Thursday, October 21, 2010

The Passing Of My Irish-Scottish Grandmother And A Partial Retelling Of The Kilroy Family Misery And The Miracle That Never Came

My grandfather left a voicemail on my cell phone today. This is a big deal because it's the first time my grandfather's called me since I was in high school. But my grandmother passed away on Monday, so there's reason to talk.

The story goes back to when my dad's side of the family fell apart. I was 18 when the tides of fury split the iceberg and my family (along with one other family) floated away on our lone ice block. Harsh words were exchanged through a vibrant collection of mediums and the great divide not only grew, but it finally plateaued years later to where everyone just accepted things as they were, whether it made them feel sad, angry or nothing. We didn't acknowledge the other side of the family and they didn't acknowledge us. In a two year slide, I went from seeing my Irish grandparents weekly to not seeing them at all. It was tragic and miserable and terrible and crazy and stupid, as all family falling outs are, but, as one of my dad's racer friends used to say: it's just one of them deals.

The saddest part of this is that I pass my Irish grandparents' street every time I go to my mouthy Italian grandmother's house. I see their house every time I get on the freeway to drive East, West or North. I drove by their house on my way to and from college. However, it was never a "fuck them" passing. It was more of a "Why would I stop there?" It's like driving by a childhood friend's more than a decade later. You just don't think to stop. The time of casual drop-ins has long been forgotten.

But, up until I was 18, I really did see my grandparents an absurd amount and they were perfect in every available detail. They taught me most card games I know as well as the importance of charity. My grandpa made the best chocolate pudding I've ever had and he always made it when we'd stay up late or couldn't sleep. He really wouldn't make it unless it was dark out. My grandma inspired my habit of saving important newspaper headlines. She pulled out a bag one night of all the newspapers she had saved, from Kennedy's assassination to the moon landing, as I recall. They were flawless grandparents. I loved them uncontrollably then and, even in the years of distance, I thought of them often and missed how things were.

Anyway, this morning, my grandfather called me to ask if I’d read scripture at my grandmother’s funeral this Saturday. He asked my brother first, as my brother randomly stopped by their house and tried to fix things in the family a little better last year. But my brother explained his refusal to us as something along the lines of “I don’t want to read words that I don’t understand for a religion I don’t believe in to people who don't care if I'm there or not.”

And it was hard to consider otherwise.

So, when my grandfather called, asking me if I wanted to do it, I thought of what my brother said. I talked to my dad about it, who, only up until two months ago, swore he wasn't even going to either of his parents' funerals.

As we both stood solemnly in the kitchen, my dad asked me softly, “Would you be comfortable being a pallbearer?”

“I can carry a casket, but I can’t speak," I told him.

And my father nodded, exhausted and beaten, the wear of the misery years weighing on him. He grieved the loss of his parents years ago, so it wasn't sadness exactly. It was just the great weight that comes with family and death.

When I got the news of my grandmother's passing on Monday night, I got drunk on gin and green tea and wondered what had become of the years. I wondered of the epic falling out my Irish Catholic family endured when I had just legally become a man. It was as if it was a natural transition, like now that I was an adult, I wasn't allowed to keep my imaginary friends, who just happened to be my entire dad's side of the family (save for one family and a second cousin once removed). And it was a lot of people. There are so many people on that side of the family that they have their own annual golf tournament in Las Vegas every year. Seriously, the parties I attended at my Irish grandparents' house as a kid rivaled the best parties I went to in high school. No joke.

So, when I was just about to graduate high school, my father and his many brothers began planning my grandparents' 50th Anniversary. My grandparents said, "We have nothing to celebrate as parents," because there was a gigantic distance between the brothers and their sister. In fact, I didn't see my aunt and her family from kindergarten until junior high when an uncle died. But, anyway, skeletons left the closets, demons flew out of people and family ghosts came around for a spin. The whole thing spiraled out of control and snowballed from there and, soon, I was down an entire family tree. It used to be this magnificently lush family tree with my mom's side big but my dad's side massive. But then the heavy side burned with the weight of the world and we were left with half a tree.

And, as it was happening then, I let myself be miserable about it instead of stepping in. It wasn't my place, I thought. I remember, when I was 17, I found myself sick to my stomach with worry in bed on a school night. I prayed to God and asked Him to keep my family together. It was an empty prayer, as God knows I only pray when I’m at the end of my rope. The only time I’ve prayed since then was when my grandfather (mom's father) was dying from everything except for AIDS, it seemed like. And, that time, I told myself I was praying to an empty room. So, I haven’t prayed since. The most God gets out of me these days is when something horrendously ironic happens and I look at the sky and scoff, like, "Well played, God." But that’s the most God gets out of me: an acknowledgment of irony.

