Dad holds up his dead cellphone and taps on its buttons, demonstratively. "Did you turn your cell phone off?" I say that I did, but he's insistent. "I don't mean on silent, you should turn it all the way off." This is the fifth time he has asked and demanded for the silencing of electronic devices. I hold up my tarnished orange flip-phone which, incidentally, I have dropped a record four times since getting off of the plane yesterday. Dad seems appeased for the moment. When he's not looking I turn it back on, now paranoid that perhaps I have left my phone's wake-up alarm primed to attack the minute the service begins. That's the thing about cell alarms-- despite a powerless phone the alarm will always prevail on schedule. I make sure all alarms are turned off, then slip the battery from my phone as a precaution. In this way I am probably like my father, though my dad's modern technology-challenged brain still hasn't quite settled into the cell phone age.
My father and my aunt, formerly blonde and brunette, respectively, now sport on their heads matching shades of grey, a color which goes very well with the deep, unapologetic black suits that they're wearing to my grandfather's funeral. Aunt Bethany wears a tailored pantsuit, of course. I have never seen her in a dress, though my sole cousin, Tereza, a willowy gardener twice my age and maturity, seems to wear nothing but flowing skirts and wispy summer gowns. Today Tereza wears an ankle-length grey skirt with a black button-up. Despite my understanding of our age difference, Tereza's effortless, casual beauty has always made me feel insecure, and even now, in face of a sad event, I wish that she were a reflection of my own future. Of course, the future feels like an inappropriate subject to be considering in light of present circumstances; the future is something that one less person will be in, and that person is who we have come to bend our thoughts to and reflect on and cry over.
I cry plenty about insignificant things like flat tires on a hot day or the unintentional deletion of half of my term paper, however I rarely release tears at funerals and milestone moments, and I'm almost certain that I will not cry today. My grandfather, Grandad, was a nice man who lived until 97. He was softspoken and married to an absolutely horrendous woman whom I'm sure tortured my father's young existence, informed my aunt that she had the consolation of being a smart girl regardless of her perceived below-average-appearance, and reminded me for all the years of my middle school life that I was fat. Grandad had little to say about any of those things, though I will never forget the day that he bought me an ice cream cone and mused that my grandmother had once agreed to Grandad's proposal of marriage and his stipulation that my grandmother was never, ever to behave like my great-grandmother, and yet, Grandad said, "She became more 'n more like her every day." He shook his head and sighed at that, then probably started a conversation with someone he knew-- such people were always detectable within a four-yard-radius of the man.
That was some twelve years ago, and as one might assume, in the past few years my grandfather said very little. Granny passed away awhile ago, ill of body but still strong and controlling of mind, while Grandad's memory monster ate away all that made his personality distinctive. The softspoken man who had to practically yell in order to be understood became entirely inaudible, staying awake only for the westerns on TCM that sparked some imprinted memory from his boyhood, and his small, pale eyes whitened. Looking at him now in his coffin is shocking; he is so small. My grandfather has shrunk. I wonder momentarily how small he would have become had he lived to 100.
My mother, whom I have not seen since Christmas, stands with me near the coffin and admires the typical "life pictures" of grandad. I have seen some of them before, but now as I peer at the vague sweetness in young, faded, black-and-white Grandad's eyes I realize that I have never really seen my grandfather properly. He looks tremendously like my own father. Aside from the unfortunate wide cheeks and jowls that my grandmother bestowed upon both my dad and myself, my father received all of Grandad's nice qualities, from the pleasant eyes to the refined nose to the softspoken voice. My mother, I sense, is probably thinking this too as we peruse the framed collection before us, and she is probably praying that she will not become that diminishing force. Like the little person in the coffin, my own dad is shrinking, his voice grows softer, his eyes lighter, his attentions fade more and more from my mother's needs, requests, demands, musings. This must be sad for mom, though to me Dad has always seemed somewhat lighter, softer, more distant than most people.
