Last night we stood under a rookery of great blue herons, their babies hungrily crying out from the sequoia trees high above our heads. Apparently in a few weeks they’ll jump from tree to tree, stretching their wings and practicing flight. I wondered what would happen to the ones who fell from such heights.
I missed a call from my mom while we stood under those trees, my mind in morbid territory worried about the precarious future of those heron babies. I knew it was the call when I saw it later. My mother confirmed this when I called her back. My grandpa had finally passed. My mom was doing the chores you do after a death; everybody had to contacted, told of the plan, and comforted. Women are usually forced by cultural expectations to be at least moderately proficient at comforting and doing the senseless chores that must be done after any great drama or event. My mom does not deviate from this formula. She is prepared. She’s had seven years to ready herself for his passing. The first time my grandfather went on dialysis marked the beginning of his final act. Most of the seven years he was in dialysis he was in pain, but too fearful of death to stop letting his blood be taken out, cleaned, and put back into him, a gruesome and artificial process running against the grain of nature.
My grandfather was in the Air Force, a sturdy young man in a uniform, lucky enough to enlist and serve between the Korean War and Vietnam, something I always wondered if he thought about. After learning how to work on planes there were few things mechanical that seemed difficult to him. I always hoped that someday he and I would fix up an old car together. My grandam and he took my mother and uncle on cross-country road trips in their Volkswagen bus, camping all over the place. They raised golden retrievers. My grandfather was particularly fond of Americana sweet treats: Snowballs and Peeps especially. One day I drove him in my old Saturn wagon that had been his sister’s (a true old lady car that fit me, as even in college I felt beyond my years) over MacDonald Pass in the summertime to the car museum in Deerlodge, housed in the old state prison. He gleefully told me all about the cars there, and pointed to a Studebaker that had curtains and told me they were ideal for taking your date to the drive-in movies, wink wink. I had never seen my grandfather even hint at the idea that sex existed so it was great seeing him loosen up and laugh in that dank and weird (but amazing) museum. We went to the A&W drive in after, just the two of us. I remember him encouraging me to speed on the highway, because wasn’t I supposed to be a reckless young person? He took the photo below with me outside the prison, one of my favorites of him, on my old Minolta film camera.
My grandfather loved being a grandfather before he started getting sick. He delighted in us, four granddaughters in all. There is a photo of him holding me after I was born. I was the first grandchild so I was thoroughly spoiled by all parties through no fault of my own, and in this particular photograph he is beaming and proud. He built me this magnificent chair in the shape of a tiger sitting upright, and it was my constant companion as a child (apparently I fed it oatmeal often). I still have a stool he built for me, “KATE” painted in bright, cheery letters. When we eventually move somewhere permanently both things will come with me. They’re marvels of handiwork and love. He expressed love in building things and fixing things, so when his hands got too shaky for him to use tools or write I think he fell in on himself a little. I know that he is not the only man who is like that: handy and useful then slowly more and more useless, stripped of what made them proud and brought them purpose and joy. Still, even when he didn’t feel like himself, he made dark jokes about how there was so much gold in his mouth that we had to get his teeth out before he was cremated, because the funeral home would have a small fortune on their hands! (We did not do this, sorry Grampy.)
My grandfather is hopefully wherever he wanted to be. I don’t believe in Heaven or an afterlife but I think he did, and hopefully he is somewhere peaceful, where his hands work and his mind can fly. I love you, Grampy.
P.S. I asked to inherit his massive, massive Kodachrome slide collection, part of which I had digitized a while back. I will hopefully keep digitizing his photographs and sharing them. He had an artful, beautiful eye for light and shadow, and Kodachrome’s moodiness fit his vision perfectly.