This post is for my Mom, in a way. It’s her birthday today. She’s always been a wonderful mother, except for that time when we were little and she told us we could eat AS MUCH CANDY as we wanted. That frightened me. But apart from that…she’s done a damn fine job. From her I’ve inherited a love of books, and of cooking, and of music, and, hopefully, decent mothering abilities. Time will tell.
Happy Birthday, Mom. Mind how you go….Love, Jayne
Not long after my mom’s father passed away, after the funeral was over, and we were supposed to start to "get back to normal", I was in my old bed at my parents’ house, and I dreamt of him.
In this dream, I was sitting on a bench in a park – I don’t know where, I didn’t recognize it. And he, Grandad, came over and sat beside me. He didn’t look like he had looked toward the end – tired and gaunt and shrunken and sharply angled. Instead, he was tall and healthy and hearty – full of "vim, vigour and vitality" as he used to say. He looked as he had when I was younger, when I looked up at him always in awe and admiration and love and a huge desire to be with him all the time.
I was so blessed with the lives of all of my grandparents when I was a child. I knew each of them. I have separate and distinct memories of them. My dad’s parents moved to Arizona when I was nearly 4, and they came east once more when I was in the 6th grade. I never saw my paternal grandfather – Grandpa – again, but I did see my grandmother shortly after Grandpa passed away – Dad and I flew out to California, where they had moved, and we visited and I met other family members for the first time.
My mother’s parents were constants in my young life, especially after I turned 7 and my grandfather had retired and the two of them moved up to Rhode Island and into a house on the same block as ours. I was 22 when my grandfather passed away – so that’s a huge chunk of my life with him in it.
There I was on the park bench, and him sitting beside me. And he was wearing a thin maroon windbreaker sort of jacket. He used to walk down to Healy’s News Store on Sunday mornings to get the paper. He’d pick up two and drop one off at my parents’ house before going home. I can see him coming around the corner of Main street, newspapers rolled and tucked under an arm….
He walked at a purposeful, destination-bound pace. He neither sauntered nor meandered, and I think this was true in most aspects of his life. I remember sleeping over at my grandparents’ house and wanting to get up to get the paper with him. I knew I had to be up and ready to go on time, so I slept in my clothes, just to make sure he wouldn’t leave without me. I was young and small; he was larger than life.
When he sat down on the bench beside me, he spoke to me in his strong, London-laced voice.
And he said "I always love you."
It was a strange phrase. Not "I will" or "I have…loved…" – but more of an "I do…." Not "when I was alive" or "looking down from wherever I am now" – no – it was a constant, uninterrupted thing.
I woke up in tears.
Days later, back at the house I shared with some college friends in CT, I told one of them – the one with the most religious upbringing – about the dream and asked if he believed that the dead can visit us in our sleep. It had been so real…I could recall the feel of cool nylon jacket on my palms and fingers as I clung to him in a hug. He felt solid.
My friend said no, something like that was more likely the work of the devil.
And since I had no way to prove otherwise, I let the subject drop. With him. But I didn’t agree. How could that dream be an evil thing? How? If anything, it was…uplifting, and joyous, and beautiful. I didn’t discuss it again. But I still think my dear, wonderful friend was full of crap that day.
Someone larger than life leaves a huge gap in the lives of his family when he is physically no longer present. The fallout, I think, has never stopped, though the vibrations have softened. We all handle things differently. Sometimes wisely, sometimes not. Regardless, time continues on, oblivious.
I don’t visit the grave where both my grandparents now lay. Well, the physical part of them. I don’t really think they are there. I think my grandfather, wherever he is, continues to move purposefully and with some destination in mind. I think he visits libraries, and opera houses, and small amateur boxing clubs where the fighters are there to fight and not just for spectacle or ear-biting.
For a long time, I kept the green vinyl recliner that had been his. I actually had it before he died – my grandmother or my mother or someone wanted to get him a new chair. I couldn’t bear the thought of them throwing this chair away, so I claimed it. He’d had the chair when they lived in New Jersey. When we went down there to visit, my sister and I would sit on his lap on that chair, listening to the soundtracks of "Oliver!" and "My Fair Lady."
The chair smelled faintly of pipe tobacco. Borkum-Riff Whiskey blend. It came in a black and white and silver tin, and there were tall-masted sailing ships on the top and sides. Even when the chair was no longer in his house, when he hadn’t smoked a pipe in many years, especially since the heart attack, I could, if I pressed my face against the vinyl in just the right spot, still smell the tobacco. I inhaled it like a drug.
My husband and I have now lived in our house for just over 6 years now. The whole house had been refurbished before we bought it – so much of it was like new. It smelled of paint for months.
A couple of times, upstairs here, I have caught a whiff of that pipe tobacco smoke. Unannounced, unexpected, unexplained. (I don’t have the chair any more.) I wondered at first if maybe someone in a nearby house was smoking that same pipe tobacco, and that the wind had carried a bit of it in through an open bedroom window.
But I have dismissed that idea. It didn’t last long enough to have come from anywhere outside. There was no more of it than a fleeting olefactory glimpse. It was an eye blink of a smell. There and gone. But definitely there.
So he has stopped by, I believe, to check in on things. And I’m sorry the books aren’t in better rows, spines flush with the edge of the shelf. And that I sometimes dog-ear the pages. But I don’t think it matters much. I think so many of the things that matter to us on a daily basis, things we worry about and obsess about and torture ourselves with and bury – as if that will make it go away when all it does is hide if for a while – I think they don’t really matter at all. They just keep us busy. And moving. And distracted. And we do them anyway. Because we must do things.
