by J. F. Ewert
As we climbed into his truck, Grandpa startled me with a question: “Do you like dates?”
I paused for a second. Was Grandpa testing me? I knew that dating was bad. My parents had never forbidden it outright, but I’d heard enough cautionary tales to get the message. Worldly kids had casual boy-girl relationships, so I kept my crushes on the down-low.
But I was curious. Maybe Grandpa thought differently than my parents. And I figured he probably wouldn’t tell on me. So I replied with a cautious smile: “Yeah.”
Grandpa dug into his coat pocket and pulled out a plastic bulk bin bag. Opening it, he extracted something that looked like a giant, slightly gooey raisin and held it out to me. I stared at it, puzzled.
“I thought you said you liked dates?” Grandpa said. He was frowning. He wanted me to take it so he could start the truck.
I ate the date. But when he asked me if I wanted another, I politely refused.
As we drove, I wondered if he suspected my mistake. Thank goodness I hadn’t said anything more. I glanced over. There wasn’t even the hint of a question on his face. He was focused on the road ahead, intent on the errand at hand.
So I let go of my worry. Looking out the window, I watched the passing houses, at peace with myself and with Grandpa. Because to be one-on-one with Grandpa was to be in a safe space. If I could admit out loud that I wasn’t so sure about this dating thing, I could tell him anything.
And yet, the night my family paid their respects at his coffin, I chose to be forty miles away.
* * *
My dad and I didn’t talk much during the week between Grandpa’s death and his funeral.
Freshly eighteen, I had a knack for getting under his skin. I stayed out too late after choir practice. I blew three hundred hard-earned dollars on a CD player for my car. I stopped cutting my hair. Younger siblings would later do similar things with little to no repercussions, but I was the oldest. It was my lot to trail-blaze young adulthood for the family.
When we did talk, we argued. Two days after Grandpa died, my dad said he needed me to prepare the funeral service program. They wanted to hold the funeral on New Year’s Eve, a mere four days away, since a lot of family was already in town.
But I wasn’t sure I had time for that, and said so. Not only was I working full-time – and filling in for a vacationing boss – but I had to prepare the church bulletins for Sunday morning.
My dad prickled. “I don’t know why you won’t help out once in a while.” His voice grew steadily louder throughout that sentence, and then he strode out of the room without another word. I headed upstairs to stew in my bedroom.
The next morning, he found me sitting at our computer. As he entered the room, I tensed up. I hoped he was just passing through. Instead, he walked to the right side of the desk and stood beside me.
“I know you miss him, too,” he said, staring steadily at the top of our computer desk. “We just have different ways of showing it.” I nodded, but refused to take my eyes off the screen. Blinking rapidly, I mumbled a reply. He reached out tentatively for my shoulder and pressed it for a split-second. Then he was gone.
As far as I can remember, that was the only conversation we had about our common loss.
* * *
I was eleven the first time I saw my dad cry.
On a summer Sunday afternoon, my dad’s younger brother slipped over a waterfall. He was tubing with friends, one of whom saw him go down. But my uncle couldn’t escape the whirlpool at the fall’s base. Its force both trapped him and held his friend’s rescue attempts at bay. Though my uncle drowned within minutes, it took them more than a day to hook his body free.
My parents broke the news to us on Monday morning. We older kids shed tears as my dad’s grief overwhelmed him and tore his face into pieces. Watching that angered me. Scared me. I wanted – needed – to fix it. Of course, there was nothing I could do, nor anything I could say, that would put him back together again.
I didn’t know what to do with my own grief and fear. One night, I dreamed that my uncle’s body was lying next to me. I even felt his cold, clammy skin against my cheek. I lurched awake and threw myself out of the top bunk. Panting, I recovered myself and slowed my racing heart. But there was no way I would go back to sleep in that bed. Bending over the lower bunk, I shook my younger brother and made him move over. Normally I wouldn’t be caught dead sharing space with my siblings. On this night, I couldn’t be alone.
Things came to a head at my uncle’s viewing. It was a private family event, because there were concerns about how presentable the body would be after all the time in the water. Grandpa and Grandma arrived first, on their own, to say goodbye to their youngest child. Then they accompanied their children and grandchildren into the anteroom where the coffin lay, lid ajar.
