“Yeah, grandpa is dead.”
With those four words, I had discovered that my beloved grandfather had finally succumbed to the cancer that was eating away at his brain. I was a freshman at college, sitting in my dorm at my desk, waiting for the NFL Pro Bowl to start on TV. My roommate, Walter, was on his bed, staring down at what I could only assume was either anime porn or Pokémon on his laptop. I saw my mother’s face on the caller ID as my phone wildly vibrated on the desk. I immediately knew. I had been waiting for this call for nearly two weeks, since I returned to my dorm following winter break. I answered the phone and took a breath. This was not going to be one of those “Oh, Jared, how’s school going?” conversations. This was going to be a good ol’ fashioned “Hey, Jared, just letting you know your grandpa is DEAD” one.
My response to my mother was simply, “Oh, alright.” We knew it was coming for over a month, ever since the doctors informed my grandfather that his headaches were not caused by what he thought was earwax, but they were instead caused by the spreading of melanoma to his brain. My grandpa was one of my most favorite people in the world, so, even though I usually hate cancer, I REALLY hated cancer at that moment. I hated cancer so much that, if I saw it at a party, I might have had a word or two with it and let it know that I hated it so much.
I hung up the phone, shut my laptop, and then just relaxed on my bed, waiting for the band Train to perform before the Pro Bowl kicked off. I think I might have been in shock, because I remember feeling like I was living in a dream. Someone who I loved dearly had just died, and part of me did not want to believe it. It felt as if I was living outside of my body, and I just felt the change in the air. I kept thinking to myself, “Grandpa is dead. Grandpa is dead. Grandpa is dead.” I knew things would eventually be okay, because they always are, but, at that moment, I just felt off about something. It was the simple fact that I would never be able to see him again, or to call him and talk about sports, or to joke around with him and challenge him to a boxing match, or to tell him to stop commenting on my friends’ Facebook posts. Memories of all the good times filled my mind, and I was very disheartened that there would be no more new memories involving him.
I thought Train would lighten my mood, but I was dead wrong. The band’s performance was absolutely horrendous. In fact, they were so bad, that I remember thinking, Well, at least my grandpa doesn’t have to see this. Their voices were scratchy, their music sounded off, and it was quite frankly rude of them to play such an upbeat song when I had just found out that my grandfather had died. Like, show some respect.
I texted my brother about my grandfather and he responded in one of the most memorable ways imaginable: “What? He’s dead?”
“… You didn’t know…”
“Nobody called me!” I felt terrible. My brother was at work, and it did not even cross my mind that he may not have known. He was always the more emotional brother, and I could picture him at his desk in his office, shaking, tears streaming down his face. For some reason, I felt like an older kid telling his little cousin that Santa Claus does not exist. I ruined the surprise for my brother. He deserved to find out on his own, and not just have me text him about it. Nobody ever wants to find something like this out through a measly text message.
However, my brother, the jackass that he is, followed up his shocked texts with, “Dude, I’m obviously joking right now. I knew.”
“You piece of shit.” We both laughed over the joke. It is something we still laugh about. Some people may see it as “heartless,” but I know it is something that my grandfather would have appreciated. He would want us to keep our heads held high and to retain the same happy attitudes that we always carried with us. In situations like these, it was always my family’s offbeat sense of humor that pulled us through the tough times. Over my twenty years of life, I have learned that the only people who understand this strange sense of humor are the people who also have it. I think it is just a mechanism we use to deal with grieving. Regardless of why we use it, I know that I much prefer laughing and joking to crying and mourning.
It was only family and several close friends at the wake. Although I would have preferred more people to show respect for my grandfather, I did not mind the company that was there. We all knew each other and we spoke about fun memories and the good times. Specifically, we recounted the irony of my grandfather’s death. As my mother said a countless number of times, “Who would have ever guessed it would be his fucking brain.” She was right. Out of every relative and family-friend, everyone agreed that his brain was perfectly fine for most of his life. He was a quick thinker, never showed any signs of dementia or Alzheimer’s, and was always on the ball. In a million years – no, TEN millions years – we never would have thought that his brain would be the thing that failed him.
His heart, however, was another story. He was always in and out of the doctor’s office due to his vast heart complications. Due to these complications, we always thought grandpa would die of an unexpected, expected massive heart attack in a shopping mall or in Sears. It was a Hussey family tradition to drop dead of a massive heart attack.
I recalled my favorite of my grandfather’s stories, “Remember when he was pronounced dead twice on the operating table?” We argued over the validity of this tale, as some people just dismissed it as urban legend. Still, it was fun to share and talk about.
As family gatherings usually went, everyone eventually turned to me as the butt of all the jokes. There was always much debate over who would win in a boxing match – my grandfather or myself. These discussions continued even after his death. My uncle pointed out, “Too bad he’s never gonna be able to box you. He’d kick your ass.”
I refuted, “Are you kidding me? I wouldn’t go easy on him. I’d win in a knockout.”
Then my brother contested, “Jared, he had six inches on you and like one-hundred pounds.” The whole family laughed. I genuinely do believe that I would have won in a fight, but perhaps it is better that we never actually boxed. This way, the topic of the winner can still be a point of conversation, and I also never have to deal with the embarrassment of losing a boxing match against an old man.
The stories eventually turned to my grandfather’s time in the Army, his minor league baseball days, and then his life as an illegal bread salesman. My own father personally loved the stories of the crooked and illegal things that my grandfather did in his earlier years. He would steal stale bread off of bakery trucks and then warm them on a furnace and sell them as fresh bread. All of the “kids” of the family looked at my dad with wide eyes as he told the tales, as if he was our teacher and we were young kids in story time.
My father was in the middle of telling a story about how my grandpa was running from the cops, when my mom chimed in, “Really nice, Kevin. Tell them all about the bad things he’s done. That’s great.” My mom hated hearing these stories, but we loved them. It’s not like we were taking pointers on how to be con men. We just really enjoyed hearing the unique things that my grandfather did. We had stories for days, and we never were bored of hearing any of them.
The funeral was to be held on a Tuesday, a whole day later than expected because apparently funeral homes are closed on Martin Luther King Jr. Day. My father is not racist, but the words that came out of his mouth made Bill O’Reilly look liberal. My mother decided to let the racist remarks slide, mainly because we were burying my dad’s father, which was a good excuse for his frustration.
The family lined up around the hole in the ground as a priest said a final prayer. My brother flicked my ear, and then I elbowed him in the gut. We were not devout Christians by any stretch of the imagination. I looked around at my family and saw everyone doing different things, such as Uncle Mike on his phone and cousin Evan bobbing to a beat in his head. Only a handful of family members followed suit and closed their eyes in prayer with the priest.
As the body was being lowered into the ground, my Godfather approached me and swung his arm around my shoulders. He smiled, “Only the good die young, Jared. Only the good die young.”
I smiled back at him and nodded. However, what I really wanted to say was, “What the fuck do you mean ‘only the good die young?’ He was SEVENTY-EIGHT.” I doubt my Godfather was implying that my grandfather was not a good man. I just think he was trying to say something inspirational, and it totally backfired, since being inspirational is not in my Godfather’s bag of tricks.
Following the funeral, my whole family went out to eat afterward. At some points, it felt like we were all just grabbing food and having a mini-reunion with some relatives. There were no sobbing aunts or crying children. It was all very quite nice, actually. We shared more stories and told more jokes about grandpa.
It was like he was still here.