It was an awkward encounter at the beer distributor he owned; I had stopped there to grab some beer for an upcoming game night and there he was, behind the counter, waiting to check my ID. Of course he wouldn’t recognize me; it wasn’t like we had regular visits.
That was the last time I saw my Grandpa Kelly.
He’s my dad’s dad, and that in itself is awkward, because my dad is really my step-dad, and actually he’s not even that anymore because my mom divorced him something like ten years ago. But my biological dad died when I was three, and a few years after my mom married Kelly, he legally adopted me. Since fourth grade, he’s been “daddy.” But we had a volatile relationship, I’ll go as far as to say we hated each other for much of my teenage years, so I always opted out when my family would go to his parent’s house for holidays or visits.
When I would go, Grandpa Kelly didn’t often come out from his room. He was a germ-phobe, had OCD, and oftentimes was pretty uncomfortable to be around. While I always really liked my Grandma Kelly, I didn’t have much of a relationship with her husband. I don’t think my younger brothers did, either. One of the last times I was over there, it was probably in 2002, my dad met me on the front porch, waiting to give me a refresher.
“Don’t mention you have cats. Don’t mention you smoke! Oh god, don’t mention that. Just, you know what? Just don’t talk.”
Because every little thing freaked Grandpa Kelly out. If he knew I had cats, he’d go into cardiac just imagining the trail of feline nastiness I was tracking into his house. This is a man who couldn’t eat from the same peanut jar as his wife.
My dad and I have gotten along fine ever since I’ve lived on my own. When I was 18, he even swallowed his pride and apologized for the nasty things he’d done to me. And I apologized too, because it’s not like I sat around taking that shit. We fought violently at times. Slung some really razor-sharp words at each other. I nearly caused the demise of my parents marriage on more than one occasion. (That would come later, and it was long over due.)
My dad was the only one who didn’t shut me out during my pregnancy. He’s never made me feel unwelcome in his home. His name is on my birth certificate. He’s the only father I ever really had.
So I felt it was only right to go to the funeral home on Sunday, where my Grandpa Kelly was laid out.
I met my brother Corey in the parking lot.
“I’m probably only going to stay for a half hour or so,” I said, figuring that would be enough time for the black sheep. Aside from my dad, I hadn’t seen any of his family in almost ten years. In fact, his younger brother has three children that I know nothing about. The youngest I’ve never even met. And he’s like, fifteen.
The director of Debor’s directed Corey and I to the Rose Room, where we saw our dad immediately. He came over and hugged me, but we were completely out of sync without each. It became a dance of him lifting one arm and me leaning the wrong direction until we finally shot the routine like a lame horse after I smacked my chin off his right shoulder.
I come from a long-line of uncoordinated huggers.
My dad looked tired. His eyes were red-rimmed. But his voice was strong and his stance was sturdy.
“I cried every day he was in the hospital,” he started in his standard matter-of-act way of speech. “At this point, I’m just relieved he’s not in pain anymore.”
Meanwhile, I felt eyes boring through me as people began to wonder who I was. I could read my Aunt Joyce’s lips as she murmured, “I think that’s Erin?”
I felt confident that I would be OK being there. Though I didn’t have a relationship with this man, I was still very sorry that he passed, that the rest of the family lost their patriach. But I was sure I wouldn’t cry. I was just there for moral support for Corey, and out of respect for my dad. I was going to be fine.
And then I saw my Grandma Kelly and I fucking lost it. I didn’t downright sob, but my eyes filled up before I had a chance to fight it. And that was before I even had to talk to her.
“Why don’t you guys go say a prayer?” my dad suggested, gesturing to the two mauve-velveted pews next to the casket.
I knew he was going to do that. Goddammit.
So I reluctantly knelt next to Corey, fumbled my way through the sign of the cross with a heavy hand, and then squinted my eyes shut.
Then I would feel a presence near me, so my eyes would flutter open. I would force them shut again so it would appear I was genuinely praying.
Things that went through my mind:
“How do you pray?”
“The flowers smell nice.”
“I’m supposed to keep my eyes shut, right?”
“Is Corey still doing this prayer thing?” as I’d sneak a sideways glance
“I kind of want a Zebra Cake.”
“I hope no one’s watching me.”
“It would suck if my period started right now.”
“OK, I’m done with this now.”
I waited a few seconds after I sensed Corey leave before rising myself. I turned around and found myself face-t0-face with my Grandma Kelly.
In her sweet, sing-song voice, she cried out, “Oh Erin honey! You came!” She looked the same to me. Tiny, energetic. The only thing that was different was the sadness tugging on her eyes. She kept three of my fingers clasped inside her small little hand while she turned her attention on some priest who came to pay his respect. I stood there awkwardly, in this painful limbo right smack in front of the coffin, feeling so uncomfortable with this lingering affection yet not wanting to wrench my hand away either. Finally, someone for her to hug approached and she released my sweaty hand in favor of wrapping her arms around someone’s neck.
“That’s my mom’s biological sister,” my dad pointed to a nun standing across the room.
