This week marks one year since Grandpa Ken died. Something about Isaiah and his puttering and organizing this weekend reminded me so keenly of Ken that it made my chest ache and I marveled that it has been a year already. This is a piece I wrote for my graduate program last Spring. Mostly, though, I wrote it for us. For Jason and the boys. And for me.
You Go In Pieces
…he had no idea what to do about death.
Two thousand years of flaming Viking boats
and Celtic rites and Irish wakes and Puritan worship
and Unitarian hymns, and still he was left with nothing.”
— Andrew Sean Greer, Less
I pull his bathrobe off the hanger, the one we got him for Christmas, and drape it on the bed. Then I pull out his socks — so meticulously folded — his old shirts, his ratty slippers. I look at all his labeled boxes, his lotions and ointments and my word, there are more than twenty rolls of gauze here. I hold his razor in my hand and run my finger along the blade and think about how it touched his face. I find hundreds of glucose test strips and insulin syringes and I wonder what to do with them. Can I put them on Craigslist?
I used to worry that I would come downstairs one day — to change the laundry or let the dog out — and find him dead in his room when I popped in to say hello. I rolled the scenario around in my mind again and again, unspooling it, looking at it, and then coaching myself to remain calm and cool-headed so I’d be able to check for a pulse and call for an ambulance. But it never happened. I never found him on the floor or slumped over in the bathroom. The boys didn’t discover him with his head bowed on his keyboard and my husband, Jason, didn’t find him collapsed on the stairs. He is dead now but he didn’t die here.
In some Asian and South American cultures, it is common for people to place a picture of a dead loved one in a prominent place in the home. It is usually surrounded by various objects and trinkets that represent or belonged to the deceased; a makeshift shrine. The Yoruba people of southwestern Nigeria and Benin also construct shrines — these much more elaborate, requiring smudging, candle-lighting and the reciting of prayers — which are used as a focal point for communication with their ancestors. We don’t have anything like a shrine in our house for him. Well, maybe we do. Maybe the pile of his leftover rice noodles and garlic salt in the pantry is a sort of shrine.
How can I tell you, reader, about this man I worried would die in my house? When he came for a visit in the fall of 2014, we were shocked. We hadn’t realized how quickly his health was deteriorating; he couldn’t walk more than a few steps at a time, he couldn’t eat more than a couple bites, he was clearly in pain. We decided to invite him to live with us. He shouldn’t be alone, my husband and I reasoned in hushed tones after our boys, then four and five, had gone to bed and besides, he was practically family — almost like a dad to Jason — and he didn’t have anyone else and anyway, how long could it be, a few months?
He agreed to move in just as soon as he squared things away back home and checked in with his various and sundry doctors in Denver. But judging by what we had seen during his visit, we knew the process might take awhile. A long while. It seemed possible — likely even — that Ken might not make it back at all and maybe we wouldn’t have to do this hard thing — bring a dying man into the chaos of a household with two young kids. Maybe we would get credit for making the offer without actually having to follow through. Maybe it would all come to nothing. At the same time I fretted and worried that we had waited too long. The thought of him dying alone in Denver was untenable and besides, we hadn’t seen much of him in recent years so this would give us a chance to spend some time with him. How hard could it really be, anyway?
Maybe we romanticized the idea of it? Maybe we thought ourselves heroic and sacrificial and wanted to be known as the sort of people who would invite a dying man to come and stay. I don’t know. All I know is that by the time he made it back to our doorstep a few months later with his packing tape and paper clips, his syringes and gauze and soft brown slippers, he had started dialysis and had a whole new lease on life. The man who had been slumped over, shuffling and panting, trying to take a few steps in the rain the last time we saw him was now standing upright outside the airport, holding his suitcase and beaming.
“Well, I made it!” he said, shrugging his shoulders so that his suitcase lifted. I stared at him in wonder.
“Yes,” I said slowly, my eyes widening. “Yes, you sure did.”
The Torajan people in Indonesia dig up their dead every three years. They carefully exhume the bodies of relatives — some dead for 30 years or longer! — and then wash and dress the corpses in new clothes for the festival of Ma’nene. Families take pictures with their long-dead loved ones — in various states of decay and decomposition — and then repair or replace their coffins before re-burying them at the end of the festival.
I don’t think Ken wore new clothes a day in his life. He preferred the perfect find from Goodwill over the expense of a new shirt or sweatpants from Macy’s or The Gap. I wonder what the Torajan people would think if we dressed Ken’s corpse in a threadbare fleece or sagging sweater from The Value Village.
“This is Grandpa Ken. He’s… uh, he’s Jason’s… like his dad, I guess.”
. . .
“This is Ken. He’s my father-in-law. Sort of. I mean, not really. He’s Jason’s, um… like…”
. . .
“Is he my ersatz dad? Is that the right word?” “No, ersatz is an inferior substitute for the real thing.” “Oh, no, not that.”
. . .
“Your surrogate dad! That’s what he is! Surrogate means substitute.”
. . .
