As the years of your life stack up, you will spend more and more time in a state of bereavement, the people you cherish will be snatched away, their warm glow rendered to a weak dim until it’s done, a sheet pulled over the cold husk of a person who had a profound impact on your very existence and personal constitution and, in the following hours of their passing, you become aligned with friends and family as you fly through a series of days filled with ceremony; the pomp and protocol we use to travel with a corpse from where they passed to where they will be interred. A gathering of mourners from different corners, with different relations, experiences and observations with and on the recently departed.
It’s always a dizzying, overwhelming and surreal state of affairs, the arduous and the joyous, colliding together to form a strong emotional mixer.
At 82 years old my grandfather Joe went out with a bang, having raised eight children with my grandmother Norma in a marriage that stretched over 61 years. They saw 43 grandchildren and 44 great-grandchildren ushered into this world of strife, and they showered each and everyone of us with unconditional love and support, without question or hesitation. And so, as he was swept away, so were we all, into a four-day-long jamboree, celebrating the life of a man after the fact.
From standing over him, shoulder to shoulder in the hospital as he took his final breaths, to meeting around my grandparents’ kitchen table, ironing out the details of a funeral as a horde of pipsqueaks went rip roaring all through the house, to the viewing, when I hugged, held and kissed more people over a seven-hour period then I have in my entire life, to the service, a standing room-only Mass that was followed by the longest processions I have ever witnessed — it was the biggest event of my family’s entire shared history, met with what seemed like all four seasons of the year, accelerated and packed into 96 exhilarating and exhausting hours, from the unusually warm and bright to an-out-of-nowhere pounding thunderstorm to the frigid-cold morning on the cemetery grounds as we walked, more united than ever past the coffin, slinging gelid holy water over the wooden lid before it would be lowered, 6 feet deep.
For the first 18 years of my life on this spinning rock, my grandparents lived but a block away which means, day in and day out, I came and went from their home, the doors of which I never remember being locked, a busy, boisterous household, where my uncle Leo, who has cerebral palsy, was the focal point of my grandparents’ shared life. A pipe fitter by trade, and a union man, my grandfather worked 27 years at the Ford Truck plant, blue-collar to the bone and red-blooded, there was nothing he couldn’t fix and, trust me, he fixed everything for everyone, forever decked out in denim, a carpenter pencil and tire gauge in his leather pocket protector protruding from his shirt pocket rubbing against the broad straps of his suspenders and wearing a wide grin on his face, he was just always there, always present, engaging, pleasant and hilarious. The harshest expletives he was ever known to yell in his big, booming, baritone voice that could often give way to song was “God Bless America,” his personal catchphrase and mantra of sorts.
My memories of my grandfather are so immense and multifarious, I could pull them out and stack them up until they reached the shores of some forbidden planet a billion miles away. He was the most compassionate, legitimately peaceful and accepting man I’ve ever known.
I remember over two decades ago standing on the side of an old country road at dawn with my grandfather, an autumn fog resting on the terrain as we watched a fat, wild turkey go darting through a field that lay out in front of us. “Whew-wee, babe, look at that bird go!” Yeah, “babe” is what he called me, my entire life.
So Joe, thank you, thank you for the tools, the sagacity and the love without end amen. We’ll be seeing you, by and by.