We're burying Grandpa on December 26th.
The funeral home smells like stale red wine, spiced with the faintest hint of cigarettes. Or maybe that's just the odor wafting off my cousin Giacomo's formal suit jacket. Giacomo is only three and a half weeks older than I am. We are two completely different people, but for some strange reason, he seems to like me. I don't know what that's about. In any case he's chosen to stand next to me, and all I can focus on is the deeply-embedded stench of him and his entire being on his suit jacket.
My grandfather shouldn't have died. Granted, I wasn't all that close to him, and my dad wasn't either, purposely choosing to move more than an hour away from his parents after he and my mom got married, but no matter. He still shouldn't have died. It wasn't like he was all that healthy, but he wasn't even seventy-one yet. He would have been seventy-one today. We're burying him on what would have been his seventy-first birthday. Now that's irony for you.
My dad's younger sister, my Aunt Kalis, was born on Christmas Eve. She had a special bond with Grandpa, seeing as how Christmas Day was bookended between her birthday and her father's birthday. Grandpa always wanted a girl. He got my Uncle Griffin and my dad instead. Aunt Kalis was a fluke. Well, more like an accident than a fluke. She's nine years younger than my dad and twelve years younger than Uncle Griffin.
Grandpa shouldn't be dead right now, and I shouldn't be standing here next to Giacomo, either. Grandpa suffered from a life-long spinal condition. Some might call it arthritis of the spine. The technical term is lumbar stenosis-slash-spondylosis. Whatever you want to call it, it caused his spine and back to curve forward, his chest forming a concave arc towards the world. It was kind of gross to look at. And he mumbled a lot. I'm not quite sure how one thing affected the other, but he was pretty incoherent at times.
My brother is retarded. I don't mean to insult all of you who are or who know somebody who is mentally challenged or handicapped. It's just that my brother does and says the stupidest, most inappropriate things I have ever seen or heard in my life, and at the most inopportune moment. We were just in front of Grandpa's open casket, saying our good-byes to him, and he opened up his mouth about how he's so sorry that Grandpa's had such a hard life for being married to "that bitch" for all these years. Don't get me wrong, it's not like he was saying something incorrect. He's in the clear on this one. It's just that it was the wrong time to say it and the wrong company to say it in front of. Like I said, I swear he's retarded. I discreetly smacked him on the forearm once we were away from the casket, while Giacomo and his older brother Kiefer took our place. Ha. That's like a joke. My brother is four years younger than me, but he's already almost a foot taller and more than a hundred pounds heavier. It was like smacking the forearm of an NFL quarterback. Pointless. Useless. Completely ineffective.
He's right, though, like I said. My grandmother, henceforth referred to as either "that bitch" or "my dad's mother," is just that. She killed him, you know. She killed Grandpa. That fat beast of a woman trampled him in the middle of the night. Grandpa was so skinny. He was so frail. He couldn't even move around without his walker, for God's sake. She wouldn't feed him, and we're Italian. That's worse than insulting his mother, denying him food. She didn't want to feed him. If he ate, he had to move his bowels. If he moved his bowels, she'd have to clean him up and change his adult diapers. She was too lazy to do that, so she either fed him anti-diarrhea medication to stop him up or she denied him food. The poor man was just hungry. He had to sneak into the kitchen in the middle of the night to get something to eat. She didn't want him to eat, the aftermath would be too much work for her. So she tackled him in the middle of the night to keep him away from the kitchen. Trampled him might be a better description, since he was anorectically thin and she's as obese as they come. Shamu-like, if you want to put it that way. In any case, she took him down, and she left him there on the floor for the next twelve hours.
I watch my other cousins, Karianne and Ceili, up at the casket. Giacomo is still standing next to me, looking like he might murder someone for another cigarette, while Kiefer is playing politically correct and standing next to Uncle Griffin and his second wife Emmaline. Giacomo's and Kiefer's mother died about ten years ago in a car accident. I was only eleven years old when that happened. I was young and clueless about it all. I had never been to a funeral before. All I remember from that somber day is my mom crying profusely and blowing her nose while the priest was up at the pulpit. She liked Uncle Griffin's first wife, she even made her and Aunt Kalis bridesmaids when she married my dad. I wasn't sure why I was wearing all black. It didn't seem right. And it doesn't seem right now, which is why I chose to pair my black T-shirt and black round-toed kitten heels with a black knee-length skirt that's accented with pink and red flowers. I'm not completely in mourning.
