I am a master of escapism. I have been accused of being unhealthy and I have been lauded for my imagination and both for the same thing: my ability to live in another world. It’s a boon when I write fiction, or get involved in role-playing games, or any games for that matter. It’s a bane when I have to face things head on and get shit done. In the days following my grandfather’s funeral I pulled away from my heart. My heart was full of hate and regret and other bleak thoughts. I spent a few days on the island with a close friend of mine stationed there. I came home and thought about the role-playing game I am currently running. I lived in another world that was free of misery.
My grandmother’s birthday was on June 4th. This was always very easy for me to remember. It was precisely one month before my grandfather’s birthday (her ex-husband) and Independence Day—which I don’t celebrate particularly, but that’s another story—and I rarely missed it. When I woke up on the 4th, one of my first thoughts was that it was her birthday, and that I needed to remember to call her. I was planning on having guests that day, so I started to prepare our house. Being two different stripes of artists, one could probably easily understand that our home is a predictable mess. Cleaning sessions tend to be involved when they happen. My guests came just as I got out of the shower and it was almost 9pm and I realized that I had not called my grandmother. I excused myself to the other room and made the phone call.
My aunt picked up the phone, but quickly handed it to my grandmother who said, “I thought you weren’t going to call.” My grandmother, as I said, has her faults—one of them was her insistence on using guilt as a communication method, which has had some adverse effects on me. But I didn’t feel guilty when she said this. I had called, even if a bit later than I intended. I asked her how her birthday was. My brother was there and she sounded very happy, although she also sounded very tired. She tried to get me on the phone with my brother, but neither he or I like talking on the phone much, so we both squirreled out of it. She said she was tired and she was thinking about going to bed. I wished her congratulations.
“When you decided to go back to California, you told me you wanted to hit your 80th birthday, and you did! Congratulations!”
“Isn’t that something,” she said. “I love you, good night.”
I don’t remember anything significant that happened in the next few days. I ran my game on Saturday. I found out later that my family held a big birthday party for my grandmother the same day. My other aunt had hired a bagpiper trio as a gift. My grandmother, as I mentioned before, loved everything and anything Scottish, and bagpipes were no exception. From every account I heard, she thoroughly enjoyed that Saturday.
It is difficult to evoke this in writing: I have been staring at the screen for about twenty minutes trying to figure out how to write the next part of this.
On June 10th, around 1pm or so, my brother informed me that my grandmother was on the way to the ICU. Her heart had stopped. Around an hour later he told me that she had passed away. Pushing away every emotion I was feeling personally, I focused on him. I asked him if he was with her when it happened, if he was okay. I thought a lot in the following week about that question, wondering why people ask it at the times they do. I knew he wasn’t okay. But if there is one thing I despise in this world, it is knowing that my little brother is hurting. And all I could think about was how he felt. I’m not some sort of selfless saint. I already admitted that I focused on him to escape myself.
I waited and called my cousin—my aunt’s son who lived in the same house. I wanted to make sure he was alright as well. My aunt took the phone at some point in the conversation and talked and cried for well over an hour. Her tears inspired my own. It was the first time I cried after hearing that my grandmother was gone—but that wasn’t why I was crying. I was crying to listen to the pain my aunt was feeling. My tears were safe tears.
I talked to my dad. He wanted to drive to California immediately. At first I thought that the response was a bit alarmist. No one knew anything about when services would be, or even what kind of services there would be. Would we even hold them in California? She had a lot of family and friends in Washington too. All in all, I felt it was too early to jump into the car for a twenty six hour drive (thirty for my dad).
Camille took me out to dinner, where I reassured her multiple times that I was okay and that I was going to handle it just fine. I had been aware of the limited time, I had been intimate with her failing condition when we brought her to California. I had seen her in the hospital. I knew what was coming. I was going to be fine. I was okay. I did decide that my dad wasn’t wrong for wanting to go immediately, though. We made arrangements for travel and I called my dad back and said, “Let’s go. I’ll see you tomorrow.”
