Wednesday, October 12, 2011

The Hardest Hue

I love this time of year. Take all of the usual love songs to fall, add a big scoop of pumpkin pie and a hot mug of cider. Mix until just combined and that about sums up how I feel. I have nothing new to add to this recipe so I won't even try. I will say that sometimes I'm not feeling all the red so I'll substitute a little turquoise. It's okay. As anyone who has ever read the comments thread of an online recipe can tell you, red and turquoise are no more different from one another than butter and the beaks of 6 baby penguins. You can swap one for the other at any point without significantly altering the results.

I also hate this time of year. I have to start running indoors. At the gym. On a treadmill. There are people there and even though I keep running I don't get any further from them. Outside I can be reasonably certain that if I have the misfortune of an interpersonal encounter it will be satisfyingly brief. Not so at the gym. And the gym is full of troubled souls. When I look just the right way in the mirror on the treadmill I can see all of us and I want to go down the line and go completely Oprah on every one of them. It would sound like this:

Ma'am, your work out would be a lot more convincing if you weren't performing it in what appears to be your bra and underpants and full make-up. And, if you were actually running. And if the treadmill were on. And you, Sir, I can smell your feet through the normally secure odor-border of socks and shoes. That's either a medical issue or a hygiene issue. Either way, people have been killed for lesser offenses. Or so I hear. That's not a threat. Just to be clear. Just in case my parole officer...never mind. Miss, how old are you? Twenty? Eleven? Whatever. You can slow down. We can all see you're very fast. How great for you. I used to be fast. See all this? This is you in a thousand years. Sobering, isn't it? Not so smug now, huh? And you, Lady of About My Age, you can relax too. You're going to get bursitis. It's okay to eat a piece of cake on your daughter's birthday. You don't have to punish your body for an hour the next morning. Sure, the old grey mare she ain't what she used to be but you really need to move past that and be nicer to yourself. And, hey, I have those shoes. Don't you love them? And we're wearing the same top. And shorts. And...wait a These mirrors are really clean. I wonder what they use.
But even if the weather and the dark mornings didn't drive me inside I think the Halloween decorations would. On my favorite route someone has elected to string up disturbingly realistic effigies from their trees. The first time I saw them I caught my breath as they swayed menacingly before me while I chugged and huffed up the hill in the dawn hours. I got literal chills even though I was pretty hot and sweaty by that point in my run.

And these poor souls have been up since the end of September. I don't understand loving death that much. So much that you have to get a head start in peacocking your depraved notions of folly. What drives that? You know what, don't tell me. I won't understand.

I've never liked it but it didn't bother me as much before my grandfather died. He died on October 20th and I was grieving his death at a time when reminders of death were everywhere. I would drive around my neighborhood, sobbing, and have to quell the urge to run up to the houses and tear down the effigies and the tombstones and the skeletons. Now, six years later, the destructive urge has passed but the churning in my gut on seeing these displays remains.

I didn't go to my grandfather's funeral. Big mistake. Don't miss the funeral, Kids. Even if you're pregnant. Even if you're in shock. Even if people you trust convince you to stay home. You should not spend your grandfather's funeral sitting in a dark cantina on the other side of the country. While he gets a full military funeral you shouldn't be staring out the window at the driving rain while a tinny and frantic version of "La Cucaracha" plays on the sound system. It will make you sick to your stomach to type it out even years later. Go. Just go.

It was Thanksgiving when I went to my grandparents' house for the first time after he died. I love that house. I've already written some about the time I spent living there. One of the things I loved most about that house at that time was how absolutely quiet it is there. Between the acoustic ceiling and the thickly padded wall-to-wall and the heavy drapes you couldn't hear an elephant running from one end of the house to the other unless you put a bell on him first. Bumping into a fellow housemate as you turned the corner was a regular occurrence.