“What do you mean by that?” Corey asked, but I knew damn well if he had just said, “That’s my mom’s sister,” we all probably would have assumed he was calling a nun a nun.
Having familial obligations to fulfill, my dad left us to go and greet some new arrivals. Corey and I sat in two white padded folding chairs along the wall. Of course we would choose the ones closest to the coffin, because we’re idiots. I kept finding my eyes drawn to it, to the waxy Rosary-wrapped hands; to the pasty nose, slightly rouged cheeks, and pale parted lips. I could not stop staring. I’d try to fixate on the yellow roses strewn about his body, but my eyes unfailingly went back to his face.
It made me think about my Pappap, how I avoided looking at him in the casket until that last moment of the viewing, when the funeral home director was trying to shoo us all out for the night and I was pulled into the small room that held his body, everyone around me saying it was time to say goodbye, and I remember dragging my feet, shaking my head, until there I was, standing over that fucking coffin at my Pappap’s lifeless body and I don’t know what I thought. That if I didn’t look, it wasn’t real? But I looked, and I wish I could rewind time and go back that night in late February of ’96, stand behind myself and place a hand over my eyes.
It was so hard for me that I can’t allow myself to remember what I saw when I looked down that night.
To my left, I heard sobbing. I looked over and saw our cousin Katie, Kevin and Joyce’s 18-year-old daughter. And then I started crying, as I sat there guiltily watching her bury her face in a Kleenex, and I hated so bad that she had to lose her Pappap. These grandparents are probably to her what my mom’s parents were to me; I would not wish that heart-shattering pain on anyone.
“It must have been tough finding the best Hawaiian shirt to wear today,” Corey said, nodding in the direction of a total Captain Casual who, along with his wife and two young daughters, was talking to our dad. The older of the two girls was crying into her mom’s dress. We figured they were cousins we didn’t know about, until they eventually made their way over to Corey and me. Since we were sitting right near the casket, I guess we looked like people needing sympathy, so a lot of visitors swung by us with apologies before hitting the casket.
The man in the Hawaiian shirt ended up being some guy who worked at the beer distributor for years. His whole family seemed distraught.
“Me and your dad had some wild nights down there,” he joked, and it was nice to have a reason to laugh. I liked that guy, Hawaiian shirt and all.
Corey was summoned by someone and no sooner than 2 seconds after his ass left the seat, some older man sat down next to me. Just as I was going to make a break for the door.
I didn’t catch his name, but I think I heard somewhere that he’s my Grandma Kelly’s neighbor. I’m not into small talk in any setting, let alone a funeral parlor. What more is there really to say other than, “This really sucks.” No one feels good being there. No one’s going to wake up the next day and remember talking to Ed Kelly’s sorta-kinda granddaughter about what college she went to. I just don’t have the energy for that bullshit, especially when I’m surrounded by sniffling, sobbing, and a choral round of “I’m so sorry”s. Let’s just sit in peace.
Corey came back and sat next to the neighbor, who eventually rose in a bumbling manner and scanned the room for a more worthy parlor pal.
“What the fuck?” Corey mouthed to me, and I just shook my head in defeat. There went my half hour.
“Don’t leave me again!” I whispered.
More huddles of black-garbed respect-payers. More drafts of ice cold air from the vent. More inhalations of opulent funerary bouquets. More subconscious attempts to cloak the forearm tattoo from the more pious types.
I leaned in to Corey and said, “I even left my phone in the car so I wouldn’t feel the urge to tweet.”
Corey tried to suppress a laugh. “First rule of Twitter: never tweet with a dead relative in the room.”
One of the last viewings I went to was senior year of high school. Lisa’s grandfather had died, and while I didn’t even know him, I started crying uncontrollably as soon as I walked into the funeral home. And then I saw Lisa and her parents and the tears began flowing at a fire hydrant’s speed; my friends Brian and Angie had to actually take me out of there because I was upsetting people. It was her grandfather. People around me just can’t go about losing grandfathers and expect me to be cool with that. Brian took me to Olive Garden and bought me raspberry cheesecake.
Now I associate raspberry cheesecake with death. It’s a good thing I’m morbid.
“Those are the flowers from Mom,” Corey pointed to the head of the casket, where a large arrangement of red and white flowers sat on the floor. The story is that my mom, whom I knew wouldn’t come even though I thought she should have, decided to send flowers in her name, Sharon’s, and their younger sister, Susie’s. Apparently, the florist forgot to put Susie’s name on it and Sharon, whom after spending the last twenty years (if not longer) of her life wishing murder upon Susie, is now suddenly a HUGE Susie advocate, freaked the fuck out on my mom. Then my mom in turn got angry at Susie, because she should have been the one buying the flowers in the first place, since she’s the only employed one of the three.
This was what I was able to decipher from the hysterical phone call from my mom, anyway.
Sharon wanted one of us to write Susie’s name on the card at the funeral home. She’s out of her goddamn mind if she thinks I’m going to mosey up to the casket, whip out a Sharpie and go to town on the card from a squatting position. Considering my sordid history with my dad, I can only imagine what his family would think when they saw me crouched down next to the casket. “She’s lighting candles for Satan!”