The drive to Los Angeles was largely uneventful. I volunteered to be the night driver. I tend toward late hours anyway (often for writing). I slept through most of the trip except at night, where I drank coffee listened to Pisces Iscariot for a couple of hours while my wife, father and step-mother slept in the car. You would think this would have given me a lot of time to think about my grandmother. But I didn’t. I kept my head out of that space. I thought about the road. I thought about music. I thought about a short story project that I’m trying to work on right now. I thought about a eulogy, but only briefly. The subject skirted too close to what I was trying not to think about.
We arrived at my aunt’s home almost as night was falling. They had ordered food for us. My brother was there. When we walked in the door everyone seemed very happy to see us. There were a lot of smiles and hugs and hellos. At first sight, eyes seemed to be dry. Maybe I was just hopeful. I was hungry. I made myself a plate, and then one for Camille. I sat down next to my cousins and we started talking.
My other aunt—this part of the story might get confusing if I’m not clear that I have two aunts on this side of my family, so we’ll call her Aunt Iago. The mother of my cousins will be Aunt Jafar. There is no meaning in these names. I am not calling my aunts villains. They are only the names I first thought of when looking for aliases. Aunt Iago, who has been a Christian for some time now—not twenty years, but that anniversary should come soon—asked everyone, I believe individually, if we would be comfortable having the funeral services held in her church. I am not a member of her church and no one else in my family is. There are also many individuals in my family who do not observe Christianity. Everyone agreed that holding the services in her church would be just fine. She seemed certain that someone would grow angry—she named my brother specifically, an atheist—but everyone was comfortable with the idea of it being done there.
There was a snafu, however. When we first arrived at Aunt Jafar’s house, Aunt Iago was not there. Additionally, the time that we, meaning my wife and I, as well as my father and step-mother, had informed everyone we had to leave, was Sunday evening. This meant that the services needed to be held before then. The pastor who was going to lead the ceremony called the house asking for Aunt Iago. She wasn’t there, so Aunt Jafar answered the phone. He had many questions about the time and what rooms would be available (in Los Angeles, many churches are large industrial blocks. They are not what I would call a megachurch in the strict sense of the term, but they are absolutely massive and tend to sprawl out with many rooms). Knowing our time limit, Aunt Jafar tried to find a time on Sunday that the service could be held. Ultimately, they decided that the pastor would call back and talk to Aunt Iago to try and work out the difficult scheduling on short notice.
When Aunt Iago did come home, she was told about the phone call. She began screaming at her sister and accusing her of manipulating the situation that she had spent “hours on the phone trying to arrange.” She accused her of always doing this and being a selfish bitch—the last was muttered under her breath, but I tend to listen, even when I wish I wasn’t. She was home for no less than five minutes, before she stomped her way upstairs angrily.
I am going to reiterate what I explained earlier in this series—I am not trying to paint anyone in an ill light. I am not trying to call them out. I am not trying to attack anyone. I am trying to tell this story as it occurred from my perspective in the attempt to explore my feelings. I am not going to hold back. I recognize that people in mourning are hurting and may behave in strange and unexpected ways. I include myself in that. I was and am in mourning as well. I was mourning twofold—not that doing so elevates the importance of my feelings over anyone else. I behaved in ways that I would not normally behave as well.
Things seemed to calm down as the night progressed. The conversation turned toward talking about my grandmother and the wonderful things about her. Tears were shed, but no one seemed hurt—it was the relief of shedding those tears with someone who was experiencing what you were experiencing. Aunt Iago even came down and seemed to join in somewhat, although she was very focused on her work upstairs. I had brought out my laptop. I was working on preparing a eulogy, because I thought that I ought to speak at the funeral. I was listening to the recordings I had made with my grandmother about a month prior, looking for anything that I might be able to use. At some point my wife disappeared and returned to begin working on a program for the funeral—she is a graphic designer and obviously loved my grandmother very much—so she began creating a program and pouring through photographs. My aunt informed us that she was very busy working on writing my grandmother’s biography.
