When you think the world can’t get any worse, sometimes God throws death at you just to remind you it can. What’s worse is, in my case, God seemed to have made me the butt of a joke when he even made death something ironic. I’m rather sure that I’ll never forget when I found out my grandfather, Frankie, died. After the funeral of my close friend Ibrahim, on a cliché rainy day, riding home in a car so dark and gloomy like someone had sucked the soul out, I had begun analyzing my life. Death scared me, and I hoped I wouldn’t have to cope with it again. Someone should have noticed in the car when my mother sobbed and shook that something was wrong despite the fact that we had just returned from a funeral. Entering my home with a huge weight on my shoulder, I felt like I was suddenly crushed under a burden heavier than Atlas. My mother looked at me with these eyes that told me everything I needed to hear before she spoke a word.
“Boys, you know your grandfather has been sick for a week or so now-”
My mother’s words choked off before she could finish her sentence as she began to weep deeper than the willows. Attempting to recompose herself she continued,
“Your grandfather passed away earlier today.”
And that was all I needed, before they were there, clouding my vision. Tears that I never shed during Ibrahim’s funeral, tears, I never shed over so many things, and over so many years, suddenly poured down in dilapidated drops. I had cried before this, but they weren’t the tears I cried that day. As we all stood there, sprinkling our tears onto the kitchen floor, we got a call from my cousin Jerome. My mother could barely take the phone call knowing Frankie was close friends with Jerome. He lived around the same area as us and was driving over to our house as he spoke on the phone. I dreaded him coming, knowing the melancholy that would come with.
On that day, I figured out how death forges a connection between people. I never was too attached to my cousin Jerome, who was ahead of me in his years with his own family and such. I sensed him though, when he pulled up to the house. I somehow knew to walk outside and ignore my shoes. There he stood, leaning on his work car arms crossed and he looked at me. Walking towards him, the composure I had suddenly dropped. Before I knew it I was in his arms and we were crying together. He stroked the back of my head as I sobbed, wracked with pain and sorrow, into his sweater. I never really hugged my cousin before, but that day, crying together in the rain, I knew if he hadn’t hugged me in the middle of that sidewalk I would have been in so much more pain.
Events moved quickly after that. I don’t remember days or when things took place. I can barely recall if I was supposed to go to school. Before I knew what was happening around me, I was in North Carolina where my grandfather lived before he died. Events still whizzed by and my confusion only increased as I stumbled through life dealing with grief. Then my arrival at my grandparent’s house encroached upon my bubble of self absorbed thought. The significance of that event wouldn’t stand out to anyone but my family. That land I placed my foot on when I left the car was what my brother described as Frankie’s “kingdom”. That’s an understatement for me. The land was his soul, and as I walked, it radiated through me reminding me of him. People were around me, but I only went through the motions. Giving hugs, saying words barely formed in my head, and just living through it. I continued to stumble though this life flipped upside down, feeling intoxicated because of a drink called sorrow. Leaning on the door frame, I gazed over the room Frankie set up for his grandchildren, my cousins and brothers, to stay in whenever we came to visit. I laid in one of the beds and rocked myself back and forth, hoping to escape to my dreams where maybe it would be better, but Morpheus, the god of dreams, must have been afraid of my tears that day because not even he delivered me dreams.
We stayed at the house for hours, and memories continued to flow over me. Weekends when I’d sit in front of his old TV playing Nintendo 64 and he’d sit and watch, smiling. The weekend when my parents left my older brother and I to go to Disneyland and Frankie made the experience bearable. Sitting in his car, which I can’t remember for the life of me what type, as he gave me gum, and discussed the finer things in life he always wanted and how he would someday buy a farm and get me horse. The horse would always bring a smile to my face. I was pulled from my reminiscence when a commotion outside the room bought me back to reality. Few times have I seen things in my life happen to my mother; remembering that scene that was unfolding still makes my throat clench. There she was on the floor, hysterical, my dad holding on to her hands trying to help her back to her feet. It was like a living metaphor as my father tried to pull her up from the more comfortable floor of grief. She fell twice, and each time my heart dropped with her.