My dad's mother has chosen to play the sympathy card with Grandpa's walker. She's holding it there in front of her like she might topple over at any moment without it. Obviously, she's so fat that this scenario might appear plausible, but I know better. She feels guilty for killing her husband. She knows she did wrong, and in her twisted mind, staying close to her dead husband's walker might atone for what she's done. But it won't. It won't bring him back and it won't bestow forgiveness upon her, though in her mind it might relieve her of some of her guilt.
When she woke up the morning following tackling him, Grandpa was still on the floor, laying pathetically in the same spot where she'd trampled him. She made herself some strong coffee, then called 911. The dispatchers sent paramedics and an ambulance to their home, a condo in an assisted-living facility. (We should all have it so good.) They were the ones to bring Grandpa to the hospital. She stayed home, choosing instead to call Aunt Kalis and Uncle Griffin to let them know what was happening. She didn't even bother to call my dad. She doesn't like him. He's the black sheep of the family, but I use that term loosely. My dad's a decent man. I think she's just jealous of him, because despite his horrendous upbringing and lack of parental supervision or concern, he ended up putting himself through extensive schooling and he became a successful veterinarian with his own practice. Italians can't stand it when someone surpasses them in life, even when that someone is a blood relative. Come to think of it, especially when that someone is a blood relative. My father got away from them because his family is a spiteful, intolerable group of people. Except for Aunt Kalis and Uncle Griffin, that is. And he managed to become a success despite them.
Giacomo shifts uncomfortably next to me, fidgeting with the tie that's wrapped around his neck like a noose. He's not used to getting dressed up because he doesn't have to. He's not in school, he doesn't have a job, he has no plans for his life. He lives with his girlfriend, the same girl he's been with since we were seniors in high school, and she's older and a trust-fund baby. So he doesn't have to work. He's aggravatingly handsome. I'm surprised his girlfriend's not here for this. She should be. But then again, who would really want to be? Funerals are depressing and morbid.
My concentration is interrupted by my dad's mother theatrically weeping into a dirty old handkerchief. I don't buy the old bag's act. She's just trying to make it look good, look like she actually gives a damn. But I know she doesn't. I know she's faking it. I shudder to think at what else she's faked in her wretched life.
At the hospital, Grandpa was all by himself while Uncle Griffin and Aunt Kalis sped blindly down the highway to get to to him, not caring about who they took out along the way. Grandpa mumbled a lot, I think I mentioned that before. The ER staff couldn't figure out what he was trying to tell them, so they gave him a full body examination, where they found blood in his rectum. Immediately, the attending doctor, a recent med-school graduate in his first year of residency, ordered a colonoscopy for him. Grandpa was admitted to a hospital room and given a gallon of that barium drink to clean out his system. If my dad's mother had been there, she could have told the resident that Grandpa suffered from bouts of acute ulcerative colitis from time to time, the bleeding fits usually brought on by too much anti-diarrhea medication, but she wasn't there. She didn't give a damn enough to be there, and it would have incriminated her if she told them that, anyway. So all by himself in a creaky old broken-down hospital bed, Grandpa drank the barium drink to prepare for his procedure.
Ceili and Karianne finish up at the casket and move towards their mother. The girls are young, six and nine respectively, and Aunt Kalis looks at me as she takes each girl's hand in her own. She looks incredible in her little black dress, low-cut enough in the front and the back to appear scandalous and inappropriate at her father's funeral, but there are tears in her eyes. She can't shed them because doing so would ruin her eye make-up. Well, her face make-up in general. Aunt Kalis loves the look of a tan and never goes anywhere without a generous amount of face bronzer and self-tanner for her arms and legs.
