"Well, Josh, we lost our pal."
That's what my grandfather said, apropos of nothing, as we were sitting on the couch after my grandmother's funeral.
The funeral was a relatively upbeat affair, as far as these things went. My grandmother was an aggressively positive person, and in her honor, we tried to keep it light. There was no shortage of funny memories to recount, certainly.
For example, it was her job to shout "HO HO HO" at midnight on Christmas Eve, signaling to my sister and I that Santa had left the building, so we could quit pretending to sleep, bolt down the stairs, and tear paper off of things. Even though my father, grandfather and uncle all had actual deep voices, my grandmother really relished pitching down her voice as low as she could possibly make it (spoiler alert: not very), and shouting AS LOUD AS POSSIBLE (spoiler alert: I am the way I am for a reason).
My grandmother also invented riffing, scout's honor. She stayed up late one night watching "Halloween," and then recounted every detail of the movie to us the next night at dinner, barely able to stop herself from falling out of her chair laughing. She found the whole movie ridiculously hysterical, from the fact that people were hiding from a bloodthirsty killer in a basement ("Haven't these people ever heard of front doors?"), to the scene where the killer gets a coat hanger jabbed in his eye, and keeps going ("Why doesn't he pull it out? Is he saving it to hang up his laundry later?").
I even managed to bring down the house doing her Donald Duck impression, which cannot really be conveyed via the written word. If you ever see me, ask me to do it for you. You'll probably agree that while it it isn't technically very good, it really conveyed Donald's spirit.
So we survived the funeral, and then some. We were happy to celebrate her memory, happy to be together as a family, and happy that she was free of the pain that evil, punk-ass, Swayze/Jobs/Grandmother-killing S.O.B. called Pancreatic Cancer had put her through.
Oh, she put up a solid fight for a few months. None of us were under the delusion that she was going to beat it, her included, but she had a fair amount of good days, and we were all grateful for that. But the law of diminishing returns was in full effect, and eventually, she was just A Person In A Bed. A person in pain in a bed. Moaning about long-gone relatives, arguments never had, and whatever else her dying, painkiller-addled brain was inflicting upon her.
And while, soup to nuts, the journey from diagnosis to funeral was a quick one in the grand scheme of things, there seemed to be a generous amount of time where She Was Still Her, and a relatively short amount of time where She Totally Wasn't.
Having lost relatives to Parkinson's and Alzheimer's, I was all too familiar with the "They Totally Weren't" part of the equation. The trips to the nursing home to look at someone sitting in a chair, not moving or making eye contact. The stilted, one-sided conversations. It was a parody of human interaction, but we all went through the motions, because the motions were easy. It's the emotions that were the pain in the ass.
Emotions were very much a pain in the ass for my grandfather. He was by no means a cold man. He was generous in heart and spirit, lent a helping hand to whoever needed it, and loved his family more than anything else in the entire world. He loved a good laugh (Bill Cosby's routine about Fernet Branca DESTROYED him), loved a good meal, and more importantly, loved to make sure that you loved a good meal. That you loved several good meals. If they all happened to occur in one sitting, all the better.
But he was not the sort of person to say, "You know what? I'm sad." He was not the sort of person who took kindly to a hug from another man, even if that man happened to be his grandson. And he was the sort of person who would say something like, "Well, Josh, we lost our pal," a few hours after his wife was lowered into the earth. It was a statement heartbreaking in what it said, and what it didn't say.
What it said was heartbreaking, because they were pals. Above all else, my grandmother and grandfather were great pals. The way they joked with each other, the way he could make her blush with a raised eyebrow, the way he listened to her when she was talking about something as simple as a trip to the supermarket...They were each other's best friend. And she was our family's best friend. She was our cheerleader, our ringleader, our Mémé.
What it didn't say is that my grandfather had no earthly clue what to do without her. We all sort of knew this, to an extent. On the rare occasions that my grandmother would leave town for a significant stretch of time, my grandfather didn't, what you would call, "thrive." He'd forget to eat, he didn't really want to do much of anything, and just sort of remained in a walking stasis until she came back.
I mean, he still functioned as a person. He worked, he interacted with people, he called the Red Sox "Bums," but a piece of his soul was frozen in carbonite, waiting to be thawed the second she walked in the door.
Once, when she returned from a week in London with my mom and aunt, he hung a sign on the door to their house that said simply, "I missed you (Yes I did)". That summed up his love for her to a T. Plain-spoken, without an ounce of fussiness or sappiness, but very, VERY emphatic.
And then, she was gone. And then, that part of his soul that waited for her to come home had frozen over forever. And then, over the course of the next month, we watched him fade away.
We went over to his (not "their,") house for dinner one night. He made ziti and meat sauce, a meal that he and my grandmother had served a million zillion times to us. And it was difficult to pinpoint what was wrong with the meal, but there was something wrong with the meal. The pasta was overcooked. The sauce was watery, and lacked seasoning. But that wasn't it.
We ate in the dining room instead of the kitchen. Which was also wrong. The dining room was for holiday meals only. The kitchen was for supper. This, assuredly, was not a holiday. And the blinds had been drawn, but it was only, like 5pm, so the setting sun seeped into the room, throwing weird shadows everywhere. But that wasn't it.
I can't stress to you all enough how much my grandfather loved to feed people. He worked at a diner in downtown Hartford for damn near three-quarters of his natural life. He was a cook in the Army, fed thousands of our soldiers in WWII. And he would tell stories about how he would sneak chocolate to the local kids wherever he was stationed. He was a proud Italian man, and the way that he showed that pride was by feeding people.
But this meal. This meal said everything that "We lost our pal" didn't. This meal tasted like the life my grandfather was living without her. A life of going through the motions so he didn't have to go through the emotions. A life without seasoning, without light, without taste. A life without her.
That meal was the hardest part of that whole year for me. That meal was what signaled to me that she was really gone, and he wasn't going to be too far behind.
My grandfather passed away on Thanksgiving, almost a month to the day after my grandmother left us. I have a theory that he actually died that morning, but then realized that he had to go over to my mother's house, clear away some shrubbery, hang up the outdoor lights in anticipation of Christmas, and make sure that we had two kinds of stuffing for dinner that night. Once that was all taken care of, then he could officially die.
And it was awful for us, awful for us in ways that Grief Science is still struggling to quantify. But the fact is, even though he was walking and talking, even though he could carry on a conversation, and even though he wasn't a Man In A Bed or a Man In A Chair, he went from being Still Him to Totally Not Him. And that was tough to watch. But I'm sure it was infinitely tougher on him
Because he lost his pal.
And he missed her. Yes he did.