See, that's the thing. My dad’s side of the family fell apart just as I was becoming a man. And I waited for it to pass and I held my faith in adults, the gatekeepers of all there was. The historians, as all adults are, relied on the past and present for nothing and were given nothing for the future. I said goodbye to people that I had seen weekly, monthly at most.

When I got home from work today, I felt like I opened the front door slower than usual and was greeted quieter than usual by my parents, who were watching an old movie with the fire going.

Later, tonight after I had made myself a meal of comfort food, I called my grandpa to let him know that I couldn't speak at Grandma's funeral. He said he understood and he spoke in a way that broke my heart. It wasn't the voice of the crisp, fun-loving man I parted ways with at 18. It was the sound of a ruined man. I asked how he was doing and he told me about who was coming into town for the funeral. I asked him how he was doing again and he talked about the funeral arrangements. And then I asked him how he was doing a third time and he talked about my grandma. He talked about how he already noticed little things he would miss like asking her to carrying things for him in her purse.

As he spoke, I drank the bottle of Irish whiskey that I keep in my night table, so I could keep my mouth from blurting out, "I'm so sorry for how everything turned out." It's all I wanted to say, though it wouldn't be fair. It wouldn't take back the words said and the actions done. I just wanted him to know that I missed swimming at his house during the summer and having root beer floats with every meal and playing cards in the dining room and, most of all, spending Christmas Eve in their living room with white lights and a kind of serenity that was so fucking pure I couldn't describe it as anything else.

I had stopped by his house on the way home from work yesterday and shook uncontrollably when I knocked on the door. I wanted to see how he was doing and tell him that I was here for anything he needed. But I was still afraid of what I would say if an uncle said a fucking word about me or my family not being around these last few years. Nobody was home, so I wrote a note and left it in the mailbox. And I repeated the closing line of the letter on the phone: "Please let me know if you need anything, and I mean that indefinitely."

My grandfather spoke every word with regret in his voice and our conversation floated into a tender goodbye. He made a point of saying, as quiet and apologetic as it was, "Maybe we'll see each other more after all this." He paused and added, "I'd really like that," as if he was talking to himself and counting the ways he wished he had changed things on his fingers.

But there's no way I could speak at Saint Norbert's, the church where I learned to like and dislike religion (for myself). I attended Bible camp one summer and the church carnival every October. And, also, sitting in a Catholic church when you're nine is fucking terrifying. They had the entire tale of the crucifixion in stained glass. Do you know what that's like to see when you're barely old enough to understand that trees are responsible for air? I'm not even sure I understood long division and I had to figure out why all these people nailed this guy to wood after all he did was tell everyone to "just be cool?" It was a lot to handle, I tell you.

I saw the good and bad of God in my grandfather. When I told him that I decided to be a vegetarian at the age of 10, he yelled at me a wrathful lecture about going against the will of God. But, also around that time, he had taken me with his church community service group Corizon to distribute food, clothing, tools and toys to the poorest of poor in Mexico. At that age, it's more of an adventure and it doesn't make you sick to your stomach yet (because what the fuck do you know about the poverty line?). In fact, I thought it was cool that their houses were made of stray wood and tarps because it made them all seem like forts. I came home thinking my family was wealthy, yes, but also really, really boring. But, throughout my childhood, my grandfather organized events to feed the poor and put in his time helping the locals, all in the name of the church.

Over the years, I saw my grandparents only a handful of times. The last time I visited them was May 2004 when my grandfather had a heart attack. And, again, they lived between me and the nearest Del Taco. I didn't see my grandparents again until my grandma was in the hospital this August, and that whole weekend of visiting is another story in itself. It was the mighty return of the black sheep flock who one uncle once deemed "a family of traitors" and said we'd probably turn our backs on each other one day. We don't show up to something, somebody's pissed we're not there. We show up to something, somebody's pissed we're there. Shit, I don't even know if we'll sit with the family at the funeral this Saturday

But, anyway, over the years, one by one, my siblings and I acknowledged that we had let our hearts drift and we were fine with it. When my second cousin once removed, the very legendary Tom Mace (who is now 46, but honestly hasn't aged since he was 30), came into town this past January, I told him that I thought of my grandparents as high school friends I had lost touch with. It was regretful, sure, but there were no hard feelings as well as no interest in picking up the phone and calling.