I stepped in, took one look, and fled. Grandma was right behind me and put her arms around me as I buried my face in her dress. She walked me back out to the waiting room, and we sat there as the rest of the family paid their respects. Eventually, others filtered out. The grown-ups complimented the mortician’s work. “We could have had a public viewing after all,” someone said.
My dad came and sat next to me. “I think you and I should go back in,” he said.
“No, no, no!” I knew that others were noticing how frantic I was, but I didn’t care. My whole body tensed, and I gripped the sides of my chair. I wished I could forget the one glimpse I’d had. Why fuel the anxiety swirling inside of me? My dad let the matter drop, and we left soon after.
When Grandpa died, this memory returned to haunt me. The day before his viewing, I told my mom that I didn’t want to go. My timing for this announcement was carefully chosen: my dad was out, finalizing funeral arrangements with his sisters.
I didn’t want to see the body, I said. Didn’t think that was necessary. Then I looked away, hoping she hadn’t glimpsed the fear in my eyes.
Later that afternoon, she came to me with an update. Grandpa’s sister Ruth was arriving at the airport the next evening, just before the viewing was scheduled to start. She needed a ride to the church so she could pay her respects. Maybe I could pick her up?
I bit my lip, trying to mask a relieved smile. My family would be gone by the time I arrived with Aunt Ruth. No one would be around to pressure me into facing another coffin. I would be free to drive off alone.
* * *
Growing up, my dad and Uncle Gerry – his brother-in-law – organized an annual family father-and-son fishing trip. For us kids, this event was the highlight of the year. A whole week out of school with cousins: our days spent on the lake trolling for rainbow trout, and our nights huddled around the campfire, sharing jokes and stories.
Most years we needed three boats to safely carry our troupe of fathers, sons, and cousins. If you were lucky enough to ride with Grandpa, you were assured a morning of play. Your lines weren’t going to be in the water for long. After an hour or so, he would tire of trolling and pursue a diversion. He might land the boat and lead his crew to explore an abandoned house. Or he might scout the edges of the lake, looking for a small river or creek in which to get stuck.
On one such excursion, my grandfather, Luke, and I hiked a lakeside hill. It wasn’t a long hike, but since the lake was in the mountains, we had a rare opportunity to trek past the tree line. There was no snow or ice, but there was a brisk wind – the kind that takes steals your breath as it drives past you. Eventually, we reached the summit and stood looking out over the lake. Below us, the sun glittered on the waves that rippled across the lake. “We should sing the Doxology,” Grandpa said. And so we did, removing our hats and forcing the words into the wind.
Grandpa’s trusty Toyota was one of the few constants on these fishing trips. At night, it served as his private quarters. Most of us went to bed in my dad’s travel trailer or – in later years – a communal rental cabin. Grandpa preferred to sleep in the back of his pickup truck, sheltered by its canopy. He had camped this way since he was a young man, if his stories were true, and he wasn’t about to change his ways now. We marveled that he (allegedly) slept better in that space. It did not occur to me that he might be escaping the bedtime sounds of young boys struggling to fall asleep.
The truck’s bed may have been a fortress of solitude, but Grandpa warmly welcomed us into its cab. We boys all took turns riding with him, never complaining about the cramped bench behind the driver’s seat. When Luke and I turned fourteen, he gave us driving lessons on the gravel logging roads that led in and out of our fishing spots. With firm patience, he guided us through the process of starting and stalling, never complaining about the abuse we inflicted on his engine and on his back.
One year, he forgot to refuel his truck before we arrived at our remote cabin. By the time he realized his mistake, we were in the middle of nowhere. And since this happened before the invention of smartphone and Google Maps, he wasn’t entirely sure where to go.
He explained to me that his engine could run another forty kilometers after the fuel gauge reached “E.” Mindful of these parameters, we studied a coil-bound atlas and drew a radius to identify potential destinations.
