It was my second week in Tennessee, I sat cross-legged on a patch of fresh mauve carpet, hiding 20-year-old basketweave linoleum. The old recliner where I curled up to listen to Peter Jennings talk about a world, one existing far from East Tennessee summers, it was gone. In its place was a bed, the kind with bars on the sides and various mechanical parts. Mr. Jennings voice no longer reverberated through the ancient television, his face distorted by ill-placed foil antennas. Instead, I sat covered in new carpet lint, listening to my Grandpa sing hymns, and stare off into another world; he was dying. We knew it was the end – he rarely existed in the present. He hallucinated about carpentry, selecting nails from his phantom tool belt and grinning while he hammered them off into the air. Sometimes his arm would rise to the sky as if telling angels he was ready to be home. One afternoon we put all 88 lbs of him in a wheelchair and I raced him around the aged double-wide – through the kitchen, squealing through the dining room and back again. With what little energy he had, he would belly laugh as we careened around every turn. My grandma was never far – staying busy by snapping green beans or canning tomatoes. My mom cleaning, even purchasing new drapes to brighten up the place. I sat, rarely taking my eyes off Grandpa. We shared popsicles while the sun beamed soft and gracefully through the front porch. The many plants would rise to greet it – and we would soak in its warmth; I was 13.
Grandpa Jack was hard of hearing, and even when yelling, my voice did not carry the right tone. Despite being unable to hear me – as long as I was talking he was “listening.” He would smile ear to ear and nod his head, and when he could see I stopped speaking, he would smile wider and say, “I love you too!” I knew he had zero clues as to what I said, but it didn’t matter, our language was the same. He told my mom, “she is my heart;” well, he was mine. He wasn’t an affectionate grandparent – you would get a gruff hand on your shoulder more often than a hug – but his smile was all the affection I needed. I adored him. I would often slip my hand in his chapped, grease-covered one or rest my head on his bony shoulder – he never grasped back or warmed into a hug – but he never ever backed away. My favorite spot was next to him as he shared tales, large and small, of shipping yards and odd jobs he had while traveling the country.
His answer to every ailment was iodine – I will never forget that rusty liquid on his various nicks and bruises. He thought cats were disease carriers…and theirs likely had a few. He always wore cotton trousers and a white t-shirt, tucked in with grease stains or a tear around the collar. He walked with his feet kicking out in front of him and arms swinging with purpose. He was older than most grandfathers I knew and had technically been retired my whole life but he still found a “job” every single day. Some days it was “going into town” to run errands. He threw a button up over his tattered t-shirt, put on his favorite fishing cap, “forgot” his hearing aids and fired up the ole Datson. We all knew he really went to socialize which always meant cornering a kind soul into listening to his tall tales. They realized too late he couldn’t hear and had to muster all their southern kindness nodding for an hour. You always knew he was enjoying himself because his chin tilted up and to the left, smiling until his eyes disappeared, hands in his pockets, whistles exiting through his dentures.
His other jobs, for lack of a better term, involved excessive tinkering. You could often find him halfway in his shed, bent over, tools flying aimlessly through his legs into the yard. Once he located the right one, he hammered on whatever needed it and tossed it back into the shed with the same fervor as before. He loved going to my uncle’s farm, he walked along the fence line and gazed out over the fields – I never knew what he was thinking but he always seemed happy, free. He was constantly laughing as me and my cousins wrestled and never panicked when we were racing each other to the top of whatever tree was nearby. He always stood at the trunks’ base whooping us along.
He said grace with the gumption of a southern preacher, and his worn hands always clasped my grandmother’s. As much as those two bickered, they were very much in love. He was her person – he may not have been a consistent husband/father, but he always needed her care and attention and she was happy to give it. I never saw them visit, I never saw them dance or laugh together – but I would catch a glance every once in a while, there was love there.
This particular afternoon in Tennessee my mom came and sat next to me placing her hand on Grandpa’s chest – I noticed a glimmer of concern as she touched his face and grasped his fingertips. I asked what was wrong, even though I already knew; she told me to get Grandma. I walked to the bathroom door and knocked, I’m sorry to bother you but mom says you should come out here. She sat down and clasped Grandpa’s hand – he turned to face her – a rare moment of cognizance. She began weeping and he somehow began comforting her. It was an amazing thing to behold. Grandma leaned down and pressed her face into his chest – he smiled and began humming – he reached his free hand up to the sky and hummed a little louder. As his hand danced in the air his face lit up, his eyes opened wide and he smiled with his mouth open – toothless and filled with joy – he was heading home.
I didn’t know heartbreak until that day. I’m not speaking of my sadness, no, it was my Grandma. I watched her closely the week of his funeral – she was so present, showing grace to everyone who attended. She smiled, she was warm, and her strength was admirable. A couple days after the funeral I walked past the formal living room, she sat, weathered Bible in her lap, and wept. Her tears soaked the red leather cover, her long fingers covering her eyes – she wept in a dark room, alone. In her silent weeping, in her brokenness, I remember seeing the woman I longed to be. I felt warmth in my eyes and a knot in my stomach – watching this woman cry was somehow suffocating and brilliant at the same time. I missed my Grandpa fiercely, but I hadn’t cried yet…until now. It’s possible I have a robotic way of pushing my feelings aside to appear strong, or maybe I just knew it was his time and I could logically put that emotion in a compartment. Whatever the case, her strength, and poise, her fearlessness moved me. It left a mark. She was an immovable force – stubborn, deliberate, a pistol – Anna Daisy. I like to think she and Grandpa spend their days caring for our lil bird – that Birdie Anna’s namesake is sharing with her the fierceness and independence she taught me. I would not be who I am without them, all three of them are my heart, and I imagine she is theirs.
imaged found via Pinterest