Giacomo turns his head in my direction. "Hey, you wanna go out for a smoke?" He looks hopeful. Desperate, even.
I shake my head. "I don't smoke."
"So what? Just come outside and keep me company."
Rolling my eyes internally, I quit fighting him and follow him out the front door of the funeral parlor. Classy. We look classy together, with him lighting up his cigarette and me moping like I wished I were anywhere but here. Which is the truth, in all honesty, but I don't need to let the whole world know and look like an ungrateful bitch in the process.
"How's your girlfriend?" I attempt to make polite conversation to both pass the time and detract from the fact that I'm gagging on the cloud of smoke coming from his direction.
Giacomo exhales soundly, puffing with satisfaction and relief. "Eh, she's fine," he answers mechanically, dropping the cigarette and stamping it out with his right foot. I notice that his shoes are scuffed. For some odd reason, that makes me feel better. Not that there's anything that can actually make this situation better, mind you. It's just enough to make me feel less awkward.
When Uncle Griffin and Aunt Kalis made it to the hospital, Grandpa turned them away. He had just gotten off the phone with his wife and refused to see them. It was Aunt Kalis' teary pleading to him through the closed door of his hospital room that finally made him relent. The nurse allowed her in, where she broke down in sobs by Grandpa's bedside. Only it wasn't because she was saddened by his acute hospital stay. It was because he accused her of trying to put him in a nursing home after he got out of the hospital, which obviously turned out to be never, otherwise I wouldn't be standing here now.
My dad's mother couldn't be bothered with caring for Grandpa after he returned from his hospital stay. She didn't want him to know that, though, she wanted to make herself look blameless. So she called his hospital room after she got off the phone with two of her three children, just after he'd consumed his barium drink, and lied to him, telling him that Aunt Kalis suggested that he rehab in a nursing home after his hospital release. Grandpa didn't want that. He hated nursing homes, which is probably about par for the course, seeing as how he watched his own father die in a nursing home. He grew enraged at Aunt Kalis, his favored child, for being the one who supposedly suggested that alternative. His last garbled words to her were, "You're the biggest disappointment of my life, you ungrateful bitch." She ran out of the room in tears. Grandpa was crying, too. I think his broken heart killed him, because after Aunt Kalis had left the room and was sobbing in the safety of Uncle Griffin's arms, Grandpa threw up the caustic barium drink as he laid on his side in the hospital bed. His lumbar stenosis-slash-spondylosis kept his body in rigid check as he inhaled his own vomit. The barium drink proceeded to chemically burn his lungs and destroy the oxygen-blood barrier, effectively causing him to drown in his own body.
What a horrible way to die.
I stare at the ground at Giacomo's smashed cigarette. "You want one?" he offers gently, extending the pack out of his shirt pocket. I've always thought a man keeping a pack of cigarettes in the breast pocket of his dress shirt looked tacky.
A crooked half-grin appears on Giacomo's face. "Oh yeah, I forgot. You're one of those doctor-type health freaks."
I scrunch my face up. "Nah. Not a health freak." I pause for emphasis. "Besides, I only just got accepted into vet school. I won't be a doctor yet for a few more years."
"Just like Dad."
I nod uncomfortably. "Just like Dad," I reiterate.
My dad felt like he'd been hit blindly by a two-by-four when Uncle Griffin called him at the office to tell him that Grandpa was dead. He walked around like a zombie, numb with shock. And denial. He wordlessly left the office and gathered my mom into the family minivan, where they made the hour-plus trek to the hospital in the town my dad grew up in. My parents went into Grandpa's hospital room to say their good-byes to him. My dad is tough. He took it well, not even shedding a single tear. My mom, on the other hand, wept like a little schoolgirl. She later told me that it wasn't so much that she was sad about his passing, it was more that she was horrified by the expression that was frozen on his face. She told me later, "It looked like he had seen the gates of hell. I felt so sorry for him." I would say he'd seen the devil, but he was already married to her.