Parents and sister Kathy left me, the college student, in a low-rent apartment a year ago in order to attend to the shrinking grandad. States away, I have been safe from the OCD door-locking, hand-washing, car-tinkering, Bible-quoting habits of dad, as well as exposure to the culmination of his life's work-- that is, the caretaking of his father. Abandoning a decent job, he lept at the chance to assist Grandad in any way he could, being paid only the hospice funds set aside by the pant-suited Aunt Bethany. Aunt Bethany is caring and doted on Grandad, but she is an elegant lady who in no way resembles her brother (aside from matching hair color). She does not struggle with money, her life is not explainable in the simple terms that my dad uses to justify his existence. For most of her professional career Aunt Bethany made beautiful historic maps that hang in state capitol buildings, while dad tried to fix car transmissions. Aunt Bethany has a lovely grandchild who is most likely going to solve world hunger and cure cancer, while dad has the ungrateful, depressed and medicated me to match his other daughter Kathy, the nonverbal and retarded child.
Speaking of whom, I can now hear Kathy humming in the very back pew in which concerned family members keep a concerned eye on her, unaware what her happy and angry sounds are. Usually I feel inclined to help in such an event, but at this moment I would like to float through this chapel and away, a vision in my black dress that I once wore to my high school graduation (one can tell because the shoulders are tighter than they should be, I've gained weight since then). Dad stands in the very back with Aunt Bethany and funny Uncle Smithy, the good-natured Buddhist who sculpts fine art on his days off and knows what signifies a good glass of ale. My father doesn't drink, and wouldn't know a good wine from a cheap beer, though at the moment, in their smart suits with soft ties (that Aunt Bethany found time to pick out) you cannot tell the difference between them. Only my aunt has started to shed tears, and somehow I don't think my father will. According to mom's hushed commentary, the night Bethany arrived and the body was retrieved, wrapped and removed by sterile strangers attempting to be understanding, brother and sister crouched over coffee and wept. Now, mom thinks, all that is left of the tragedy for my odd father is exhaustion.
Exhaustion. The eyes which I often consider dim and naive for a father of two are now burdened by dark rings that make me think of redwood trees and how, once cut open, each ring found on the tree stump of an old tree represents a year or a decade. An entire lifetime might be found in one circle on the stump of a California tree; likewise might be said of that which surrounds my father's pale eye. Exhaustion has replaced grief, or perhaps in my father's case grief has been played out; worked through his system by action. Rather than crying or regretting Grandad's shrinking act, dad instead fed, served, medicated and changed adult diapers in exchange for mourning. He probably just wants to sleep now, though no one can ever really know what it is that will content my father. I have certainly never been so crafty.
Those in attendance are surprisingly few and far between. We fill in the chapel adequately, which, it is my guess, was the reason for my Aunt choosing it. My mother, she of the cheap grey dress with white trim that appears to be inspired by coffee-table doilies, looks relieved to join Kathy at the furthest pew and I probably look like a deer in the headlights as everyone takes their seat. A distant second-cousin of mine with a lisp tells me to sit with the family-- up front. No, please, I would like to respond. I don't really feel like family, but as my father walks by I step in time behind him and we take our seats. As we sit I notice from the corner of my eye my aunt's clinging hand on her husband's coat. I look at the program instead, in which wonderful facts about my grandfather appear. I realize now that both of my parents are now orphaned, and that I have not properly known any grandperson. I wonder if that matters.
The Baptist pastor, a very southern man who likes everybody, takes the stand after some nice, modest hymn-singing, and all present settle in, fold their hands or sit on them, and quiet their children (except for Kathy, forever the unsilencable). Dad puts his arm around my shoulder, an act of fatherly affection which I have never appreciated (it makes me feel little, as though my father is willing me to sink back to the five-year-old girl who believed everything).
The pastor begins with something I am not expecting. After he acknowledges why we have all gathered, the bizarre concept of meeting over the abandoned body of a soul that's off gallivanting elsewhere, he says we should pause a moment to acknowledge something else. "Fred was a lovely man, and in the last years of his life he was looked after under the loving care of his son and daughter-in-law. James and Dee spent many years looking after Fred, but during the last year of his life they moved from their home in California to be with and serve Fred's needs. They sacrificed alot---" The pastor is interrupted by the bleating of someone's ringtone.
Too tired to be horrified, my father seizes his coat pocket and fumbles with his phone, trying to squelch the noise that grows louder and louder. I look over his shoulder to observe that his dead phone has come to life with one of seven daily alarms my father has had set for the past twelve months in order to keep to Grandad's food, water, medication, and digestive schedule. A little animated alarm clock dances on the screen while dad pries at the battery. Finally, he scrapes it out, and the disruption ends. A sigh from Aunt Bethany. My father turns to me and smiles, sheepishly. He whispers, "Time to check on dad, I guess."