I have been wanting to write about my grandfather’s funeral for a few weeks now. One of the reasons I hadn’t up until now was, of course, the demise of my former computer and with it my ability to write at home. Another was just busy-ness as usual.
But a big part of it was just not being sure exactly what I wanted to say.
In his healthy years, my grandfather was one of the most active men I’ve ever known. You’d never find him reading a book. He had no interest whatsoever in the online world. My jaw would have dropped to the floor if I’d ever wandered into a bar and seen him sitting on a stool surrounded by his cronies. In fact, the only sedentary activity he ever enjoyed was watching sports on TV – mostly college and NFL football and baseball.
He was constantly in motion. When he wasn’t at work, he was fishing, hunting, woodworking or just wandering in the woods. Between that and the sports-watching, you’d have labeled him a stereotypical manly man except for the fact that he also cooked, cleaned and was basically at my grandmother’s beck and call their entire married life. He wanted to be on the river with his fishing pole on a Saturday, but if she wanted him to chauffer her to 5 stores first he planned around her and never complained, instead contenting himself with listening to a ball game on the car radio while she shopped to her heart’s content.
When Grandad suffered a stroke 12 years ago, all that changed. The man of motion became confined to a wheelchair, with use of only one hand. He also lost his speech. Bits and pieces of that came back over the years, but his words were for the most part limited to “yes,” “no,” and “shit.”
“Shit” happened when post-stroke Grandad wanted to communicate something to one of us and we just couldn’t get it. He’d try to share something with us using hand motions and mumbles, and when his frustration at our inability to put the pieces together took over he’d shake his head and say “shit.” I certainly couldn’t blame him. He’d always been a man of few words, and to see him want them and no longer have them at all was heartwrenching. I’d always feel such a horrible sense of guilt when I couldn’t figure out what he was trying to tell me, and I know the rest of my family did too. Even my grandmother had those moments, and they learned over the years to communicate in their own language of motions and grunts and one-word hints. Their world flip-flopped and suddenly she was at his beck and call instead of the other way around, and she stepped up to the plate in a way that always amazed me.
I more than just loved my grandfather. I held him up as an example of what a man – or rather, a person, should be. So I was confused by the strange sense of sadness mixed with peace I felt at his passing.
Don’t get me wrong. Knowing my grandfather was gone cut deep. Going to my grandparents house to see my grandmother and realizing each time that he isn’t going to be sitting in his recliner, that I’m not going to at least be able to say some silly thing that will give him a laugh, still hurts every time it happens. But I didn’t feel that horrific, overwhelming sense of kicked-in-the-gut grief that you expect if you’d ever known a friend or a loved one’s passing.
My grandparents have lived in Baltimore since their mid-20’s, and Grandad was 80 when he passed. They’ve built a small but close circle of friends here. On top of that, my parents circle and the friends my sister and I have made over the years knew and loved them too – some of them even calling them “Mom and Dad” or “Mommom and Poppop” because they’d grown so close over the years.
But instead of having a service here in our hometown, my family made the decision to return Grandad to Tunnelton, West Virginia. That was where he had been born, and where he’d been a child and a young adult. It was where he returned on the weekends when he could for the outdoorsing he loved so much. It would be a smaller service there, with just the family and a few old friends who were still in the area. But it would be taking him home, and sending him to his final resting place with the people we all knew he’d most want around him, even though he loved many in Baltimore too.
So that’s what we did.
My grandmother’s health has also declined over the years. She’s wheelchair bound as well and often in a lot of pain. We worried about her being able to make the trip. She rarely goes anywhere anymore – even most of her medical checkups happen at home. We needn’t have worried. Any wear and tear the trip put on her body was more than made up for by the healing effect seeing family and friends, taking Granddad home, and being there herself for a little while had on her broken heart.
What I didn’t expect at all was that the trip would have a similar effect on me. I didn’t grow up there – I was born and raised in Baltimore. I did spend a lot of time there in my childhood though – weekend trips and long summer vacations staying with family and experiencing a simple, easy country life I’d never have known otherwise.
It wasn’t until we were there that I realized just what that all meant to me. The flood of warm memories and comforting emotions that came just from being there was overwhelming. Some of it was getting big bear hugs from great-uncles and second cousins I haven’t since since other funerals that happened back in my 20s. But some of it was so much more simple than that – stopping at a well for a drink of fresh mountain water, riding by the house where my great-grandmother lived when I was a child and seeing that it looked much the same, the delicious country meal my great-aunt’s church prepared for us. It was being on the road for long periods of time without seeing another car, cresting over mountains and spiraling slowly downhill, realizing that the hairpin turns I used to think of as roller-coasters when Grandad drove them in my childhood were now just a bit more real-life scary, but breathtakingly beautiful even in the drab garb of January. It was stopping at Cool Springs Park, a restaurant/gas station/junk and convenience store we visited frequently in my childhood, and seeing that it hasn’t changed a bit. We had chili dogs and stocked up on their delicious roasted peppers, and in both I tasted my childhood.
Tunnelton, West Virginia and the surrounding areas are a beautiful mountain region of farms and winding roads, little churches and endless stretches where there’s nothing on either side of you but woods. It isn’t perfect – there are also patches of struggle and hardship that make a suburban gal like me rethink my idea of “poor,” – clusters of houses so patched and repatched that you wonder how they could still be standing, the woodsmoke of winter rising from their chimneys.
No, it is not perfect by a long shot, but natural and beautiful and full of a sense of community that I just haven’t found in places where I am surrounded by more people.
It is the place that made my Granddad, and the place to which we returned him.
And it was while I was there that I came to understand my own strange disconnectedness with grief I’d expected to feel on that day.
When a loved one dies, I think there are two kinds of grief. There is the “selfish” kind, and in this context I don’t mean selfish in a negative sense. I just mean that this is the grief that is related to knowing that you and others left behind will miss your loved one and will no longer have them in your daily lives. Then there is the other side of mourning – the side that focuses on the person who is gone and the living they will not be doing.
In Granddad’s hometown, where everything is rugged and crisp and alive and smells like woodsmoke in January, where even the simplest food tastes like heaven and people put on no false airs at all, where the skyscrapers are trees and the roads are never congested, it was suddenly easy to understand that I’d been doing the unselfish part of my mourning in a slow and steady way for years. Tunnelton in all its beautiful wildness and close-knit community IS Granddad, as he always chose to live.
After the stroke, he couldn’t live that way anymore. He became confined. My whole family has grieved that loss for him for over a decade.
The sadness that was left was for ourselves, for the fact that we couldn’t see him or hug him or make him laugh or hold his hand for a moment anymore. It was for my grandmother who had built her world around him, too. But even so, in the heart of a place that so defined who he was, wishing he was still sitting in his chair instead of free just didn’t feel right.
For the first time in my life, I understood what people meant when they said they’d found a sense of peace with mourning a loved one’s death. I had never quite gotten that concept before.
So thank you Tunnelton. And thank you Granddad, for being a man who first brought me to that place and helped me become someone who can, in her better moments, think beyond her own heart.
Note: I’m a day off my regular Tuesday posting schedule, I know. I’m still working my way back on track. Instead of “a day late and a dollar short,” I’m calling it “better late than never.”