Monday night – two nights ago – I was watching TV with my husband. The program he had been watching ended, and I took up the remote and began to scroll through the programming guide to see what else was on. I am weird like this: no matter what channel we are on, I need to scroll to channel 2 – to the beginning – and proceed from there. So I did, paging back from wherever we had been until I reached the beginning. And there, on channel 2 – "Carreras, Domingo and Pavarotti in Concert." I hit the info button – it was the 1990 concert in Rome. I hit "Select" and settled in for the night.
My grandfather died in 1988 – two years before the concert took place. I’m sure he was there, floating above in the night sky, eyes closed, index fingers twitching, perhaps, as he conducted along with Zubin Mehta. He would do that.
I know the whole concert by heart. I know some of the songs in Italian, or French, German, Spanish…and what I don’t know that way, I "know" phonetically. I even sing along with the orchestra. I’m sure I’m quite annoying to be around, but I don’t particularly care.
I thought about my grandfather while I watched and sang in my chair. I thought about my Mom, his only child, and wondered if she knew this was on, and if she was watching. The holiday season is tough on her, I know. But then, the season is tough on so many people who have lost loved ones and must celebrate without them in a chair at the dinner table.
I sat there and kind of waited to feel tearful. I really did. I waited for emotion to well up in me, perhaps while Domingo sang "e lucevan le stelle", and pour from my eyes. I waited to feel them sting a bit, and for my nose to feel prickly as it does when I’m going to cry. But none of that happened. I just listened, and sang along softly, and groaned and rolled my eyes whenever the program was interrupted because the public television station was in the middle of their fundraising. And I got annoyed with this one woman who kept pronouncing Pavarotti "pavarot-tay" – what is that? Get over yourself dear, you sound ridiculous.
And while there was singing, I also wondered if, maybe, I might suddenly smell some pipe tobacco. Of course that’s asking a lot, I know. He could be watching this from anywhere. Actually, he could be hanging out with Luciano instead, discussing other great tenors of the past and which arias were their favorites. But still…I wanted something to happen.
I’ve been watching Lisa Williams / Life Among the Dead. I thing she’s fabulous. First – because she seems genuine. And because she’s got a great smile and funky hair and a cute little blond son and an English accent. And because I have always been interested in the other side. And according to Lisa, yes, they do communicate – though not always in the ways you expect them to. So you have to be open to it, in whatever way it comes.
Well, I sniffed the air – quietly, so my husband wouldn’t wonder what my problem was – on and off for a while. Nothing. I physically tensed as I tried REALLY HARD to – I don’t know – squeeze pipe smoke from thin air through sheer force of will. Didn’t work.
During one of the breaks, when the smiling, unblinking, fund-raising folk returned, waving CDs and DVDs, I went upstairs to move our son out of our bed and into his own. He falls asleep on our bed because if both kids go to bed in the room they share, neither one falls asleep. So this is how we’re doing this for now. It can’t go on forever. My son is five and a half, and growing taller by the minute, it seems. It’s a production picking him up off of the bed – sound asleep, so he weighs twice what he weighs when he’s awake. I lean in and hug him to me and then bend my knees a bit and lean backward to shift his weight onto me instead of the bed, and then straighten up so I don’t fall over backwards. I lug him as gently as I can from our room down the short hall to the kids’ bedroom, trying not to whack one of his dangling legs against the door frame in the process. Then I heave him up so he’s somehow horizontal in my arms and then gently – in theory – set him down on the bed. Cover him with the sheet and blanket and comforter, kiss him on the cheek, whisper "I love you" in his ear. Sometimes he stays right where I put him, other times he sits up and slowly lays back down against the pillow, rearranging himself into a more comfortable position than the one I dumped him in, or he sometimes mumbles or babbles in his sleep.
So I got him settled in and whispered "I love you" and kissed him and was on my way toward the door when he spoke – perfectly clearly, as if he was awake, except that his eyes were closed.
And he said "I always love you."
I was so focused on not waking him or his sister up that what he said didn’t really hit me until I was sitting on the couch watching the last portion of the concert, where all three tenors are on stage for that one grand and glorious and fun medly of opera and musical theatre and folk songs.
And then I suddenly thought – huh? What did he say?
He said "I always love you."
Not "I will…" or "I have …. loved…" – future or past…
It was more like "I do" – something constant, in the present – in the ever-present tense. The always.
And I watched the remainder of that concert lying on the couch, snuggled under a blanket, smiling. I felt…happy. I didn’t feel sad at all. My nose refused to prickle; my eyes would not cry.
And – that’s a good thing, I think.
I don’t believe we are supposed to cry forever. I think we are supposed to live our lives – really live them – not wasting a single moment if possible. I think that is the best way to honor those we have lost. "Every day an adventure," as Grandad was wont to say. Our time here is precious. It’s wrong to waste a minute of it. I think we are supposed to love and cherish those around us – hug our loved ones tightly – and work hard and play hard and laugh and yes, remember, and move purposefully toward our destinations, wherever and whatever they may be.
Sure, maybe my son saying what he said, that way, that night, was a coincidence.
But I don’t believe in coincidences.
I do, however, believe love is endless.