Monday, June 23, 2003

Michael's post today got me thinking about death, and how it relates to me.

I've been very fortunate in that I've only had one person close to me pass from this mortal coil, my grandfather on my Mom's side. My Dad's Dad died when I was about 5, and his Mom died before I was born, so my Mom's parents have always been my Grandma and Grandpa. Grandpa's the finest, most brilliant man I've ever known. He was the Executive Director of the Overseas Division of the National Council of Churches for a time in the '60s, which included a private audience with the Pope at one point. I'm not Catholic, but how many people get a private audience with the Pope?! He was a Baptist minister for years before that - Mom grew up in, amongst other places, Flint, MI, Montclair, NJ, and the Panama Canal Zone (!!!). After leaving the WCC, he and Grandma ran a retirement home in the suburbs of Boston, MA for a while. In 1981, my Aunt Muffet decided to move to Indiana to be closer to her only sibling, and less than 12 months later, Grandma and Grandpa moved out, too. So I was incredibly blessed to be able to spend lots of time with G&G during my pre- and teenage years. And I needed 'em.

G&G were my refuge from - well, everything. They seemed to understand me in a way my parents didn't (and isn't that often the case with grandparents?). In their first house in North Manchester, the one on Elm Street, they had a little faux-guest room set up for use by the grandkids. I'd often go to their house after school on Friday nights when I was in junior high and sleep over - I could stay down there by myself and stay up late and watch Friday Night Videos (this was pre-cable, folks). Grandpa was a very well-read man, and constantly encouraged me to work my brain; it didn't hurt that they lived a half-block from my beloved public library. He pushed vocabulary, too, and I credit him with mine, which I frankly take pride in (who wants to sound stupid?). He proofread my papers, he talked with me about the books I was reading (both for pleasure and school), and he always was there, taking pride in my accomplishments. That didn't change once I hit high school, though I know it bothered him that I became a bit of a slacker (coasting, getting Bs and Cs when by all rights I should've been a straight-A student). And by then, G&G had cable, which meant endless hours of MTV when I visited, yay!

In late October of 1992, I was back in college for the first time in nearly three years, a fact which made Grandpa very happy. And then one Monday morning, he fell at home. His lung collapsed and filled with fluid. Mind you, Grandpa had never had any health problems - the only medication he took was a daily aspirin, for his high blood pressure. [He was less than 2 weeks away from his 74th birthday.] He was rushed to the hospital. He was there for 6 days, his condition never better than critical. And then, on October 31, 1992, he died.

The doctors never figured out what happened, what caused his lung to collapse and then fill with fluid. The one good thing I can say about Grandpa's death is that it was so sudden - there was no long, drawn out illness and attendant period of mourning (like we're dealing with now with Grandma, who has Alzheimer's and lives in a nursing home). He was very suddenly, in less than 7 days, gone. And I was so angry. We held his memorial service a week later, on what would have been his 74th birthday. I hated it. We had a receiving line, so that his friends could express their condolences to his family, I guess. I stood there, teeth gritted, livid. How dare these people try to tell me that they knew what I was going through, or that they were very sorry for my loss. They didn't know **** [censored as Grandpa always loathed profanity], I thought. I burned with anger all through his memorial; it didn't help that I strongly disliked G&G's pastor, a very new age kind of Brethren woman. I resented her. I resented everyone that day. It had already been a week since his passing, and I had dealt to an extent with it. Now it was all getting raked up again. I'm not sure I've ever been more filled with rage in my life. I spent much of the remainder of the semester drunk, when I wasn't crying (or fuming) my way through my counselling sessions.

Since then, I've never liked Halloween, nor had much use for it; for me, it will always be the day my beloved Grandpa died. But I've slowly been realizing how counterproductive that is. Instead, I should be celebrating Grandpa's full, rich life. And Halloween's just a silly holiday. Why not loosen up a little and enjoy it, rather than acting like I'm sitting shiva every October 31st? So this year, I'm going to do just that. I'll be in D.C. for a bowling tournament, CHIT, and am going to have some ****ing fun. I didn't die. So I'd damned well better live while I can.

And every day I go to work, I look at a picture of Grandpa on my desk. He's getting off a Pan American Orient Airways flight (which should tell you how old the picture is), looking snappy in his suit, and smiling. Every day, sometimes in ways I don't even realize, my Grandpa gives me strength. The best way I can honor his memory is by continually working to achieve my goals and fulfill my potential. And that's just what I'm trying to do, a little bit every day.

Raymond A. Gray, 1918-1992. R.I.P.

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