I was at a Halloween party when I found out. My phone rang and I saw that it was my sister, Char, calling. I considered not answering but I decided to see what was up.
She was crying. I couldn’t tell what about but she was crying.
I got out of the apartment and into the backyard where things were quieter and then I heard her say it: There’d been an accident. He had a heart attack. He was dead.
Who? Who had had a heart attack, I’d demanded.
Abuelito. Our Grandfather.
I was in shock for the next few days. I just didn’t really know how to feel. Everything I did seemed wrong somehow. I knew there was something I was supposed to do—some way I was supposed to act—if only someone could just tell me what it was, but no one did.
So for the longest time I did nothing. I didn’t talk about it. I didn’t really think about it. I just did nothing.
And that was how it was for a while.
Then, at my grandfather’s funeral I spoke about some of the things I’m going to write about here. That was the first time in a long time I felt like I was doing the right thing. It was strange because afterwards a lot of the people came up to me and told me they’d appreciated what I’d said—that it was beautiful and was I a writer?—which was nice but not at all what I’d wanted. I hadn’t done it for art’s sake or to get compliments, but I guess no one ever really creates things with that in mind. Maybe sometimes art is just a byproduct of people trying to cope with the world?
I don’t know.
But I wanted to put this up here to share my thoughts and the things I remember about my grandfather because so far sharing it is the only thing that feels right.
I think I was a little self-centered when I was younger. Not in a wicked way, just the naïve way that everyone is where we think we’re the center of the universe and everyone around us exists solely as supporting characters to the sitcoms of our lives. But I think for everyone there comes a point when we realize this isn’t true. When we realize the people around us are individuals with their own lives and stories.
I think it starts with are parents. Maybe it’s the first time we see them fight or cry or something but at some point we’re all faced with the terrifying reality that they are beings decades older than us with wisdom beyond anything we can imagine who have lived twice or three or four or five times as long as we have. And when we realize this it’s like the gods come crashing down.
Once I’d realized this I started to look at things in an entirely different way, and eventually I came to realize the same thing about my grandparents. But even once I knew this I was almost afraid to delve in to find out more. I was comfortable with him as my grandfather but I don’t know if I was ready for the idea that he was so much more than that.
But he was.
He was a soldier in World War II, I found out. He served in France where the children there ran after his jeep and shouted curses at him in English not out of hate but simply because these were the only world the mischievous Americans had taught them.
He was a young man from a coast of the country I’ve never been to who had dreamed of becoming a farmer but had lost his leg in the war and never quite got to it—this was why he loved to garden so much. I’d always known he’d loved to garden—my whole life I’d known this—yet I’d never known why.
He was a father to my mother, husband to my grandmother, an uncle, a great-grand father, and so much more so many different people, and he told me these things only in the last few times we spent together when I dared to ask, and I am deeply saddened that I was only just beginning to get to know him as these people.
So I cannot speak to you today about the whole of the man who was Richard Gist but I can speak to you about the aspect of him that was my grandfather—that was Abuelito.
And these are the things that I remember.
I remember his smell. I think all of our grandparents get a similar type of smell at some point. It’s different for each of them and there’s nothing quite like it. Some people might say this smell is the smell of age, or of life lived, or of wisdom, but I think I’ll just say that the smell was his. And I can’t describe it for you in relation to other scents because it was unlike anything else that ever existed. I can only explain it to you by the memories it brought forth when I breathed it in—fireplaces, good cheese and wine, Christmas.
I remember his appetite—his appetite for everything. He woke up every morning and went to exercise as a way to keep him mind and his body sharp so that he could keep on living—I was always amazed by that. I’m twenty-two and I don’t even do that. Once I started university I would come visit him and my grandma and I’d always try to cook them lots of food, partially so they wouldn’t have to do the cooking, partially because I like to cook, but mainly—I think—because he loved to eat. I remember no matter how much food we cooked he could eat it all and down a bottle of wine to go with it.
But most of all
I remember his hugs.
This is the one thing I keep returning to.
There are many different ways you can give hugs. Hello hugs, with the friendly pat on the back. Comforting hugs where you sway with the other huger and gently rubbing them—even the quick one-armed hug that’s more out of politeness than anything else.
Then there are my grandfather’s hugs.
When he hugged you he would do it tightly with both arms and he would linger. He would linger about one or two seconds longer than most people want to be hugged, but never in a creepy way. It was out of affection. I always thought that was kind of funny, and I never really got what he was doing until now.
My grandfather was always someone who talked candidly about death. I’m paraphrasing but he once told me that at his age death was something that could come sooner or it could come later but it would come either way, so we just had to appreciate things while we could.
So I get it now.
That’s what he was doing with his hugs. He was trying to appreciate you. He was trying to squeeze you so tightly for so long that his body could take a physical imprint of the shape you made in his arms one that he could carry with him after he was gone and one that we could each remember in our own. He was trying to tell you that here in that moment—the present that is all that we have—that he loved you.
When I finally managed to understand that I was happy that, at last, I’d comprehended what he’d been doing all those years, but I was also immensely sad when I realized that now I would never get one of those hugs from him again.
But when I saw my relatives before the funeral the other day I realized something:
My mom hugs like that.
A lot of my relatives hug like that.
And I think that
from now on,
I’m going to hug like that too.
© Zechariah James Towner and Mndilses Maeinngsels Drveil, 2011-2013. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Zechariah James Towner and Mndilses Maeinngsels Drveil with appropriate and specific direction to the original content