“Whatever, he’s just Ken.”
He’s just Ken. Because what should Jason call the man who signed up to be his “big brother” after his dad died when he was eight? What should he call the man who, age-wise, was more like a father than a brother; who continued to check in on him and write him letters even after Jason’s family moved overseas two years later? What should he call the man who stuck with him through his entire pre-teen and teenage years, taking him camping when he came back to the States to visit and on long, meandering road trips during summer breaks, and taught him about railroads and the joys of hot springs and listened as Jason talked about girls and friendships and frustrations with his mother? What should he call the man who stood in our wedding and became a grandfather to our boys and came to visit every few years until finally he came to stay forever?
Isaiah, age 5, climbs the stairs that lead up to the main level of our house and wanders into the kitchen.
“There you are, where have you been hiding out?” I ask, stirring onions in the skillet.
“In Grandpa Ken’s room.”
“Oh, I should have known. What were you up to?”
“Office work,” Isaiah says, nodding gravely.
“Yeah? What kind of office work?”
“You know,” he waves his hand, “we printed some things. And we did some numbers. And then Grandpa Ken took a little nap.”
“Is he still sleeping?”
“No, he woke up and we did some more numbers.”
“What did you do while he was sleeping?”
“Nothing,” he shrugged. “I just waited for him. And I blew on his train whistle.”
In the United States, and many other western cultures, we have allowed the funeral industry to take charge of managing our dead. Before the Civil War, we took care of our dead at home. The family, namely the women of the house, would dress and prepare the deceased for burial right there in the sitting room or parlour. But the Civil War, when so many men died away from home and embalming was necessary to preserve their bodies until they could be sent back for burial, changed how we handle death and dying. It marked the transition of death care from a family affair to an industry all its own.
Taking death out of our homes, however, has meant that death is hidden from the public eye and as such, has become something unknown and, for most of us, quite fearful. Many morticians and scholars alike have noted that American culture is ill-equipped to deal with death and its accompanying grief due to our lack of exposure. We no longer have the death and mourning rituals that help people process and make sense of profound loss.
I thought that when he died, it would just be over. He would be over. Done with. All finished. I thought that he would be here and then he wouldn’t and there would be a certain finality about it. But six months later I am still using his leftover lotion and we haven’t finished the pack of toilet paper that he picked up at Costco in September. Last night when I was making dinner I found some of his leftover lime juice that he liked to squeeze into his sparkling water. He touched this, I thought, as I pulled the dimpled green bottle from the back of the fridge. And this, as I reached later for the lemon pepper. There isn’t a place I can go in my house where I don’t see things that he bought, things that he built, things that his hand rested casually upon. When will all the traces of him be gone? When will we finish the last things — the toilet paper, the super glue, the frozen meals he always bought but never ate? Will we know that it’s the last thing and the last time? Probably not.
He didn’t want a funeral or memorial service. He didn’t want a gathering of any sort. Several friends and even a seldom-seen brother gathered around him during his final days, which was a kind of gathering in its own right, but then he was cremated and that was that. An old friend is the executor of his will and that is the only ritual connection that we have to him now — the intermittent phone calls from a woman named Darlene, who explains the details and nuances of listing his Denver apartment and when we can expect to receive a check.
The Apayaos people in the Philippines bury their dead under the kitchen. It certainly would have been an apt place to bury Ken. After he moved in, there was rarely a time when I was in the kitchen and he wasn’t. He was omnipresent in the kitchen. Infinite. Eternal. Cooking tilapia in the toaster oven at 7:30 in the morning while I poured cereal for the boys. Stirring butter and garlic into his beloved noodles at lunchtime. Frying a small cut of filet mignon on the stove while I pulled an afternoon espresso and always, always right behind me when I was cooking dinner.
“Ugh, I can’t. I just can’t,” I bury myself under my blankets and put my hands over my ears. I hum a little under the covers, waiting for the sounds of his hacking in the bathroom by the kitchen — his preferred location for this activity — to subside, as he hawks up more phlegm than any reasonable person should be able to expel from their body. I peak out at Jason, next to me in bed. He has the look of longsuffering as he stares resolutely at the book he is holding, trying to read.
“Hey Ken, what are you doing out here?”
“Oh, just sitting in the sun,” he looks up at me from the rickety chair on our front porch. “It feels good,” he adds, raising his eyebrows.
“Can I get you anything? A book or…?”
“No, no, I just want to sit here and feel it.”
After the death of a loved one, the Tinguian people in the Philippines dress their dead in their finest clothes and then place them in a chair with a lit cigarette in their mouth. I imagine propping Ken in our old rocking chair but a cigarette doesn’t seem right for him. Probably we would prop a train whistle in his lap; an ode to his years of working for and loving all things railroad.
“There you are! What are you doing up here?” Jason asks, walking into our bedroom one morning to find me on the floor by the bed, hunched awkwardly over my laptop, typing. Ken had been living with us for nearly four years. “That doesn’t look like a good position for your back, why aren’t you downstairs?”
