A few years back, I wrote a poem about that day, and about his funeral. It's probably not a very good poem, but I'm going to post it here, in his honor.
“Your grandfather died today.”
I can still hear the words in my mind.
They echo and resound like a leaden knell,
Spoken in gentleness by my father,
As he sat behind the wheel of our car.
It was a Friday afternoon in March.
Sunny, as I remember it –
The hint of spring in the air.
I had just climbed out of the school bus –
Strange that my parents were there to meet me;
I always walked home from the bus stop.
A Friday afternoon surprise, I figured,
In my 13-year-old mind.
No one spoke when I first sat down in the car –
I suppose I was waiting for an explanation.
I thought little of it;
I was completely unconcerned:
Thinking of the weekend ahead;
What was for dinner;
What was playing at the movies.
My grandfather was the last thing on my mind.
And then my father spoke those words.
A phrase which has remained firmly etched in my brain
For sixteen years.
An epitaph to my childhood.
We drove in silence for several moments.
My mother, her face wet with tears –
Strange I hadn’t noticed it before now –
Turned and asked me if I was all right.
“Yes,” I said, with pubescent brevity.
How dare she suggest otherwise.
I was a man.
I had pubic hair, for Christ’s sake.
Of course I could handle the death of my grandfather.
No big deal.
I hardly even knew him, I tried to convince myself.
Only saw him a few times a year.
Forget all the memories –
Fishing at the family farm, reeling in catfish and bluegill;
Sitting in the family room while he smoked,
Listening to the police scanner;
Relaxing on the porch,
Whittling a branch of cedar;
A long walk into the woods to cut down a tree
Feeding the goats and pigs;
The smell of pipes on Christmas Eve;
Drives in the old red truck with the windows down;
Sharing a Dr. Pepper on a summer afternoon –
All those things were just silly kid stuff.
I was a man, and men don’t cry for grandfathers they only saw
A few times a year.
And so I didn’t.
I don’t remember the drive from
I don’t remember seeing my grandmother
For the first time.
I don’t remember the conversations,
The gathering of family at the house.
But I remember the moment I saw my grandfather.
Walking into that sterile, cheerless funeral parlor,
I felt choked with grief.
There he lay at the front, down a narrow aisle –
God, that aisle must have been a mile long.
And it took a lifetime to walk down to the casket.
The women were crying.
But I was a man, and men don’t cry.
The visitation lasted an eternity.
A lot of old people.
I couldn’t help but wonder which of them
Would be next.
“He’s soooo peaceful,” I remember my aunt saying
At least a hundred times.
It was her coping mechanism.
If he was peaceful, then she might have peace too.
There were a lot of tears.
But I didn’t cry.
The funeral was gut-wrenching.
They played a few old-time hymns
On one of those electronic organs you only find
In small-town funeral homes.
My grandmother wound her watch while the pastor spoke.
I remember thinking:
Why is she doing that at a time like this?
When it was over, everyone filed past the casket
One final time.
Us pall-bearers went first.
I remember standing there in my suit –
My uncle had helped me with my tie earlier –
Next to my cousins,
Looking down at my grandfather.
And one of my cousins whispered:
Just a simple little good-bye.
He hadn’t even meant for anyone else to hear it.
But I heard it.
The finality of it struck me like an arrow.
I felt my face expand.
No! I screamed inside.
I was not going to cry.
Men don’t cry.
And I was a pall-bearer –
Such a dreadful, yet lofty job.
The job of a man.
There would be no tears from this pall-bearer.
Not in front of my older cousins –
I was the youngest grandchild,
But, by God, I was not a baby.
The pall-bearers lined up at the back of the parlor.
Three on each side, standing by the door.
As family and friends filed past the coffin,
They were ushered out to the waiting cars.
The funeral procession would be a long drive
Through the countryside,
To the peaceful plot of land my grandparents
Had purchased years before
I stood there, hands clasped before me
Like my older cousins.
Like a man –
But my face burned like a fire.
It was a physical sensation –
As though my cheeks and eyeballs
Might pop with the pressure of the building tears.
I kept hearing it in my mind.
Granddaddy was gone.
He was dead.
Deader than a doornail.
When people die, they don’t come back to life.
I would never see him again.
No more fishing trips.
No more walks in the woods.
No more police scanner.
No more scent of pipes on Christmas Eve.
But I was a man.
I was somber.
I was emotionless.
No one had to know my face was about to burst.
But then I saw my mother.
She walked beside my aunt.
That slow gait of women in mourning.
They were both crying,
Comforting each other.
The river of tears, dammed up behind
My somber, emotionless exterior,
Burst forth in a torrent.
Wept like I have never wept before,
My mother held me,
And still I wept.
I heard others crying around me.
They saw the little boy weeping for his grandfather.
I was no man.
I was just a kid.
A 13-year-old who loved his Granddaddy.
I felt my cousin’s hand on my back.
A loving gesture.
It was okay to cry.
He was crying too.
They were all crying.
Later, at the burial site,
Another cousin put his arm around me –
It was windy and cold;
I was shivering, and he wanted to warm me.
He’s an FBI agent now, and I was never close to him.
But that day we shared our grief,
And the boundaries of our vast age difference were torn asunder.
We were just two grandsons mourning our lost grandfather.
And that was all we needed in common.