And so we drove off. He and I basked in the afternoon sun that accompanied our pursuit – all the while keeping a close eye on the odometer, wondering if we’d make it or if we’d get stranded. While his first guess didn’t pan out, we managed to find a back country gas station before the engine stopped. From there, we drove back to rejoin the rest of the group at our cabin.
I’m sure we talked on this drive, but none of our conversation has stuck in my memory. It was warm enough to roll our windows down. For long periods, we drove without speaking, admiring the roadside trees that shimmered orange, red, and yellow in the autumn sunlight. He was comfortable in the silence, and so was I.
* * *
We visited Grandpa and Grandma the night that my dad told us that Grandpa had cancer and wasn’t going to recover.
We knew he hadn’t been feeling well lately. On a recent fishing trip, he’d spent the afternoons lying on a couch to ease his post-lunch heartburn. But the terminal diagnosis was a gut punch. It broke my dad, both that night and over the six weeks that remained in Grandpa’s life.
As we walked into their house, Grandpa rose from the calico couch in their living room, breaking into a smile and trying to laugh. He looked tired, but otherwise the same as he always had. His plaid flannel shirt was tucked into his blue jeans, and his thinning white hair was combed back from his forehead. The difference lay in his eyes. Their normal twinkle had dimmed slightly, obscured by tears that he was damming up.
The evening wore on. When called upon, I spoke in guarded terms and averted my eyes from Grandpa’s. It felt like there was an invisible guest in the room: a stranger sitting off to the side, waiting to take him away. That feeling shattered our comfortable intimacy.
As our visit came to an end, we each took turns hugging Grandpa. It may be the only hug I remember giving him. I squeezed him, hard but not too hard, hoping that somehow a piece of him would stay with me. That our normal might return.
But in the weeks that followed, I withdrew. I avoided him. I was taking a gap year, working full time, so it was easy to distance myself. My days were long, and I made them longer, purposefully driving the long way home after work and making unnecessary stops to lengthen my commute.
My mom interrupted these habits. One afternoon, she pulled me aside, telling me that she wished she had spent more time with her grandparents before they died. Did she tell me to go and visit? Not in so many words. But the next day I drove to Grandpa and Grandma’s house after work.
He was weaker now and had moved into the formal sitting room, using the firm couch as a makeshift bed. Again, he got up and smiled when I entered the room. Then he quickly lay back down. It was the only position that relieved the gnawing in his stomach.
I fidgeted on the loveseat, answering questions when asked. I wondered what I should say. What I shouldn’t. This time there were no buffers from the invisible guest, who seemed to occupy the armchair and control the course of the visit. The cancer was the only reason I had stopped by – the only thing on my mind – but I couldn’t say that or talk about it.
* * *
The last time I saw Grandpa was just before Christmas, at our annual family gathering. Since he was homebound, the family came together in his and Grandma’s sprawling rancher.
I again came straight from work and was promptly ushered to Grandma’s bedroom. He and Grandma had slept separately for years. Now they had swapped bedrooms since Grandpa’s didn’t have an ensuite. Gripping the door handle, I paused and tried to settle the gnawing in my own stomach.
When I walked in, I found an unfamiliar scene. Grandma’s bed was gone, replaced by a hospital bed. And there he lay. He was still Grandpa, but he no longer smiled. He grimaced, his body wracked and gaunt as the cancer closed in for the kill.
Aunt Eileen was there too, seated on the other side of his bed. She invited me to take her seat and got up to check on something in the kitchen. Eyes on the floor, I made my way over. I was alone with him before I was settled in my chair. Except that there was no way for me to feel settled.
Grandpa was scrunched up beneath a thin mustardy blanket, which was crumpled and pulled out from the bedsides. Before long, he looked over at me. As I quickly lowered my head to hide my tears, he reached out and grabbed my hand. His firm grip surprised me, and I caught the ghost of his smile as I looked up.
Squeezing back, I tried to say the right thing. “Thank you for the example you’ve been to me.” But my words trailed off as he dropped my hand and turned away with a scowl. Failing to find a comfortable position on his opposite side, he sat up, shawled the blanket over his shoulders, and stumbled off to the bathroom. I can’t remember whether or not he closed the door.