Mom also told me that she was grieving over the fact that he died hungry. Italians, as a culture, generally equate food with life. Food is love, food is sex. Food equals happiness. Grandpa dying hungry is the rough equivalent of Grandpa dying miserable and unloved. I hate to dwell on that thought. It wasn't that we didn't love Grandpa. We did. We just didn't love Grandpa's wife, and she was the reason we never came to see the family as often as we should have. Too late for that now.
"We should go inside," Giacomo offers with a shiver. "It's fucking cold out here."
I nod in agreement. I've inherited at least some of my dad's toughness. The cold doesn't bother me. I've lived in New England all of my twenty-one years. I can deal with whatever cold the weather has to throw at me, but I can't deal with the iciness in the funeral parlor. That's too deep for me. Giacomo, however, has sufficiently satiated his desire for nicotine, and that buzz will keep him comforted until we're at least out of this place, but maybe not until Grandpa's body is in the ground.
Here's a tip for dying right before Christmas: don't do it. When Uncle Griffin called the church rectory to tell them that his father had just passed away, the staff there couldn't care less, celebrating like they had just popped open the sacramental wine. Some secretary told Uncle Griffin that it was December 22nd and there was no way the priest would wake the body and perform burial rites because there was too much celebrating to do. The best our family could strive for was to keep Grandpa's body on ice until December 26th, when the priest would hold the wake and the funeral in one day, then escort the casket to the cemetery for burial purposes. It really makes you glad to be a Christian when the priest treats you like that. Yes, I know it's Christmas, I know it's the celebration of Christ's birth, but Church, we're still your money-donating people. You should give us a little more consideration.
Back inside the funeral parlor, Giacomo and I return to Grandpa's designated room, where we resume our usual spot in line standing next to each other. This whole day feels surreal, like it's not really happening, like my dad's mother isn't really standing there with her damp snot-filled handkerchief and clinging to Grandpa's walker like her life and balance depend on it. The air is thick with hatred towards her.
I notice my brother standing next to our parents. God, my dad looks wiped out. He looks the same way I feel, like this isn't really happening, like this can't possibly be real. My mom's eyes are welling up, but she doesn't have any tissues, so her eye make-up is running down her face with her tears, and the wetness is running down from her nose and onto her lip. Yeah, that's attractive, all right. Poor Mom. She never was good for dealing with death and funerals, that's for sure. She told me once that she used to cry at every funeral she went to when she was a little girl because she thought the music was too sweet. She also told me that I shouldn't wear eyeliner or mascara because it runs down your face when you cry. That's my mother for you, always full of delightful and hypocritical commentary.
Giacomo and I just stand around in line, trying to look useful, but we know we aren't. So many people, people I don't know, people I do know, people whose names I've heard but have never seen a face to go with it, greet us somberly and offer us polite obligatory condolences. I don't want to be kissed by these gnarly old men and these old women with scratchy beards. They smell like they haven't bathed in weeks and they're insulting my skin and senses. I'm here to celebrate my Grandpa's life and, ultimately, untimely death. Even if he wasn't in the forefront of my daily life.
After my parents returned from the hospital, looking less wiped-out than they do now, I asked them why we were so far removed from my dad's parents. Granted, I know that the answer lies in my dad's mother, but I wanted to hear the real reason out of my dad's mouth. My dad has been a role model for me. For years. I wouldn't be going to vet school at Cornell, my dad's alma mater, if he hadn't played such an influential role in my life and education. I felt like he owed me an explanation. I still feel that way, because he never gave me that explanation. He wearily turned away from me instead and let my mom answer the question for him while he went upstairs to bed. Pansy.
"You know," Mom said to me slowly, like I'm deaf or retarded (I apologize again for my lack of political correctness), "your dad and his mother have never had a great relationship."
"No kidding," I interrupted her sarcastically, "but does that mean that he had to cut off his father because his mom's a bitch? Which she is, by the way."
Mom shook her head sadly. The thought of her father-in-law dying hungry and lonely was tearing her up internally, and she didn't try to pretend that I shouldn't call his wife a bitch, because there's no point in denying the truth. I give her a lot of credit for that. "Your father always told me that Grandpa was a good man, but he had one fatal flaw. And that fatal flaw was that he loved his wife too much, even at the expense of his children."
