Thursday, May 26, 2005

Inadequacy of words

I spent a lot of today thinking about my friend, L, who's boyfriend died this week. I didn't hear from her today, and got no reports from friends who had, although one friend, H, gave me some more information on the conversation she had with L on Wednesday.

I was overwhelmed by the need to do something, and the helplessness of not knowing what to do. It is so difficult to know how to comfort the grieving. At least it is for me. And after a while people's attempts to offer aid or comfort sound hollow.

I remember when I was a teenager attending the funeral from my grandfather. My grandpa had been a regular part of my life as a child, and visits to his house were always filled with exploration and wonder. My grandparents lived all over the place in western Nebraska from what I know, but they only had two houses that I remember, one right next to the other one.

The first house, the smaller one, was known as the ditch house. It didn't get that name because their was an irrigation ditch that ran right next to the house, but that's what I thought for a lot of years. It was the ditch house because the "ditch company" and my grandparents called it, owned the place. I now know this was not their house, just as I now know that the ditch company was probably an irrigation district. But it is that house that I associate with so many of my memories of my grandfather.

Like the drawer in the kitchen where my grandparents kept a bunch of tools and assorted stuff. But to me that was always the harmonica drawer, where grandpa's old mouth harps were kept. I never did learn to play one, but I loved trying. All the odd tones that came out of the simple looking device when you blew out, or drew in breath through the little holes. On the rare occasion grandpa could be convinced to play, but the tunes were always too short. Perhaps my love of blues music, particularly when accompanied by a harmonica, are because of my grandfather.

Or Grandpa fixing us grandkids up with small pieces of wood, big old iron nails and hammers, so we could build our own boats to race in the irrigation ditch. It's a wonder one of us didn't drown in that damn thing, and I think one of my cousins almost did once. But that little ditch was the source of hours upon hours of play in the summer, when the weather was warm and the water was flowing.

Grandpa also used to show us how to set irrigation pipe. There were these sections of pipe, probably no more than 3 or 4 feet long and curved to rest on the mound of the ditch. One end went into the water and the other went down into one of the crop rows. In order to get the water flowing you can to siphon it by immersing the tubing in the water and filling it was water, then blocking off the downstream end with your hand. Then you could plunk the end down and the water would flow out of the pipe, and if you did it right, it would keep right on flowing until you pulled the pipe out of the ditch.

When you got old enough, there was a rite of passage. I don't know what the magic age was, but it was sometime after you got old enough to ride with Grandpa in a car and not drive him crazy I suppose. When grandpa thought you were old enough, he would take you with him to work. Grandpa was a ditch rider. And if you were lucky, he would ask you to ride along with him on his midday check of the water levels on the various canals and ditches he monitored. He always had at least two cars. One was kept for good, and one was his ditch riding car. Grandma didn't drive back then. He had some real interesting cars over the years, like an Opal. And he always bought his ditch cars used. One time he even had an old Nova, or something like it, with a fuzzy cover with dingleballs on the dash, like some East L.A. parody, with this old guy driving it. He probably looked like an old Mexican behind the wheel too, as his skin was always darkly tanned and leathery, with a day or two's growth of beard on his chin and cheeks.

Grandpa rarely called me by my name. When we drove up and I went bounding into the house, he'd say, "Well, Skipper, what do you know?" And I always protested that my name was not Skipper. His dog's name was Skipper. I never knew if he named the dog Skipper because he called everyone Skipper, or if he called everyone by the dog's name. And I never had a good answer. "Nothin'" was always my response. I wish he had lived long enough to share with him some things I now know, and more importantly, I would ask him what he knew.

He seemed to know lots of things about cars and water and tools. He built their "new" house by having a barn brought in and put it up next to another smaller house right next to the ditch house. As a child I remember thinking that that just couldn't be done, but somehow he did it. It was Grandpa's house, and I felt protective of it, for I too had put some sweat equity into the place on a summer day, putting insulation into the attic. It was the first time I realized what working up a sweat was. It was hot as hell in that old attic, perspiration just rolling down my head, face, arms, back, chest, and legs. I swear my eyeballs were sweating. We pulled out this old thin, grey insulation (probably asbestos based) and put in new, thick, pink Fiberglas insulation, that made my skin itch. When we finally climbed own out of the attic and walked out into the open air, a refreshing gust of air touched my soaked skin. A feeling of bliss washed over me that would not be equaled or surpassed until I discovered the joys of sexuality.

