He was larger than life and yet, when thinking of the years before grandma died, I hardly remember him except as a shadow – slightly to the side and behind her. However, I became aware of his physical presence almost instantly in a most tangible way when she was gone.
I was eleven years old when she passed away and I remember blips of the event. I was sitting on a couch with my siblings, my parents telling us the news with their voices cracking. Somehow I guessed what they were going to tell us just an instant before they did. For just two seconds, I both marveled at and prided myself in my eerie sixth sense and in the third second, my heart dropped. My grandmother was the embodiment of life. She was passionate and intense, filled with fire. She could make your heart stop or swell depending on how she looked at you. She was the absolute definition of what it meant to be alive. It was impossible for her to be dead but somehow she was. It was unbelievable and gut wrenching and actually happening.
My next memory is of my dad leaving – she was being buried out of state. Later, somehow, we met him there for the funeral. The family convened at a large house belonging to a friend. We all half-slept in makeshift beds, several of us to a room, strangers pretending to be close. I stayed in a sprawling attic room in a double bed with my cousin who was a year older. We were the type of cousins who were close in age and therefore were expected to have a close relationship and so we did. It was a complicated relationship mostly driven by my need for guidance and approval and her need to break out of the role of lowest common denominator. She was the youngest in her family and though we were all quite dysfunctional, she held the prize for most fucked-up family situation since her father and brother had both committed suicide. Her life was seriously out of control and our relationship allowed her to regain some control – she called the shots and I went along, adoringly.
The other part of the attic room held what seemed like the tiniest twin size bed I’d ever seen. Of course “twin size” would indicate a standard size of bed, but since it was the bed my grandfather slept in, it was instantly dwarfed. The sleeping arrangements were confusing to me at the time: two eleven-year-old girls on one side of the room and a grieving old man on the other. It was awkward and uncomfortable. Where one sleeps is where they are most exposed and the sadness that hung in the air was large enough to have it’s own atmosphere. We were surrounded and stifled by it without really being mature enough to know what it was.
At night we were put to bed early so the adults could make plans and cry and drink, and we would lay in that bed talking and giggling. Of course we knew the seriousness of the situation and had cried many tears, but it was also exciting. We only saw each other once a year or so and I only had a short time to find out this year’s fads and adjust my speaking to reflect some iota of “cool factor.” But eventually my cousin would fall asleep and I, already being shit at sleeping in the same bed with someone else, would lie there, moving half in and out of consciousness with a heightened awareness of the shadows on the slanted ceiling. And finally grandpa would lumber in, attempting to be quiet but I could lie there with my eyes closed mapping his path, step-by-step, to his tiny bed. I remember hearing him finally collapse on the bed, almost immediately falling asleep. Then within seconds the snoring began.
It was quiet and benign at first – a lullaby. I could follow the hills and valleys of each snore in an almost Zen-like state. For a long while, it was my meditation and I succumbed to sleep. But with a start I awoke as his snoring changed abruptly, jarring me into instant consciousness, eyes wide open, staring. I elbowed my cousin until she woke and made her listen. Each sound was guttural and jagged, a heart-wrenching song. We didn’t speak for a long while as we lay there. The sound was coming from so deep inside of his body; even his organs were rich with tone. I remember I held my breath. I felt as though we were trespassing. This was too personal for us to be a part of. We had no business being here; couldn’t understand this level of emotion. On one hand, it was just snoring, but on the other hand it was unchecked emotion brought to its most raw form.
Being eleven, we couldn’t speak all of this. There was simply a strangeness hanging over us. My cousin was upset that I had woken her up in the first place and it took some time to overcome that hurtle. Eventually we began to troubleshoot. Obviously, we needed to make it stop. Somehow we came to the conclusion that grandpa needed to be turned. We really knew nothing of the physiology of snoring and our rationalization for this solution was simply borne out of the hope that if we somehow roused him, just a bit, his breathing pattern would adjust and the snoring would stop. Now that we had the answer, we had to figure out logistics. Somehow the solution that had seemed so simple was suddenly made unbelievably complex when we started to ponder the how. And of course the question hovering above both of us was the one of who would do the deed.
In order to actually turn him, one of us had to get out of bed and sneak, ninja-fashion, to the other side of the dark room. There were obstacles – chairs and clothes on the floor – plus this was an unfamiliar setting for both of us. One could never know which squeaky floorboard would rise to whine against the pressure of our feet. And even if one could make it across the room, I had large doubts that either of us (or even both of us combined) actually had the ability to move him.
With this doubt growing larger in my mind coupled with the knowledge that my cousin was definitely going to insist that I do the turning, I started to try to downplay the snoring. As I did, a strange sort of fire lit inside of my cousin. Something that she had only mildly cared about in the first place became something for her to take a militant stance for. She was wired that way I suppose – to be the sort of person to immediately rebel when someone told her not to do something; the sort of person reverse psychology was created for. And so we argued. She insisted that we, I, turn him. We had a big day tomorrow with the funeral and needed our sleep. There would be no way we could rest with the constant, driving snore. I absolutely had to move him: our friendship, our relationship, our lives were at stake.
Finally with a sick feeling in my gut, I rolled out of bed. Immediately when my toes touched the floor, the snoring stopped and I held my breath, hesitating. As it started back up, the sour feeling in my stomach did too. I stood and started the tenuous walk on tiptoe, growing increasingly nauseous as I got closer to the tiny bed and the large form consuming it. This whole thing felt wrong. It felt too private – like walking in on a neighbor masturbating or your uncle taking a shower. I was intruding on something I didn’t understand and once I got to his bedside, I knew there was no way I could touch him. I couldn’t physically bring myself to reach out, let alone attempt to find leverage for the shift that was supposed to take place.
Suddenly he stopped snoring again and I bounded across the room to the safety of my bed, paying no mind to the creaks in the floor or the monster-y shapes on the walls. By the time I reached the bed, he had started again and my cousin was stifling back giggles. It had become a game.
I wanted to be cool in her eyes more than anything. I wanted to have something to offer her other than my weird pre-pop culture vocabulary. But I was tired and she just pushed and pushed, wanting to see how far I’d go, how much I’d do for approval. I got up a few more times, just going through the motions really, knowing there was no way I would actually touch grandpa. And each time, as I got close, he would stop snoring and I would run back to the big bed, my cousin collapsing in laughter. We were wide-awake now and the snoring was really inconsequential. It was more of a macabre power struggle with the snoring on the sidelines.
Eventually I stopped. I just said I wouldn’t do it anymore. She weakly tried to argue but she knew the jig was up. She’d won anyway and the amusement was gone. She sighed and rolled over in a fake over-dramatic huff and I did the same. Then I listened as her breathing became regular and once again, it was just the rise and fall of my grandpa’s snore and I.