Well, that must be the answer. But it's the answer out of her mouth, not my father's. Which means that I may never have my answer. Dad's an evasive son of a bitch like that.
The wake continues like this. Too many people, I think, who haven't seen Grandpa in years, coming out of the woodwork only now. When he's dead. Dad's empty. Uncle Griffin's emotionless. Mom and Aunt Kalis are sad. Giacomo now reeks of cigarettes so badly that I figure it's the closest I'll get to smoking without actually lighting up.
This isn't how I want to remember Grandpa, I think sourly.
I watch as the funeral parlor employees close Grandpa's casket. It's the last I'll ever see of him, but somehow I don't feel hollow or sad or depressed, which are the things you're supposed to feel when your loved one has passed away. I feel a heavy but calming sense of finality, and as soon as I see the hearse doors close behind him, I load into the family minivan feeling satisfied with the way the situation is turning out.
"On to the burial site," Dad announces in a passive voice. I don't answer him. I'm too busy contemplating Grandpa's life and its impact on my life to conjure up a response.
My brother exhales loudly. "I can't wait for this to be over," he mutters. "It's draining."
"You can say that again," Mom chimes in. I still say nothing.
The funeral procession to the burial site is a long and unnecessary one, and we go out of our way to follow the hearse. It snakes a torturous snarled path that includes driving by the home that Grandpa and his wife lived in before they purchased the condo in the assisted-living facility. My mom wells up with tears again. This time, thankfully, she has a tissue on hand.
"Kids, that's the house your father grew up in," she informs us, acting as though we should be making a big deal out of it. I close my eyes. I really don't care. I feel bad that Grandpa died, I feel guilty that I didn't care about him more, I'm mad at that bitch for killing him, and I'm a little annoyed with my dad for avoiding an answer to my question. Like I said, he's good for that. But all in all, I feel satisfied. I can live with how I feel.
The rest of the convoluted car ride ends at the cemetery, where the ground has already been dug up. The hearse slowly pulls up to the plot and parks. We exit the car and watch the procession as the pallbearers lift the mahogany coffin out of the back of the hearse and carry it slowly towards the hole in the ground. My dad's mother climbs out of a black limo parked nearby, using the walker to steady herself. That bitch. I hate her.
Giacomo grabs my arm and pulls me to the side. For the moment, I'm grateful to have an ally. "Dude," he whispers to me conspiratorially, "I need another smoke. Will you come with me?"
We duck away from the proceedings so Giacomo can get another nicotine fix. It's still sunny, but now it's even colder. I don't think the priest will be speaking for more than a few minutes. By the time we return to the burial site, we might have missed everything. That probably wouldn't be so bad. I've just about had it with today's events.
"Hey, if I tell you something, you promise not to tell anyone?" he whispers to me.
"Sure." I nod my head, my eyes glazed over with boredom.
"I hate this whole situation." He exhales, blowing a cloud of smoke in my face. I fight the urge to cough back in his face. It would serve him right, don't get me wrong, but I am too civilized and too disciplined to do that. I'm a future veterinary student and I need to act as such.
"Yeah. Me too," I answer.
"You know," Giacomo leans in closely, and it takes everything in me not to dry heave over his suit jacket, "the big joke here is that Grandpa didn't give a shit about anybody. Not you, not me, not his wife, nobody. Maybe Aunt Kalis, but that's a fucking long shot." He takes another drag from his cigarette. "My dad told me that once. Grandpa was drunk one night and told him that. He told him he didn't love anybody, didn't care about anybody. He just looked out for number one."
That's the one Grandpa taught me, and it's something that I won't ever tell my dad. Grandpa taught me to never love someone more than myself. People disappoint you. People let you down. You can't put all your faith in one person, there's too much at risk. Yes, that's exactly what Grandpa taught me, even if the message had to come third-hand through my cousin's mouth. And I'll remember it, too, only I hope I don't turn out that cynical.