Grandpa was a tough old dude. He lost three fingers on one hand to an accident. He only had his pinky and thumb on that hand, and he could carry more weight with those two fingers than most men could with a good hand. He used to sit at the dining room table, drinking coffee out of a heavy ceramic cup, holding by the handle with just his thumb and pinky. I challenge anyone to try that themselves even with one of the wimpy little cups people used today. Try it empty. Then fill it full of scalding black liquid and lift that puppy to your lips. Go on. I dare ya.

On his other arm, he had a nasty scar from when his arm got smashed by a small train car at a sugar beet factory. The way my uncle tells the story, Grandpa got up and drove himself to the hospital to get it checked out, his bicep separated from the bone.

My grandfather's funeral was the first funeral I ever attended. I had been to funeral homes before. I had seen bodies in a casket. But I'd never been to a funeral service. As a teenager, struggling to become a man, it was very disconcerting to hear my family members crying all around me while we sat in this little alcove, separated from the rest of the room by a white sheer drapery. Looking out through the lacy fabric at the service made the whole experience a little too surreal. I was feeling claustrophobic, surrounded by my grandmother, mother and aunts who were crying, and my cousins who were crying too. I shed several tears myself and a few sobs escaped by body, but I fought like hell to hold back.

After the service there were all these people coming up to my family saying things like "he's in a better place" and "he's with God now" or "he's looking down on us right now." None of these things brought me any comfort, and after hearing variations on the theme for hours and days on end, it all sounded so phony, especially when people would say things like "Your grandfather would want you to do..." followed by some advice or suggestion for how to mourn or grieve or endure. It made me angry. How the fuck did they know what he would want? Are they wired into the hereafter? I hated the whole litany of lies. I had a similar experience at my aunt's funeral almost 10 years later. I vowed never to tell someone who was grieving that the person they loved and missed is in a better place. If we miss someone, and they aren't with us, that is not better. It's just sad.

Which brings me back to L. I don't know what to tell her, and doubt there is any comfort I, or anyone else, can offer. Grieving must evolve over time. It washes over us like waves on a shoreline, pushing, then receding, only to push us again. But finally the tide goes out, and we can walk on.

I never grieved for my grandfather right after he died. I was too busy trying to stay tough. I never took the time to mourn for him. But the old sonofabitch didn't let me off the hook so easily. His memory caught up to me out of the blue years later. Some memory of my grandfather passed through my mind and I stopped to examine it and remember that time. To remember him. And I cried. I cried for him. And I cried for me because I realized then that I missed him. I miss the question I used to dread:

Well Skipper, what do you know?

Well, I'd tell you Grandpa that I know I loved you and I still miss you, even today, nearly 22 years later.

The only thing I know to do for someone who grieves is to offer them an ear and support. Help them with small tasks, if they seem to monumental to accomplish in their despair. Let them lean on you, or yell at you or cry on your shoulder. And let them know they are cared for and loved, even if their mascara is running or there is snot hanging out their nose. And the ultimate help is if you can just share stories, or let them share stories, and let them discover a smile or laughter once again. Because when we can smile, when we can laugh, we can find hope for happiness again.

L was one of a core group of friends that helped me smile and laugh again when I was grieving the loss of my ex last year. She helped me see a future, even if I wasn't sure I was ready for it. I merely want to return the favor.

That's what friends do.


Caitlinator said...

I think you've quite got it with what to do and say. I know that the people I appreciated the most when my father died were the ones who DIDN'T know what to say and only stood by me trying to help me smile in any way they could. The truth is, no number of words can equal a human life and the only thing that heals is time. Knowing you've got a friend standing beside you makes that time go by a little bit faster. Sounds like L is one lucky friend to have you.

3rdtimesacharm ( 3T ) said...

This is a beautiful post and tribute G-man. To both your friend L, and your grandfather. My thoughts and prayers are with her.
Your understanding of grief, with your analogy of the ocean waves, gave me chills.
I am sure you will know exactly what to say, and not say, when the time arises.

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