Now, I did feel something quite irrational when I heard this. I will not deny that it was irrational—but I like to think that I did not act on my feeling, and that was the best thing I could have possibly done. My whole family knew that I had just done an interview with my grandmother, an interview which focused on her life story. My family also knows that my greatest passion and life aspiration is writing and a career in such. I felt disrespected in that I was not asked to write the biography—I was not even asked for input. I was not asked to help edit. Again—this feeling was a touch irrational and unfair, so I felt the pangs of irritation and then laid them to rest. However, I did suggest that the wordcount be paid close attention, since my wife was designing the programs and there would only be so much room. The more words, the more pages, the more money for printing, etc.
My wife suggested that I offer help—but I didn’t. This was one of the worse things I did in retrospect. Maybe I should have at least offered. I felt that it was so dismissive and insulting to not even be asked that I didn’t want to be involved—I didn’t want to actually grow angry. I was hurt and irritated, but at this point I was not angry. I let it be. I worked on my own eulogy, deciding that I would express myself via my favoured medium on my own terms, rather than through the program.
My wife and I stayed at my mother’s house. As you can probably guess, my aunt’s house was very crowded. We visited every day until the funeral, however. The day could not be moved from Monday, so we arranged to stay one more day to be sure that we could attend. The majority of our time was spent reminiscing about our grandmother. One night, my brother and I took our father out to eat for Father’s Day. We were never asked to assist in preparing for the funeral in any particular way (except for Camille designing the programs). The most “work” that was done was going through photo albums or divvying up my grandmother’s belongings (which were not many, there was not going to be a fight over money in her passing, that was certain).
On Sunday, the day before the service, we arrived to my aunts house somewhat early. Camille was in the final stages of development for the program. You might think this sounds like a lot of work, and maybe it was. But Camille is a perfectionist. At some point, Camille disappeared to show my aunt the program and when she came back there was a worried, almost haunted expression on her face. She explained to me that Aunt Iago had shown her the biography she had written, and that there was a serious problem with it. She had written almost 4k words. The program had room for about 750 words total.
I was not surprised, although I was not sure what to do about it. Camille asked my aunt if she could trim it a little—she was trying to be polite—but I interjected then because I knew that asking someone to trim a little off of 4k words would not yield in a result of 750 words. I explained that she needed to cut it by about 2/3rds and tried to show her the problem with the wordcount. Camille even added an extra page into the program (which results in four pages, as it was folded), but we were not going to be able to fit 4k words into it—even if we removed every single photograph.
“Can you just edit it for me?”
In my head, I thought about this question. I knew that if she had asked me this question when I arrived, that I would have said yes with some caveats (when I needed to start editing it). But it was 5pm. My aunt said, “Someone needs to edit it, the printing place closes at 6pm.” I declined.
Was I being difficult? I don’t know. Maybe I should have just sucked it up and did what I could. The truth is, that frustration that I had bit down about not being invited to assist originally was bubbling back up and I knew that editing 4k words to 750 wasn’t editing at all, but a rewrite—which was more work, and the kind of thing that someone would be insulted over. There was no possible way that I could make 4k words fit into 750 and sound like the original. Like a prophet, I could foresee the drama. So I opted for the drama born of saying no.
So she asked my brother. My brother is not a writer, but he is an avid reader and a clever critic and if he applied himself, I think he would be a good editor. My brother also turned her down. He had heard my argument about the amount of work it would be and knew that he did not want to deal with that drama.
Again, Aunt Iago threw a fit. She pounded her feet, she cursed. She accused of us of laying around and socializing instead of actually helping with the real work. We were lazy and slovenly and unworthy in her eyes. She stamped her feet all the way up the stairs again.
