd. Mom laughs with them for a second or two before the tears come, and they don’t stop throughout the rest of the homily—which, as promised, is quick and simple. The reverend is up there for three, four minutes, but it’s the longest three or four minutes of my life. He ends with an invitation to join the family for drinks at a nearby restaurant one of Granddad’s friends owns.
All two of us.
The Quentins leave after the service, as do the Steiger and Hamill contingents, followed closely by Jill, Natalie, and Catherine. I have to practically shove Sara out the door. She wants to stay, for me, but I refuse to give her father any further reason to dump on her.
Stuart catches a ride to the restaurant with Malcolm and me. The boys stick close to me the rest of the night, like they’re my bodyguards.
Because it’s a private function, I’m allowed to sit at the bar to drink my soda. I tuck myself into a far corner, away from the main dining floor, away from people because I’ve hit my saturation point for sympathy. Every sad smile, every How are you doing?, every fond anecdote about my grandfather makes me want to scream, but I suck it up and smile back and say I’m fine and say thank you because I promised Dad I would, for Mom’s sake.
Not that she looks all that upset. I glance over at the small round dining table where she’s set up shop, and she’s having a grand time. People come and go in steady rotation, briefly sitting down to chat, share a laugh, presumably about something amusing Granddad said or did that one time (Oh, remember that? Wasn’t that hysterical?), then move on, so the next well-wisher can offer up an entertaining story.
Behind Mom, Dad and Ben lean against the wall and talk animatedly. They seem to be getting along just fine. How lovely.
Hell, everyone here looks like they’re enjoying themselves. People talk, drink, snack, and joke like there’s nothing to be sad about, certainly not the unfortunate state of the late Gregory Briggs, present in neither body nor spirit. Out of sight, out of mind.
I look up from my drink. There’s a man standing next to me, dressed in a black suit. I glance over at Stuart and Malcolm, who have become momentarily distracted by some private conversation. The man gives me the same melancholy smile I’ve received a million times over tonight.
“Sorry to bother you,” he says, “but I wanted to let you know how sorry I am for your loss.”
“Thank you,” I say, and the effort of saying even that little is exhausting.
“You’re strong,” he says, and for a moment he looks like he’s got something more to say to me, but he turns away and melts into the crush of mourners.
My entire body goes rigid with a sudden rush of undiluted rage. My fists ball up so tightly I could crush rocks in them. My chest constricts and each breath becomes a Herculean effort and my head spins and I need to get out of here.
“Carrie?” Malcolm says as I stumble off my barstool.
“Do you need —?”
“I’m fine. Going to the bathroom,” I lie.
I head outside, away from people, away from sympathy, away from pity, away from I’m sorry and He was a good man and He’s in a better place now…
The restaurant, a converted Colonial-era home, sits on a good-sized piece of property. It’s surrounded on three sides by lawn and shrubbery and trees, and there are park benches scattered around the periphery. I all but collapse onto one of the benches and let the cool night air settle onto my skin, hoping it’ll relax me. It doesn’t, so I sit there, my legs jittering with enough nervous energy to power Boston for a year.
I close my eyes for a minute. When I open them, I see Stuart strolling across the parking lot toward me. He stops at the edge of the grass.
“Hey,” he says.
“Hey,” I say.
Stuart stands there, hands in his pockets, perhaps waiting for me to tell him to piss off, go away, leave me alone. I scootch over on the bench. He sits.
For a long time, neither of us speaks.
“You know what the worst part of this whole thing is?” I say, my voice strangled.
“Feeling like you have no right to your own emotions,” Stuart says. “Your family’s a total mess and you think, okay, someone needs to be the whatchacallit, the level head, and you decide it’s going to be you, so you bottle everything up. It’s for a good reason so first you’re like, okay, no big whoop, I can deal—then all these other people start showing up, and they’re miserable too, so you keep the game face on, but you start wondering when it’s going to be your turn to feel sad. I mean, you’re broken up about it too, right?
“Then you look around and all of a sudden people are acting like everything’s normal. They’re talking and laughing and goofing around and no one’s sad anymore, and you’re convinced you totally missed your chance to mourn—like there was a deadline and you completely blew it because you were too busy being strong for everyone else. Now you’re pissed off at everyone for cheating you like that. And the thing that finally pushes you over the edge? No one even seems to notice. It’s like you made this huge emotional sacrifice and no one noticed because they were so wrapped up in themselves.”
Stuart sighs and looks up. We’re close to the center of town. The glow of countless lights from nearby parking lots and homes and businesses peers over the tree line like a false dawn. We shouldn’t be able to see anything because of the light pollution, but tonight the stars are defiant. Every constellation is crisp and brilliant in the clear night sky.
“I noticed,” Stuart says.
Of course he did. If anyone would, it would be Stuart.
Something in me cracks. I try to speak but all I manage is a coughing sob, and then my bottle shatters. Stuart drapes an arm over my shoulders. I slump into his chest, and everything I’ve been holding back comes gushing out of me.
My grandfather is dead.
Action Figures – Secret Origins: Audiobook recording underway, scheduled for late 2021 release.
Action Figures – Issue Eleven: Draft one underway. Scheduled for a winter/spring 2022 release.
The Adventures of Strongarm & Lightfoot – Elfish Motives: Production is about to begin on the audiobook edition. Tentatively set for a late 2021 release.
The Adventures of Strongarm & Lightfoot – Twins and Losses: In the editing phase. Tentatively set for a fall/winter 2021 release.
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