For my 18th birthday, he wrote me a poem that rhymed the words “tomb” and “womb” in a set of three couplets and spelled my name wrong: “Happy birthday, Mollie.” In a way, I appreciated this, though it horrified my parents. It’s probably the reason behind all those sympathy cards I send out as birthday cards. Simply cross out “my condolences” or “he’s in a better place” and replace with your birthday wishes.
The word I’ve heard most often used to describe my grandfather is “complicated.” Complicated is a way to describe an asshole who’s recently died. I don’t feel particularly guilty about using the word asshole; I’ve never known another man who’s used it more frequently or hilariously. And in truth, I think he would have been almost smug, or strangely proud, about my use of the word here. He hated false sentiment almost as much as he hated all the people he referred to as assholes.
I can’t count the number of obscenities he’s uttered (others describe his language as “colorful”) or the number of times he’s called out “hey, ladies” in a mocking tone to a group of elderly women, but I can count the kind things he said to me. They were infrequent, rare, and meaningful to me. He was too smart and radically honest to utter niceties that contained no meaning or truth for him. He seemed to accept his death in the saddest, most realistic way possible- that death might not create possibility for happiness or freedom but that it would mean the absence of pain and loneliness. I understand this. Each time I visited him and asked how he was, he responded, “Older.”
He knew that he had been transferred to an assisted living community not to flourish but to fade away, quietly. He knew that despite the daily happy hours and old jazz standards playing in the lobby that this is a place people go to embrace nostalgia, not possibility, not life. One of the last times I saw him I took him outside as the cherry trees’ flowers were starting to fall. He looked at me, and in a moment of rare sincerety and kindness, he said, “You’re prettier than a cherry tree in bloom.”
He had the capacity to do good. He helped found the Matt Talbot Center and worked with the homeless for 20 years helping them find jobs. He wasn’t an altruistic person who gave to charities but was afraid of those to whom he gave; he was involved with Nightwatch, a program that runs from midnight into the wee hours of the morning helping homeless people by providing food and medical assistance. He even broke his hip after falling in the rain while handing out a sandwich. A homeless man waited with my grandfather until the ambulance came. My grandfather told me that one of the greatest regrets of his life was that he never got this man’s name to thank him.
Family means love, not like. I liked my grandpa’s sense of humor, intelligence, and capacity for kindness. I abhorred his religious fervor and cruel utterances. Mostly I am just happy that he no longer has to deal with loneliness and the sense of looming death. I can’t imagine living that way, and I’d wish it on no one, especially not someone who had such a remarkable capacity for genuine goodness. I may not have always liked him, but I certainly appreciated him. He was a rare gem- a strange combination of clever, cruel, and kind.
Here is a really lovely interview with my grandfather about his work with the homeless.