This is what I had been aiming to avoid. Seeing as it had happened anyway, and seeing as that I had a copy of her 4k words, I chose to just go ahead and begin the rewrite anyway. Camille’s work was going to go for naught if she didn’t have any words to put on the beautiful pages she had rendered. This was, as I said, about 5pm. She and my brother did some research and came up with a 24 hour printer, which was vital because I told them that as much as I needed more time, one hour was never going to be enough. I plodded through the rewrite carefully and tactfully. I tried very hard to retain the original spirit. I made one minor change. Before my grandmother passed, during our interview together, I had asked her what I considered to be a very important question.
“If you were going to be remembered for one thing, what would you want to be remembered for?”
She did not hesitate. She squeezed my hand tightly, “I want to be remembered for how much I loved my children. All of you. I know that sounds plebeian, but it’s the truth.”
So the one change I made was adding the names of everyone she considered to be her children. This included her nieces and nephews, grandchildren, great-grandchildren and children-in-law…two of which were no longer children-in-law due to divorce. This was a very minor change from the original, as many of these names were already included. She had step-grandchildren and great-grandchildren included. I made the list more inclusive.
Around 9pm, I had edited, re-edited and rewritten the best 750 word draft I could do with the time alloted. It wasn’t bad at all. I managed to capture the spirit of the original and include the most important information. Some of it had to be excised entirely, but some of what was not appropriate for a funeral. One part wasn’t accurate. One part wasn’t true. These are facts, but I didn’t make a big deal out of it during the process. I then gave the edited draft to my aunt Iago, my uncle, my brother, my cousin and Camille. I made a few minor tweaks based on their feedback and we were ready to go.
Somewhere around midnight, Camille had finished the graphic design side of the program. My brother and I were ready to go to the printers. Camille wanted to run it by my aunt one last time before we left. She went upstairs. I was engaged in conversation with my cousins and brother and it was about 45 minutes before I noticed how long Camille had been gone. Almost one in the morning, and we had to be up early the next day, my brother was getting a little grumpy. I went upstairs to find out what the hold up was.
My aunt didn’t like my edits/rewrite.
Keep in mind, she had told me it was great about four hours previous.
She had changed her mind. I was accused of something I expected—of tossing out her hard work and not honouring her original intent. What I did not expect was the problem she had with the inclusion of the ex-children-in-law. At first the problem was that it was too hard to tell who was married to whom. She was worried, apparently, that someone would accuse one of my grandmother’s sons of being a bigamist. I told her that was fine, that if they wanted to add indicators of who was married to whom, two extra words wouldn’t hurt.
No, in fact, the real problem is that two of those individuals hurt my grandmother, and they shouldn’t be included. Also, any changes needed to be done by me, since this wasn’t her work anymore.
Well, I thought, if it isn’t your work, what right do you have to define it?
Instead, I said that she could make the changes herself. I told her she had treated me in an unreasonable fashion throughout, and I was done helping. I left the room without waiting for a response.
I went downstairs and listened to my cousins and brother numbly. Camille came down not long after. I finally broke into the conversation, telling them what had occurred and that I was bothered by it. One of my cousins was more bothered than I was. Before I realized what was happening, she was marching upstairs. I had not intended to create that conflict. I was trying to avoid it. I had only shared with them because I was so incredibly flabbergasted by the whole situation that I did not know what to do except talk about it.
My cousin came back down only a few minutes later, the look on her face was ghostly. Like me, she said nothing at first. I didn’t wait. I asked her what happened.
“I can’t believe…I can’t believe what just happened.”
“Tell us what happened.”
“She looked me dead in the eye and said that this wasn’t about the children, and the thoughts and feelings of the grandchildren don’t count. She said we don’t count.”
My brother got up to go have a cigarette. I was dumbfounded. My other cousin finally got up and said that he was going to talk to her. I started to pack my bags. I was done with the entire situation. I had been holding back irritation for so long that now it was inflamed rage. Nothing was going to talk me down. I needed to get out.
My cousin convinced my aunt to make the change—she deleted everyone’s names.
