Truthfully, I don’t think about him very often.
For years, he was not a part of my daily life. He would come up in conversation whenever I would call my mom (or she would call me, trying to keep her panic internal, when he had another fall or was rushed to the hospital with some undetermined chest pain). I would call him around the holidays or an election cycle to check in, laugh, argue, and listen to him go off on a tangent, thrilled to have an eager ear to hear his verbose thoughts that as he got older began to drift to the end of the runway without a destination in sight. At the end of these conversations, I felt like I had been talking to a ghost, one that I was very glad to suddenly discover was still alive. Yes, somewhere in my mind, Grandpa was dead already. I had prepared myself for his departure years before it had actually happened. And I find I have done the same, now, with my Grandma.
Tod was the first person I ever lost. The only person (so far) that has died and left an indelible void in my heart. Which given the aforementioned statement, seems somewhat ironic. Despite the years and miles that separated us, the infrequent phone calls, and my infrequent trips home, this man still had a hold on me. There is something that happens when you lose a grandparent. Not only do they die, but your childhood dies with them.
I am 32 years old. I have not been a child for quite some time. Yet your grandparents keep that child alive. Every trip I made home would inevitably end with a night (or 4) spent at Tod and Betty’s – playing Scrabble, going to Denny’s, watching Schwarzenegger movies, eating Saltine crackers with peanut butter, telling stories, yelling at Betty for being out of breath because she made her way up and down the basement stairs again against everyone’s wishes, helping Tod up from the kitchen floor when he collapsed on his way to the refrigerator, and staring across the dining room table at them both, and then at just one, wondering how many more times we would get to make memories.
The last memory I have of Tod alive is Christmas 2012 when Julian and I sat around their dining room table playing Raise the Roof, a card game from my youth. It is one of the best nights of my life, sharing two of the people I love most with my favorite person.
A year later, after burying Tod’s ashes, Betty and I sat across from each other at that dining room table putting together a puzzle for what would be the last time; less than a year later, Betty was admitted to a nursing home and the house was sold.
Truthfully, I don’t like to think about him very often. Because when I do, it hurts too much. I turn back into this little kid, the one he called Oso, and I remember that I’ll never hear that again. I’m not a very emotional person. Let me rephrase that. I have plenty of Anger, Stubbornness, Contempt, Cynicism, and Arrogance to go around; it’s Empathy, Tenderness, Romance, and Nostalgia that are in short supply. I am a pragmatist and don’t usually see the point of living through rose colored glasses. Yet, when those emotions emerge from the dark, they erupt like a nuclear cloud.
At my brother’s wedding this summer, my Mom and I had a quiet morning in our rented kitchen. The extended family that were staying with us in this cabin in the woods were showering, shaving, shopping, or just off taking a rare moment of silence in preparation for another Saia extravaganza that would last well into the night and become a giant ball of kinetic energy, our synapses firing in a loud, sarcastic, crude, and fabulous synergy. I can’t remember why, but Mom and I were talking about Tod. I was staring at her, telling a story, and as I was speaking, my eyes started to well up. “It’s OK,” she said. And with that permission, I lost it. Tears were streaming down my face and I was shaking. I had not expected this to happen. I looked at Mom and she was standing there with this look of understanding on her face. This sympathetic affirmation that told me she had been in this very position hundreds of times over the last year. And that no, it never gets easier. But’s it’s OK.
Two weeks ago, I was in the grocery store, near Halloween, thinking of Tod and Betty, and I walked through the freezer aisle. I spotted a box of Drumsticks and broke down right there in Ralph’s. Drumsticks were one of those snacks Betty always kept in the house for when I would spend the night. Impulsively, I threw them in my cart. As if, foolishly, I could take Tod and Betty home with me.
I don’t think of him very often, but there are times when I can’t help it. Like Veteran’s Day. Never without a flag in the yard and frequently with a yellow ribbon ’round his tree, Tod loved America with all his heart. In fact, he even lied about his age to enlist in the military, only to be discovered and kicked out. He later joined the Navy and fought in Korea, which became one of his proudest moments. He would wear that blue hat Mom got him embossed with “Korean War Vet” in yellow stitching, complete with his various pins, whenever life called for a hat. We would sit around that dining room table and debate policy, sometimes getting so heated that Betty thought we were fighting and would try and interject with something innocuous to ease the tension. It wasn’t necessary though. Grandpa and I never really fought. It was all just sound and fury and we knew it. When she would try and “break us up,” Grandpa and I would look at each other and smirk, both kind of thrilled that we got under her skin a little.
I wonder what Tod would be thinking about the state of the world today with ISIS and Donald Trump ruffling their feathers. Despite his Republican leanings, Tod never suffered fools and I highly doubt he would be backing Trump and his bombastic rhetoric. (Although he did feel it was his civic duty to vote and I could never imagine him voting for a Clinton or some socialist so would probably vote for him by default…).
Tomorrow is Tod’s birthday. He would have been 82, which feels so young. I still see him sitting at that dining room table sketching or opening the jar of mustard or anything that takes strength or thought and his tongue is out, like that makes everything easier. I find myself doing this every now and then; one of the many things he gave me. Whenever something really great happens in my life, I still want to call him and talk about. I started a new job yesterday and wish he knew. I’m sure it would dovetail into a conversation about old Hollywood and Red Skelton or a million other things.
I never wanted to call him. I knew it would be a painful experience because we weren’t together around that dining room table and I didn’t know when the next time was I could get back, which made me get lost in a blanket of sadness for a time gone by. It’s part of the reason I don’t like calling Betty. The house is gone. Her spirit is gone. Tod is gone. Her mind is going. And she is this shell of the woman I know and love. Sitting across from her is one thing as we play Yahtzee and she squeals “I got the biggie”; it’s another thing entirely when you try and struggle through a 5 minute phone call, talking about nothing, both trying to not think about how much everything has changed. And that it will never be the same again.
For my birthday this year, Mom made me a quilt. But not just any quilt. As I opened the box and parted the tissue paper, I paused in a rare moment of silence. Julian knows that this means something has deeply moved me. I sit there for a minute trying to figure how to explain this gift to him, a gift that some may think is slightly creepy, but is sort of typical Marge. She has made me a quilt of my grandfather’s clothes. Julian glances at me with a smile and says, “That’s awesome.” I wrap myself in it and instantly Dodger jumps on my lap as if he can smell the man who loved him so much. Tod was a dog person and every dog loved Tod. Even Dodger had his time with Grandpa, after traveling across country, zonked out on Benadryl under my seat on the plane. Grandpa sat there in his chair as Grandma and I played a mean game of Double Solitaire, Dodger asleep in his lap, both as happy as clams.
Truthfully, I don’t think of him often enough. Thank you for everything you’ve given me. I miss you.
2 years later.