Tears stung my cheeks; my stomach churned once more. A few seconds passed, and I realized that I didn’t want to be found there by myself. So I stood up and left the room.
Later that night, Grandpa shuffled the foyer, taking everyone by surprise. He was naked, except for a pair of white briefs and his mustardy blanket shawl. He stared blankly, eyes unfocused, puzzled by the faces and commotion in the house. My dad and uncles quickly ushered him back to the bedroom.
Grandpa was gone. Three nights later, his breath would be too.
* * *
At the airport, I waited for Aunt Ruth to enter the baggage claim, leaning on a pony wall that separated the tile walkway from the tired green carpet that islanded the carousels. I’d never met her before, but it was relaxing to scan the unfamiliar faces and guess at the most likely target.
When the flight from Winnipeg arrived, she wasn’t hard to spot. There weren’t many people on the flight, and she was the only one who wasn’t immediately welcomed by friends or family. With her red hair, she didn’t really look like Grandpa. But she smiled as she greeted me, looking more like someone arriving for a reunion than for a funeral.
I told her while driving away from the airport that I was merely going to drop her off: I wasn’t attending the viewing. “I don’t want to remember him like that,” I said. This time, I spoke with self-assured confidence. She didn’t know me. She knew nothing about my fears and anxieties. I didn’t know what she would think about this statement, but I didn’t have to care.
Aunt Ruth was unfazed. As we wound our way down the highway, she alternated between questions and memories. Grandpa had apparently played the trumpet in high school, a memory accentuated by their house’s thin walls, which did little to muffle the sound.
That shocked me: I couldn’t recall Grandpa ever listening to music on the radio, let alone pick up an instrument. He was proud of me when I took up singing lessons and performed Christmas concert solos. But he attributed my gift to his father, who was a staple in Mennonite male choirs. Why was music something he admired only in others and from a distance?
It was my turn to share a memory. “The last time I flew, coming back from Dallas,” I said, “Grandpa picked me up.” I recalled my surprise at finding him waiting for me at the arrivals terminal. “I guess it was too late for my parents,” I laughed. But truthfully, I was relieved to see him instead. It meant a peaceful nighttime drive home, free from interrogation, free to wonder at the unfamiliar highways and city lights.
* * *
When we arrived at the church, Aunt Ruth turned to me and posed a simple question: “Are you sure you don’t want to come in?”
We hadn’t talked about the viewing since the beginning of our car ride. But somehow the distance I’d created between myself and this event had slowly evaporated. Aunt Ruth never challenged me, pleaded with me, or rebuked me. She just listened to me. Talked to me. Sat with me. Like my car rides with Grandpa, I had nothing to worry about. If she said I wanted to do something, she was probably right.
Still, I hesitated as I entered the foyer. Now that I could see the coffin through the sanctuary windows, I wasn’t sure about stepping closer. Scanning the rooms, I noted that I was by far the youngest person in the building, surrounded by Grandpa’s siblings and peers.
Aunt Ruth came alongside me, grabbing my elbow. My hands were in my coat pockets, but I instantly knew that I wanted to keep going. Before my next thought arrived, we were through the sanctuary’s double doors and halfway down the sloped aisle.
Two feet away from the coffin, I stopped and stared. There was Grandpa, decked out in a red flannel shirt and blue jeans. He looked more himself than I’d seen him in weeks.
Eventually, I found myself seated a few pews back, but I couldn’t stop looking over at Grandpa. Every glance I stole lingered until some relative I didn’t really know interrupted my focus. Some blessed aunt explained how she had given Grandpa his final shave. “I just moved his face into all the grimaces I’ve seen other men make when they shave,” she said with a shrug.
I ended up staying until the very end, when Aunt Ruth was collecting her things and preparing to leave. Did she need another ride, I asked. On the surface, I was being polite. Deep within, I yearned for her to say yes. I wanted another car ride conversation that met me where I was, with someone who would listen and let me be me.
J. F. Ewert is an emerging writer from Vancouver, British Columbia. He previously wrote Blue Ice and Other Stories from the Rink (Canon Press, 2009), a collection of short fiction about ice hockey. He now lives in middle Tennessee with his wife and three children.