Camille didn’t print that version. She printed mine, with two words added to explain who was married to who.
There was more to that story, but I, myself, have written almost 4k words in this post alone. Suffice to say the drama was heightened and more explicit. My aunt said some more disgusting things and I screamed something I didn’t mean.
The morning of my grandmother’s funeral service, I decided that I was not going to read the eulogy that I had written. I was too emotional, and I did not believe the words I had written. Based off our interview, I had focused the eulogy around the idea that she wanted to be remembered for her love of her children. I had written something that talked about each of them in turn. I looked at the words I had written about my aunt Iago and I knew that I could no longer read what was written. I felt guilty. I was making a decision based out of my own anger when I should be honouring my grandmother. I was being selfish at her funeral. I also felt guilty because I knew that none of her other grandchildren were going to speak. Not because of any lack of love, rather because of introversion or their own anger at the events that had transpired. Maybe that was appropriate—that none of her grandchildren speak at a service they had been told explicitly that they were not meant to be a part of.
When we arrived with the programs—the most beautiful programs I had ever seen—my aunt came out and picked one up, flipping through it to the spot of contention. I saw a look cross her eyes, but instead of say anything, she said the programs were beautiful. I can’t recall if she actually thanked us or not. She hugged me and said she was glad to see me. I did not hug her in return.
During the service I broke down while my father was speaking. I decided to get up and say something—I had to say something. It wasn’t rehearsed. It wasn’t written ahead of time. It was very short—I had to say something.
Afterward, my aunt came and hugged me again. She told me that my speech had been beautiful and thanked me for speaking. I walked away. I was so numb. At this point, the anger was muted by the sense of loss—but it was also amplified for the same reason. I was ready to leave. I tried to talk with other people at the service, but I was not very successful. I told Camille that I wasn’t sure if I ever wanted to speak with my aunt again. I felt guilt for feeling that way, because I knew that would have hurt my grandmother.
We left immediately after the service.
I also want to mention that similar to my grandfather’s funeral, the pastor who spoke at my grandmother’s funeral took the time to evangelize to us. I’m mentioning this now because, while I barely gave it a second thought at the time, one of the portions I cut entirely from my aunt’s version of the program was the final portion. It was about my grandmother’s relationship with Jesus.
If it isn’t obvious by now, you know that my grandmother loved her children. Three of the four of them are born again Christians. She spent a lot of time in church, and she spent a lot of time involved with the church for the community. She did this for the love of her children. On more than one occasion, my grandmother explained her religious leanings to me. I’ve heard her mention them to my uncle as well. Although she never used the word, I would describe my grandmother as a deist. She did not follow the Christian practice. She did not have a relationship with Jesus. Maybe my aunt didn’t know this. I can’t speak for her. I also cannot speak for my grandmother, even though I am sharing what I know.
Camille was a lot more upset about this than I was. When we returned to Washington, she made a post on Facebook declaring that she was not a Christian. When I saw it, I knew why she had written it. My family never deigned to make comment, but I know that she received a very long and upset text from her father. I was not privy to the phone call, but several days later she was on the phone with both of her parents (also Christians) for hours in which she was made to feel guilty for her declaration.
Meanwhile, I know I told Camille that I was okay when she asked me. The day my grandmother passed, I said I was okay. I am not. I have my own beliefs about death. I miss my grandmother and I miss the opportunity I never had with my grandfather. I understand that death is not permanent in the strictest sense—that is part of my own belief. I am not angry or hurt or upset that my grandparents are dead. But I am not okay. The death has not scarred me—the living have. I am not okay with how the people involved with both funerals behaved, and I am not okay with the insight this has given me into the human condition. I am finding the mourning process a disgusting excuse for the worst sort of selfish behaviour—but I’ll go into that further in the next post. This is almost done, and for those of you who have read through all of it, I appreciate you for sticking with me. Thank you.
P.S. Total wordcount for this post, 4,758. But it’s my blog and I’m not space limited.