Monday, May 17, 2010
What comes is better than what came before
This weekend finds me in Minnesota for my grandfather's funeral. It's an awkward occasion because it's family, and family occasions are awkward. It's also awkward because this is an extremely polite Midwestern family and in the pauses between structured elements like burial, visitation, etc., we make pained smalltalk about my second cousin's one-night layover in Memphis ten years ago.
Of course, it's also awkward because my grandfather has died after a long, long illness, and we were all yearning for him to be relieved of that, but when it actually happened I was surprised to find it was still very, very sad. The minister said in her homily that a lot of families who have lost someone to Alzheimer's have trouble remembering the person they knew before the disease did its work, and that felt true to me. One of the hardest parts of these two days was standing next to Grandpa's casket at the visitation. It was the first time in more than five years that he looked anything like himself-- the jacket and tie and glasses were back in place and I felt like I was looking at his whole self again. I couldn't stop staring, thinking about his stubble when he kissed me. The man in the casket looked so real that I wanted to reach out and brush his cheek to see if it was rough. But I knew he would feel cold and plastic, and I knew the funeral home must have shaved him.
Heather wasn't with me. She wouldn't have qualified for a bereavement fare. I barely relate to my family, extended or immediate, when true emotions are in play, so I cried standing in place, just as they did, and concentrated on how I would call Heather when I got back to the hotel. It would have been uncomfortable for her to be there anyhow.
In the midst of a conversation with another second cousin, I went ahead and mentioned "my girlfriend." My aunts, uncles, and first cousins know of her, and I can say "Heather" without explaining, but then again nobody gets specific about it. Nobody except my immediate family brings her up or relaxes their faces when I do.
My grandparents were hundreds of miles away when I was growing up, and we had a makeshift grandma next door-- an old lady whose own grandchildren were grown up and who would make us malted milk. When I was sick, my mom would drop me next door while she went to work, and I'd watch soap operas and "Jeopardy!" with Karlie. She was one of the most important people in my childhood, and not just because she made fantastic malted milk.
Karlie is dead, too, and is buried in a cemetery a quarter-mile from where I live with Heather. I have not visited her grave since she first died when I was in college.
I'm going to have babies with Heather, and I'm going to be a proud mama, and I want to tote my babies around and show them off. I don't think I could have talked to my grandpa or with Karlie about my relationship, and I'm relieved a little that they never knew about it. I should go to her grave but I don't know how to talk to her. I'm so happy and optimistic about my life with Heather. I want to share it and talk to everyone about having a baby. The people who don't know? My family.