“Ummm…” I look up at him.
A knowing look crosses his face and he tilts his head to one side, smiling.
“Are you hiding up here?”
“What, you don’t want to talk about water retention and dialysis numbers? You don’t want to talk about the terrible service at Safeway and that strange sound the Honda’s been making? No? Don’t want to talk about the weird ear wax situation he discovered last night or the enema he’s thinking about trying?”
I close my eyes and take a long, slow breath. “I really, really don’t.”
He laughs and I return to my hunch-backed writing.
Some South Koreans have recently taken to using the ashes of loved ones to make what they call “burial beads.” Due to diminishing space for bodily burial, more and more South Koreans are turning instead to cremation in the densely populated nation. Once cremated families can take the ashes to companies like Bonhyang, located south of Seoul, and have the remains melted under ultra-high temperatures until they crystalize, turning them into gem-like beads. The process takes less than 90 minutes and can produce more than five cups of beads. Folks usually keep the beads inside glass containers or place them on decorative dishes. It’s a new take on the Confucian principle to respect the dead and visit their grave and it’s been steadily gaining in popularity.
On his last birthday, seven months before he died, I asked Ken what he wanted to eat. With dilapidated kidneys that were barely functioning despite the dialysis, piled on top of heart disease, on top of diabetes, on top of low blood pressure, on top of neuropathy, the guy’s options were pretty limited. But he had been in and out of the hospital several times in the preceding weeks and it seemed to me that if there was ever a time to throw caution to the wind, this might be it. He seemed to agree.
“Lemon cake with vanilla frosting,” he answered immediately.
I can still see him, in my mind’s eye, sitting at our kitchen table in his bathrobe, smiling contentedly as we presented him with the lemon cake. I remember how the four of us ringed around him, Jupiter’s moons, and sang him “Happy Birthday.” Or maybe I don’t remember. Maybe I just remember the pictures. It’s hard to say for sure.
The Caviteño people living near Manilla in the Philippines hollow out the trunk of a tree, usually selected before the death of a loved one, and then entomb the dead vertically inside the tree. As the tree nourished and gave itself — its fruit, its shade, its wood for fires — to the tribe, now the tribe gives itself back to the tree.
“Do you think Grandpa Ken is in heaven?” I ask Gryffin, my ten-year-old, as we walk in the woods near our house. Ken had been dead for three weeks.
“Yeah,” he answers.
“Where do you think heaven is?”
Without hesitation, he lifts his arm and points down the hillside to an unreachable-by-foot spot filled with ferns and fallen down trees. “It’s down there.”
“Heaven is down there?”
“Yeah, it’s a hidden place in the woods. You get to it through a secret entrance.”
I miss him. I miss hearing the sound of a train whistle coming from his computer when I go downstairs to change the laundry. I miss walking into his room and seeing him swivel around in his chair with a smile. I miss how he went to Costco for me. I miss watching him help the boys with their homework out on the front porch in the Fall and I miss how he would tell me I was a good mom. I even miss his shuffling presence in the kitchen and I miss how he always did the dishes and how he and I would hold down the fort when Jason was out of town and how he seemed to take it as his personal mission in life to make sure the fridge never ran low on La Croix because he had noticed that we liked it. I miss him.
He died in hospice care more than a thousand miles away. Away from our house and the room he occupied for four years with his elaborate set up of space heaters and fans. Away from our dog who liked to lounge in his muggy room every morning during the cold Seattle winters. Away from his label maker and mailing supplies, his multitude of gauze. Away from our boys and away from me and it all happened so quickly and the boys and I didn’t get to see him one last time and touch his onion paper hand and say quiet words as he went.
When he was back in Colorado for his yearly consults with his team of doctors, his blood pressure plummeted so precipitously that he had to be hospitalized. After several days in the ICU trying, unsuccessfully, to raise his blood pressure, the decision was made to stop his dialysis. He was given three to seven days to live and moved immediately to hospice care. Jason made it in time — just barely — to sit with him at the hospice house; to reminisce; to read him the letters we sent. To help him to the bathroom and listen to him snore. To say a blessing over him just hours before he died while he stared up at Jason from the bed, his eyes clear and keen.
I pull his bathrobe off the bed and hold it in my hands. I clench and unclench it in my fists. It was his for less than a year and it still feels new. I imagine him standing at the stove in it, grilling a small slab of steak at 10:30 in the morning (“The doctor says I need more protein!”) and smiling at me with his eyebrows raised and a small shrug of his bony shoulders under the gray fleece. I whirl the soft fabric over my shoulders and pull it on over my clothes. Tying the sash, I sit down on the bed where he used to sleep with his CPAP chugging, his space heaters whirring and his mini fridge humming. I take my foot and half-kick the gauze and glucose into a pile. The test strips and syringes, too. I bend over and arrange the boxes of bandaids and paper clips into a circle around the growing mountain of medical supplies. His socks and slippers are there. His lotions and long johns and label maker. I gently place his razor on top of the pile and then I sit back and survey my work.