Friday, October 25, 2013
Three Words That Became So Hard to Say
I saw Grandpa Jim, my dad’s dad, only a handful of times throughout his life. We visited when I was a baby, far too young to remember any of my family’s first visit to Texas with me, that trip living only through stories and a few photographs tucked away in a box that documents the earliest years of my life. I vaguely recall him coming up several years later when my mother passed away, though I suspect this hazy memory exists only because I know he was there, have been told by family, and as a result, I’ve concocted a memory that may or may not actually be real. We talked often—at least compared to frequency with which he talked to his other grandchildren. For most of his life, I lived the furthest away, yet whenever he called my dad, he was always quick to ask about me, or to talk to me if I was around. These conversations became more frequent as I grew older, perhaps because I gained more of an appreciation for family, regardless of the infrequency with which I saw them.
He was often late with birthday presents and wishes, when they came at all. It wasn’t uncommon for him to mention a birthday six or seven months later, or at least at Christmas. But I have a few memories of holiday presents: he sent me a VHS copy of Jurassic Park the year it came out, and I remember not knowing what to do with it or to say, as I already had a copy of it, likely bought by another set of grandparents, the ones to whom I was always closest. Of course, I said nothing of this to him. Another time, for either Christmas or my birthday, he sent me a knife, telling me that every boy needed a pocketknife. I hadn’t the heart to tell him that I had dozens, collected from trips and received as presents from others in the family, or that it was hardly a pocketknife, at least compared to others I had. It was large and thick, housed in a leather sheath and stored in a white cardboard case. There was no way it would fit in my pocket, and I wondered what the hell I was supposed to do with it.
All these years later, out of all the knives I’ve had, that’s the only one I can say with certainty that I know where it is. The sheath has long-since disappeared, but the knife itself rests in my living room, and I’ve found a variety of uses for it over the years. On a few occasions, I’ve misplaced it, and each time, a sense of urgency has swelled within me. Sure, with it gone, I obviously can’t use it, but purely for functional purposes, it could be easily replaced. Yet I’ve searched for each time until I’ve found it because of who gave it to me, and finding it has been like finding a lost puppy that’s wandered off.
One of my clearest memories of my grandfather comes from the last time my family and I visited him in Texas. For whatever reason, we were later in arriving than Grandpa Jim had expected—perhaps my dad had taken a wrong turn, or traffic had been worse than expected. It could really have been any number of things, but all I really remember is walking up to the door to meet Grandpa Jim and Grandma Jackie. Grandpa Jim opened the door, looked at us, and the first thing out of his mouth was, “Where the hell ya been, ya sonuvabitch?”
I would see him one more time during his life, several years later when he and Grandma Jackie would fly up for my wedding in 2008. By this time, he had battled cancer for years, struggling, relapsing. When I watched him and Grandma Jackie walk out of the Plaza Hotel in Ashland on a cool night in October, the first thing I thought was that he looked tired and rough. His hair was gone, which for some reason I hadn’t expected. He was clad in black jeans, a white dress shirt, and a leather jacket. Covering his bald head was a leather cabby hat, and as I watched him, I couldn’t help but think that the man who had once looked like Elvis—had even signed an autograph as the King himself when a stranger had stopped him at a gas station in the late 70's, convinced Grandpa Jim was the recently departed King of Rock ‘n Roll—now looked like an aged mob boss, rather like Dennis Hopper. And not the Rebel Without a Cause Dennis Hopper, but Dennis Hopper at the end. He took us all to dinner that first night in town, most of the family gathered all around a table for the first time in what must have seemed like a lifetime, and also the last, and I remember that what he did most was listen. He sat quietly, smiling, as we did what families do: catch up, bitch about work and school, and reminisce. Those who had the most stressful relationship with him cried, a lifetime of disappointments and struggles juxtaposed with the dying man who just listened. Somewhere there’s a photo of all the family, of those who came, taken by a waitress who was roped into manning the camera. God only knows where that photo is, but I oftentimes wish I had it.
