It is cold in the garden, the bitter breeze penetrating the church walls that make the place into a courtyard. My cousin is the first to cry. Shaking and sobbing quietly, her mother comforting her. But as the minister begins speaking, praying, I feel as cold as the air.
As the ashes, grey, not black as I’d assumed they would be, are lowered into the ground, I feel nothing. I know that the pile of ash in the hole in the ground used to be my grandfather, and I tell myself I should be crying, or at least feeling something, but all I have is guilt at my own coldness. My mother, my aunt, and some other family members take a scoop each, pour them in.
I squeeze myself to keep warm.
We go back inside. The lounge is warm, and I remove my coat.
We wait for the service to begin. Not a minute before we enter the sanctuary, I learn that we will be walking in after everyone else, their eyes on us as we move forwards to the front rows. I’m worried that I’ll either burst out laughing or break down crying.
As the heads of the congregation turn to watch us, I become very aware of my facial expression. I try as hard as I can to look sad. I bite my lips, swallow, and move my eyes around nervously. I probably just come across as nervous.
Here now, in the front, I sit through the prayers, the hymn, and now it is time for the song my parents have been practicing.
It is a musical adaption of Alfred Lord Tennyson’s self-written epitaph, “Crossing the Bar.” It has a beautiful melody, and a beautiful piano accompaniment, and it compares death to one my grandfather’s favorite pastimes, sailing. This is one of the last songs he heard, the song my father sang for him as he lay dying in his bed, the song that moved him to tears even though the most communication he had been capable of for days was squeezing people’s hands.
But the song doesn’t move me.
Now it’s time for the family to speak. My uncle speaks at length about many different things. He pretty much recaps my grandfather’s whole life. The end, even. They were out together on the golf course, he in warm clothes to defend against the cold, my grandfather in his ordinary golfing clothes: shorts and a polo. A real trooper, he didn’t mind the weather. But he wasn’t on his game. He hit ball after ball and they either barely flew or else they flew in a completely wrong direction. Finally, my uncle offered to help him hit. He demonstrated what to do, held grandpa’s hands to help him remember how to swing. And grandpa remembered. They hit balls for a while, enjoyed themselves out in the cold. But then grandpa started losing his breath, a shiver ran down his spine, he bent over, and my uncle knew that grandpa had just hit his last golf ball.
But the story doesn’t move me.
Now my father. He speaks from the heart. His speech feels spontaneous. He talks about all the things my grandfather did for his family, his friends, his country. He’d always hold the car door for grandma. He’d always look us over when we visited to see if we were keeping in shape. He was so kind to his neighbors. He served in the navy with great pride. The speech is wonderful.
But the last sentence barely comes out. My dad loses it, buries his face in his hands, rushes back to the pew.
And then it hits me.
Michael Powell is dead. He is not alive. He has ceased to breathe, to think, to be. He’s gone, his ashes scattered in the wind and the first to be buried in the memorial garden he pushed for. No more will he laugh. No more will he fret over his wife’s, his kids’, and his grandkids’ health. No more will he send those silly chain emails about trucks falling off of docks.
No more will he love us.
Before I had only understood this on an intellectual level. I knew he was dead, but I did not feel his loss.
It took the true grief of my father, close to me, close to grandpa, to pull my feelings into the light.
My dad never cries, so seeing him break down like he did was immeasurably difficult. It triggered that part of me that allowed my emotions to show past my firewall of smiles and laughter. It’s not a conscious firewall, it’s just something that’s there. It’s what keeps me looking and acting happy, even if I’m not really all right. Then, in acting like I have not a care in the world, it becomes true. I find true happiness in believing that I am happy, and in finding true happiness, I find a true reason. The firewall lets me pull out of situations I don’t want anything to do with, like my grandfather’s death, or my surgery. But it has to come down, once in a while. And when it does, I let it, and I let it open wide. I let everything out, then I retreat again.
That is all.