So no, I wasn’t about to write Susie’s name on the card. Go to fucking Hell with that shit.
I was going to try and leave again, but my dad walked over with his old friend Darrell. It was a total blast from the past. Darrell and his wife Brenda used to bring their son Clayton over all the time when my brother Ryan was in elementary school. Clayton wasn’t allowed to watch anything “violent,” like Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, so that was always interesting watching my brother play with him.
Darrell sat with Corey and me while my dad wandered off to meet an old couple I didn’t recognize. Darrell got Corey and I up to date with the college careers of his kids and when he asked me what I’m doing, I had the awesome answer of, “Well, I have a kid now. So I guess I’m doing that.” In the distance, we could hear Grandma Kelly crying again, and Darrell asked us about her.
“Sadly, this is the first time I’ve seen her in years. I feel really guilty about that,” I admitted, eyes welling up again.
“Well,” Darrell started that expressionless way he has of speaking, “maybe now’s the time to change that.”
Maybe it is time. Being the asshole black sheep of the family, all families, every family, is starting to get old. Maybe it is time to change that.
Darrell rejoined my dad after a few minutes and Corey and I talked about how awkward that was. Everything is awkward with Corey and me. We do awkward right.
Grandma Kelly wove her way back to us and sat down next to Corey. “Honey girl,” she said to me, she’s always called me that, “I heard you have a baby now!”
Don’t cry. Don’t cry. Don’t cry.
It’s weird talking about stuff like that with a woman whose dead husband is sprawled out three feet from me.
“Would you like to meet him?” I asked.
“Oh yes! Would I!” she exclaimed. And I felt a little better about being there.
I was going to use that as my out, since I had her right there and could easily say goodbye, but a Deacon strode briskly across the room and chose that exact moment to stand in front of the coffin and call for everyone’s attention. Meanwhile, old women were passing out prayer books. Oh motherfuck. I was sitting right there in the front of the room, against the wall, where EVERYONE could see me, so I was stuck. Members of the bereavement group led us through page after page of prayers, and there were parts where the rest of us had to say things out like “Praise be to God” and remember, I haven’t been in church in many, many years, so it was chilling to me. One of the women in the bereavement group sounded like Blanche Deveroux. So that was a high point.
Grandma Kelly, who was still sitting with Corey and me, had sobbed her way through the prayer session. This made Corey cry, which in turn made me cry. Crying is fucking contagious.
“Hey, on a lighter note,” I said to Corey afterward, “I somehow remembered all the words to the Our Father.” And he laughed a little through his tears, so I was glad.
By the time all that praying was done, I had been there for over an hour. I might as well just stay for the home stretch at this point, I thought.
Our cousin Kristen came over. I hadn’t seen her since she was probably 3 or 4, and she’s at least 22 now. Just graduated college. Looks like a complete bitch. My Grandma Kelly clearly favored her when we were all younger. Every time my dad would take us to her house, it was always, “Baby Kristen this” and “Baby Kristen that.” It became a joke for my family. Even now, when my dad mentions her, he twists up his mouth and says, “You know, Baby Kristen,” in the old-womanly voice of Grandma Kelly.
“So, where do you live?” Kristen asked me in exactly the type of snobby voice I expected to come out of that tight-lipped mouth. She was standing above me, making it slightly intimidating. “I like, know nothing about you.” The way she said it? I interpreted it to mean, “What are you even doing here?”
I told her where I live, smiled and said, “I haven’t seen you since you were really young.”
“Yeah, I like, have no memory of you.” And she gave me a quick, tight-lipped smile. The kind that doesn’t make it up to the eyes. I really don’t like her. Apparently, Corey doesn’t either.
Her boyfriend seemed nice though.
Finally, the director of the funeral home came over to my Grandma Kelly and advised everyone to leave now, to take advantage of the break before the 6:00-8:00 viewing.
As my Grandma Kelly hugged me goodbye, she said, “Tell your mom I said hello!” Then, with a hand shielding the side of her mouth so my dad wouldn’t see, she added, “I love her! He doesn’t know that, but I love her!” My dad just smirked and rolled his eyes.
This time, my dad’s hug wasn’t as awkward, and he thanked me again for coming. It made me feel bad that he felt the need to thank me at all.
“Well, so much for only staying a half an hour,” I laughed to Corey as we left at the same time as the rest of the immediate family. I got home and was telling Henry about it all, and said, “I didn’t think it would hurt so much being there, but it did. I feel really terrible. Really depressed.” For the rest of the night, I kept, against my will, playing back those images of my Grandma Kelly and Katie crying, of my dad’s tired eyes, of Corey getting emotional when asked to be a pall bearer. It was just too much.
I was telling Barb about it yesterday at work, and she goes, “Oh, you didn’t take Riley?”
“Oh God no!” I laughed. “Can you imagine? ‘Mommy, is he a zombie now?’ as he’s poking my Grandpa’s face with rose stems.”
Last night, as I was tossing the black shirt I wore to the funeral home into the laundry basket, I caught a whiff of my Grandma Kelly’s perfume and my heart fell a little.