Eventually, I lost track of the downward spiraling episodes of this phase of my life. My feet guided me places that I wasn’t cognizant of. My mind was set on the idea that somehow when I got home to New York I would be okay, so it suffered through it. We had plans to stay at my grandparent’s house, but my mother couldn’t do it. Being there only bought her more grief. I know it bought my thoughts to places darker than the depths of hell. Somewhere between being at the house and leaving, my mother asked if I could write a poem for the funeral. I’m known for my poems painting vivid pictures and evoking emotions in people I barely understand, and my mother wanted one of those. My mouth said I could, but my mind had a different agenda. As I sat there in front of my notebook of poems, nothing flowed onto the page. My creative bank was locked, and the key in no conceivable place for me to retrieve. Tears welled up blocking my vision because in my mind, it was like I had nothing to say about him. My poetry, which has always flowed out of me, expressing my feelings, suddenly wasn’t there. I felt like I was still at the butt of God’s joke.
A day or maybe two passed by, and the funeral was a daunting task I had to wake up to. There’s a block in my memory, but I remember few events from the funeral. First, the sounds of gospel spirituals sung, at a funeral for my grandfather who was not a religious man. The soft red carpet down the aisle I felt when I fell and cried hysterically. The salt of my tears and the slight flare of anger as my brother read his poem about Frankie, that deep down I wish I wrote. The ringing in my ears as gun shots fired because my grandfather was a veteran. I remember my mother on the floor crying in front of the open coffin of my grandfather. Finally, I remember as I stood in a line, waiting to see my grandfather, decrepit, in an open coffin, dreading each step I took towards it. Then, as I stared at his face I saw a man I didn’t recognize and I felt deep anger. Makeup, and whatever else, defiled the face of my grandfather, with a forced smile on his face. Why? To look good for God? Why had they changed the man I loved and respected in his final resting? There I stood, feeling once again like the victim of God’s joke.
The rest didn’t matter to me. So many formalities and other things that didn’t hold any value to me occurred. At the cemetery, I slowly stalked the graves surrounding the new one my grandfather rested in. My cousin’s and I looked at grave stones recognizing some of the names. Elders whispered our relationships behind us.
“That was your great uncle.” or “She was your 2nd cousin, honey.”
Yet all I heard, despite my relation to them, were names that meant little or nothing compared to Frankie’s. We returned to my grandparent’s house, but I didn’t ride with my direct family. Instead I rode with two of my cousin’s and my aunt. I was afraid to travel with my family because I knew what my façade of composure I built would break when I even heard a whimper from my mother. When we arrived back at Frankie’s “kingdom”, it was a distinctly different experience from when we visited earlier. My cousin’s, my brothers, and I, all walked around the land and reminisced together this time. We’re all very close so I felt comfortable, like they were my safety blanket protecting me from breaking down again. We all stopped at his car, the car I sat in as he told me about the horse he’d always buy me, and we discussed, just like Frankie would, the finer things in life, the future, and the farm he always wanted.
We continued to talk and walk until we stumbled on my grandma in her room that she shared with Frankie. She was sifting through some of his stuff. As we all stood there watching her, she told us,
“Boys, these things don’t mean much now. Why don’t you all take something, you know, to remember him.”
As we stared at the belongings of our grandfather, we realized they were pieces of our past, things we were all too familiar with. The necklace we all played with at some point. His hats that that got me started with my obsession with hats. Even the many watches he always wore. One thing stood out to me though, something I’d definitely never seen before. There on the bed, making a noise I now know well, were his dog tags. I picked them up and I immediately knew what I wanted. Pulling it over my neck, Frankie’s experiences in the war that he never told me seemed to wash over me. I imagined him in trenches somewhere, biting on the dog tag or holding it in his hand like I do. The dag tag was meant for me. I knew that, and everyone else did too.
Things still aren’t the same after his death. When moving down to North Carolina, I knew it suddenly would be worse. Being down here would always remind me of him, just like the dog tag around my neck that I never take off. Through the whole experience I learned many things about myself, my grandfather, and how God works in mysterious ways. I questioned him through the whole experience, but he simply smiled down on me knowing sometime I would understand. It took me a while, but I did. I understood that you can’t take life for granted, ever. People may think they understand what it means, but until they are directly affected, to a point where they question their own very strong belief, they don’t really know. I still regret many things, like never writing that poem, the guilt I still feel for forgetting constantly to call him while he was sick, and never hearing his iconic, “Hey man!” as I walked into his house when we moved down south. Looking back on my childhood, I know he always valued me as his grandson.