Tom said, "Yeah, but they'd sure like to see you."

"Then why don't they call?" my brother asked.

"Yeah," my sister added.

"You know why," Tom said.

And we did. It was because of the Irish's infamous ability to ignore everything and stone-cold silence it or let you know to your face that you were a fucking let-down. If there's anything to be said about Irish Catholic families, it's that they don't fuck around and they refused be two-faced. There's no gossip in Irish Catholic families. If they don't like you, they don't need a segue to tell you that. It'll be blunt and shitty, but it'll be the gravedigger truth. Everything they say behind your back is something they told you to your face first, maybe even several times. They're just repeating it for the masses. And that's the funny thing about the Irish. If they want to talk about how great someone is or how terrible someone is, they'll talk ears off. But, if they're asked to sit down and talk things out in a reasonable and thoughtful manner, they'll say bury it or leave it for dead.

But it was also because of my grandparents' faith. It was. Instead of calling us and trying to fix the family, they waited for "the miracle." When my brother stopped by their house to try and bridge the rift, my grandma said it was a "miracle" instead of saying "my grandson took it upon himself to try and make things better." They waited for their miracle and thanked God instead of my brother. It wasn't a big mystery to me why things hadn't improved. I certainly didn't make any contact in the last five years. The last thing I said to either of my grandparents was in an e-mail where the entire last sentence was just the singular word "Fuck."

Now, I am certainly not making the case that religion is bad. It's not. Religion is religion and it's up to people to take what they want or need from it. Some of the best things that have happened in this country have been because of religion and some of the worst things have been too. It's a full spectrum. And, in this case, my grandparents depended on it like a drug. My grandfather had to ask his priest if it was ok to attend his own son's wedding if it wasn't in a Catholic church. My grandfather also lost his goddamn mind (as he sometimes had a temper and ready mouth) when he found out that my siblings and I attended an Episcopalian church with our other grandparents whenever we spent the weekend there (just as we attended Catholic mass when we spent the weekend at his house). In the screaming match that followed, my grandfather told my dad that he wasn't Irish, which, I have to tell you, in this family...that's a fucking burn right there.

Actually, you know that scene in The Sandlot, when Ham has that shit-talking session with one of the uniform boys and he says, "You play ball like a girl?" The other kids react like it's the worst thing they've ever heard, but, since you're not part of this insanely kick-ass neighborhood baseball league, you think it's pretty silly. It's like that. Saying somebody ain't Irish in that family is the end-all. My dad asked his father not to attend our school plays for a while.

And that was my first understanding of family trouble on my dad's side. But, back then, I just let it pass because I knew it would work out. A decade later, when something new and awful came around, it didn't work out, I guess.

Tonight, years after everything went to shit, I thought about it all not working out and went to an old haunt, the Chapman parking garage, and smoked a cigarette, listening to jazz on the radio and looking out over the flat city with the gaping distance between the stars and the lights. As Peggy Lee lulled up some swanky songs about drinking, I thought about how I used to come to the parking garage when I was 20, when my Irish family was officially absent from my life and everything seemed black and white. I remember smoking cigarettes and drinking from a flask at the top level of the parking garage wanting to be overwhelmed by the world. This was rather difficult since you're so sure of everything at that age. When I was 20, I wanted the complexities to destroy me and everything to seem beautifully and impossibly open, but, again, that's pretty hard when a bike ride is all you need to be happy. You want to be confused, conflicted, mesmerized and wholly stunned by the enormity of the world, because you don't want the world to seem so easy and stupid.

After that, I drove around aimlessly before coming home and reading a chapter or two of The Fountainhead while taking a bubble bath (I can't remember the last time I took a bubble bath, by the way). Then I retired to my bedroom to write fiction but all that came out was this, a half-thoughtful observance of an Irish Catholic family that crumbled into oblivion for reasons that will never be understood or revisited enough to explain them.

And this ain't no Irish blessing.


James said...

Beautifully done, lad. The best thing you've ever written.

Tara said...

I am really sorry. This is the most I have ever heard you talk about yourself. If you need a friend to talk to, you know you have it.

jason daniel said...

You really revealed quite a bit was brutally honest and raw.

It's hard for me to even think of sarcasm in an entry like this, but the thought of you extending your legs in a bubble bath seemed like a challenge.

I hope to talk to you in person about some of the dynamics here. But really well done sir.