Which is probably why I spent the entire week expecting him to turn up at any moment. I thought I'd see him come padding around the corner into the kitchen to warm up his coffee in the microwave. He'd absently say, "Hi hi," and then disappear just as noiselessly until his coffee was cold again. Or maybe he was out and if I just watched out the wall of floor-to-ceiling windows in the family room I'd be able to see his car turning into the driveway any second.

At some point I found myself in my grandparents' walk-in closet. Just looking at his clothes. The beautifully pressed shirts and slacks. The elegant sport coats and sweaters. He was so trim and tidy all his life and his closet reflected this orderly nature. I was startled when I heard a voice behind me say, "You're looking for him, aren't you?"

"It's okay," my grandmother said, "I do it too." We cried almost silently together for a while. She looked frail and tired. I felt frail and tired.

When Thor and I got the kids into the rental car to head to airport I was already wrung out. Leaving my grandmother had been painful and draining. I thought I was too tired to do anything but sleep but as we backed down the driveway I felt my throat tighten and a rising sense of panic. I started wailing, "He never showed up! I kept thinking he might show up!"

Maybe it seems like a lot of anguish for a grandparent. Grandparents die. Unless things go horribly wrong you should bury all of your grandparents and you should be prepared to do so from the time you can really grasp the concept of death. But I felt completely unmoored by my grandfather's death.

Maybe because he had saved my life. Maybe because one day, on the brink of true despair I had made a solitary effort to reach out to someone and dialed his number and said something so alarming that he drove 5.5 hours to collect me within 12 hours of hanging up the phone. I have never doubted that this gesture alone changed the course of my life. And he had remained a kind of talisman to me ever since. And now he was gone. I knew I'd be okay in time but it hurt like hell in the moment. Even though it wasn't that unexpected for a man in his 80s to die and even though things were happening the way they're meant to happen.

Even now there are moments when the wound is so shockingly fresh that it feels like a brand new injury. These moments are mercifully infrequent but exquisitely painful. And I had one of those moments when I was chugging up that hill and saw those bodies swaying in the trees like some kind of perverse, evil fruit. I was instantly transported to that awful Halloween, that dank and musty cantina, the impossibly orderly closet and the long ride to the airport.

So I ran faster up the hill until it peaked and leveled and turned me toward home and then I slowed down a little. I shook out the creepiness and agitation at a red light while cars filled with drowsy early birds ignored me. And by the time my foot hit the front porch the gaping wound of a few miles back had closed again and I had mostly moved on to mentally prepping for my day. But I recalled this poem just before I walked through the door:

Nature's first green is gold
Her hardest hue to hold.
Her early leaf's a flower;
But only so an hour.
Then leaf subsides to leaf.
So Eden sank to grief,
So dawn goes down to day.
Nothing gold can stay.
-Robert Frost


  1. I never met one of my grandfathers, and hardly knew the other. It's my hope that my kids will have a similar heartbreak when they lose their grandfather. I know it sounds kind of weird to hope such a thing, while you speak of your sadness, but I imagine you missed him so much because he enriched your life at least in some way.

    I don't like the dark side of Halloween, either, though likely for different reasons. We will not support that part of it.

  2. I think I must be getting sick. It suddenly hurts to swallow.

    Simply beautiful, my friend.

  3. I don't even know how to respond to this because I had one of those Grandpas too and he has been gone for 11 years. My heart is in my throat and you have brought back just who he was to me again. Thanks, Z. Thanks even for the tears.


  4. So, so beautiful. So glad Cecily posted this for all to share. You brought to mind the year all four of my grandparents died, yes, the same year. I really never appreciated how difficult that was for me; I was so concerned for my parents' grief and adjustment.

    But your metaphors and similes, and, and, and -- all that other stuff? Oh my word. So lovely.

  5. Thanks for the feedback, Friends. Budgets, that must have been an awful year for your family and I know Cecily experienced a similar year. Cheryl, I do know what you mean. Sounds like Kate does too.