I would see him for the last time a few days later, the day of my wedding. While we were still dancing and eating and catching up with friends who’d come to help us celebrate, Grandpa Jim and Grandma Jackie came up and said goodbye. They were heading back to the hotel early, as they had to leave early in the morning to visit family in northern Ohio before heading back south. They handed me a card and money, which I tried to refuse because I knew they couldn’t really afford it, and then they both hugged Amanda and me. I help Grandpa Jim longer than I would for a normal hug, for perhaps some part of me knew I’d likely never see him again.
When I started to write my first novel, the one on which I’m working now, Grandpa Jim was the first character to come to mind. Perhaps because he, in every sense of the word, was a character—larger than life, irascible, funny. By that time he had been dead less than year, finally succumbing to the cancer that had ravaged his body for years. And as I write, I’m reminded of him: the man he was and wasn’t, but perhaps more than that, I’m reminded of how much about him I don’t know. Every once in a while, my dad will tell me a story about him in his younger days, and I’m shocked at his antics. Many of the stories will work their way into the novel, for they’re not only a way to keep him and his memory alive, but they’re also wickedly funny, in turns perverse and poignant.
But perhaps what strikes me most is that as writers often pour our hearts and souls into our works, our characters whom we love as though they were real, as though they were family, and yet there are times in our real lives, times not concocted by our imaginations, when we have difficulty pouring those emotions into those around us. We’re more guarded, more cautious with our words and emotions.
I had a conversation recently with a friend who is also in the process of dating again after a divorce. She’s been referenced (though never named) several times in my posts, and she’s been a good sport about my using her in my writing. And we were talking about love, just as we’ve talked about what you call someone you’re dating when you’re divorced and past the age of eighteen, and the difficulty we as people can have with saying “I love you” to someone with whom we’re romantically involved. She told me that she was close to saying it to the guy with whom she had her first serious relationship after her divorce, and that she feels herself getting there with the guy she’s seeing now.
It’s one thing to say it to family and friends, especially when considering the different types of love—agape, eros, philia, and storge. It’s easy to discuss love amongst friends (philia love) or love of children (storge love), yet it can be hard to say it to another as love shifts from eros to agape, if and when it does. Regardless of how we feel and what we want to say, forming the words can be difficult, likely because once the words are said, they can’t be taken back. And there are times when you feel the urge to say those three words, the phrase dancing on the tip of your tongue, and so often we bite them off, shuffling them out of the way for something else, something less terrifying.
But why? Sure there’s the fear of the unknown, the uncertainty facing new relationships with new people, and we fear repeating the past. Is that it? Do we as writers pour our hearts into our characters out of a cowardice that allows us to find it easier to let our characters speak the words that scare us so?
This post has nothing to do with Grandpa Jim or love, at least exclusively, not really. Sure, he’s a central character in my novel, but I allow my characters to speak so many of the things I may be afraid to say in real life. My first story collection, currently titled “Small Town Tales and Sunday Stories,” which may someday see the light of day but has as of yet been read by only one person (the wonderful Travis Koll, who did a great job reviewing and editing my rough draft) is filled with characters who struggle with religion, doubt, dissatisfying relationships, the feelings of being stuck in a small town and wanting to get out, and of getting out and longing to come back. They become mouthpieces for views I can’t—or don’t—espouse in everyday life. And these themes and those like it are evident in my first two plays (which someone, someday, may read) and my novel. Themes of longing, of hurt, of love, and of struggling; themes of regret and the reconciliation between a life longed for and never realized—those everyday human themes that bind us, regardless of how seemingly disparate our lots in life are.
My grandfather and I talked several times in the intervening years, but the last time I would see him would be when I would scatter his ashes in 2010. He passed away just a few weeks shy of the two-year mark of his having come for my wedding. We loved each other, but we didn’t know each other well, yet he’ll live on in my writing, and with each story—perverse, crass, and poignant as it may be—maybe we’ll get to know each other even better.