Friday, July 23, 2010


As filmmakers and film bloggers, we tend to shy away from rambling on about what's going on in our lives; first of all, who really cares?, and secondly, isn't that what twitter is for? That said, I hope you'll forgive me a few paragraphs while I talk about my grandfather. He died this past Sunday, at the age of seventy-two.

He was a difficult man. He was stubborn and ornery, and for a good many years, he subsided on a diet of cigarettes, beer, and ice cream. I'm not exaggerating very much; sometimes, sure, he'd ask my grandmother to make him something or run to the store. Let's say, for example, that he asked for some fish from Arthur Treacher's. She'd buy him the fish, he would take two or three bites, and then throw the rest out-- much to her chagrin. Other than that, he wouldn't eat, save for a bowl of ice cream.

He smoked a carton of cigarettes on most days; the dark wooden ashtray he kept next to his blue-cushioned rocking chair would be stacked with butts. The very sight of it would make me nauseous. And as for the beer, he'd go through three or four cases a week. While I have memories of my grandfather, while I don't have a shortage for personal anecdotes-- some remembered, some that I've forgotten but that have since become one of those family myths that get retold precisely when it's the most embarrassing time to do so-- the thing I remember most is the continuity of his regimen. The visual image that comes to mind when I think of my grandfather is always of him sitting in his stained blue chair, wearing two or three heavy flannel shirts even in the summer, a beer in one hand and a cigarette in another, the ashtray heaping full, watching the Travel Channel. Always, always, always watching the Travel Channel.

As he drank more heavily, he gave my grandmother more hell, and to make a long story shorter, they made the Lockhorns look like Romeo and his Juliet. Not that my grandfather was ever physically violent. He was intractable in his opinions, even and especially if they had no basis in fact; he would crank up the heat in the middle of the summer, complaining of phantom chills; he would insult her, call her names, yell at her; he seldom bathed; he was seldom sober and thus very seldom was he lucid.

And then, one day, he stopped drinking (and smoking). It wasn't too long after Mary and I got married that he was admitted to the hospital and the doctors told him, if you don't stop now, you're going to die and soon. And so he stopped. That old wooden ashtray was removed and he got a nicotine inhaler, which he gnawed on almost constantly. The lack of beer made him more talkative, more aware, more lucid, but only slightly: he was stone-cold sober when he told us how he and his brother escaped Nazi Germany by hiding in caves and outrunning a tornado, this despite the fact that he was born in 1938 in Michigan.

I had hoped, when he had stopped drinking, that he would soften; somewhere in my brain, I had the idea that those qualities that made him hard to get along with weren't really his qualities, that they were the fault of the bottle. I think part of it is the romantic notion that there was no way my grandmother would have fallen for such an ornery son-of-a-gun. So, I was slightly dismayed when all those unpleasant traits and behaviours become much worse in those last few years of his life: he became more stubborn, neglected his hygiene more drastically, was prone to more outbursts of temper. And his poor health and dietary habits made him at once more helpless and more demanding, and thus more exasperating.

As I said before, a difficult man. Never very easy to get along with. And I'd love to tell you about the time he cut a leech off of my foot with his pocket-knife, to show you those moments of tender kindness that might redeem him in your eyes, that might convince you to love him as we loved him. But I'm not going to do that. We loved him, but it wasn't in spite of him; it wasn't all due to some tiny moment or memory of a time when he was acting out-of-character.

This reminds me of a teacher I had in high school who said his wife often asked him why he loved her, and he always replied that he couldn't give her a reason. For if his love was contingent on some quality she possessed, what would happen to his love when she possessed it no longer? If he loved her for her beauty, what happens when it fades? If he loved her for her intellect, what happens when she slid into senility. For it to really be love, he said, it couldn't be love for a reason. (A year or two after my graduation, I heard that she divorced him; it absolutely wrecked him.)

I don't know about that, exactly, as it makes love sound kind of mystical and far-away. I think we choose to love people; I think we invest ourselves in them emotionally, that we choose to forgive or exaggerate their faults or their assets. At the same time, I can't tell you the reason I chose to love my grandfather; I can't tell you why, as he got more difficult to get along with, I did not allow his place in my heart to be overcome with the sort of vicious apathy that resides where my love for my mother once did. I can't say why I loved my grandfather, only that the same qualities that made me so angry with him must also, perversely, be the same qualities that inspired my affection and, as of late, my grieving.

The way he died inspired the same mixture of feelings. His nose began bleeding and would not stop. My grandmother told him to go to the hospital, to get it cauterized. He refused. No matter how many times she asked, no matter how stringently she insisted, he remained as stubborn as ever, and he continued bleeding for the next twenty-four hours. At any time, he could have went to the hospital to get it taken care of. By the time he finally came around and allowed himself to be admitted for treatment, he had lost over four pints of blood. It was too late to save him.

My grandfather, who had somehow survived enough lung and kidney damage to fill an entire cancer ward, bled to death out of sheer stubbornness. That was the kind of man he was.

I miss him.

1 comment:

Deadbeatatdawn said...

Beautifully told.

My grandfather was similar, only a little more "difficult."