It baffles me to think that I remember exactly what I was wearing 26 years ago today. Green and black sweater with cropped jeans… tan leather jacket. About now, I was sitting in the stands at Ravsten Stadium with my friends while the sophomore boys football team played. My sister was at a dinner with the varsity volleyball team. My mom, at the hospital with her dad.
I don’t remember what my sister was wearing – I think it was dress clothes, but I think she was also wearing her varsity jacket. All I remember is hearing her yell my name, and looking down at the stairs and seeing her looking up at me absolutely grief-stricken. I shot up, ran down a few steps and, remembering I didn’t say anything to my totally confused friends, turned and ran back up to say “my grandpa’s dying,” before I took off down the stairs again.
Kendra had already taken off, and she was a shitload faster than me. I don’t know what kicked in that I was able to catch up with her, but I did. I don’t remember running that fast again since. But it really was like slow motion. And it really was like everything in every second was carving itself into my psyche.
We had all been waiting my entire life for this day – my life plus 4 years. Doctors had told grandpa in 1967 that he had 6 months to live. He managed another 18 years after that. So my whole life and through the lives of everyone in my family, his death was an ever-present undercurrent in every conversation.
It’s an interesting way to grow up.
So many details of that night are still so clear to me. I still remember walking by the breakroom and seeing a haze of smoke lingering over the table, as all the nurses who were caring for my dying grandpa smoked like the emphysema that was claiming his life wouldn’t touch theirs. My mom asked them how they could smoke and still take care of people who were dying from doing so. “You learn how to separate yourself from the patients,” she said.
I can’t separate myself from the way she said “the patients.” I also can’t forget walking into the room and seeing my mom sobbing as she held his hand. She was named for him and was his only biological child, although he accepted and adopted my grandma’s 2 children as his own, just the same. Her name was going to be Radean or Ray Dean, regardless of what chromosomes she showed up with. And I remember with crystalline clarity the second I walked in there and knew that we had only moments left. I didn’t know then how I knew – I just did. I bolted to the hallway and found my dad sitting on the floor. I said “Daddy, grandpa’s dying,” with tears streaming down my face, and he said “I know, sweetie,” and he looked at me with a sadness I had never seen before. I said, “No, he’s dying NOW.” He was gone not five minutes later.
Everyone was standing in a circle in the room. My uncle Dale said a prayer, because he’s the one who always gets nominated to say the prayer at family events. I couldn’t breathe.
I took off down the hallway, my arms crossed in front of my chest, noting that it was nearly 3 AM and how ironic was it that grandpa died around the same time that he would’ve normally turned off the TV and gone to bed anyway. My face was lined with tears that seemed to be never-ending. I passed a nurse who looked at me and detached herself when she realized she had nothing to offer. And at that precise moment, when I would have looked to my grandpa for what to do next because my heart was broken in a million pieces, I felt him go into my soul, and I heard him say “Dammit, baby, stop it.” It was so clear it made me stop in my tracks.
I stopped crying. A sense of calm came over me and I looked around at my family and I knew then what I would come to understand more fully 20 years later – that life goes on, and love never ceases, even when our bodies finally fail us and we move on.
Grandpa — Bevily Ray Hudson (yes, his first name was really Bevily, everyone, according to the Warren County census) — was born on October 26, 1922, and died on October 25, 1985. And on October 28 – the day we put him in the ground – he came back in a way that only he could have.
Grandpa had always said, “Put me in a pine box and put me in the goddamn ground. I don’t want no damn funeral.” Usually followed by something like “I’ll come back and get you.” We would usually laugh it off and explain that the damn funeral was for us and not for him.
So while I’d like to think that it was all just a big joke to him and he just didn’t want people crying over his casket, we never really took it as anything but idle words. Until Harley hit the house.
To give this some context, when my grandpa died, the nice men at the funeral home, with whom we had shared his good-natured threat to come back and make us regret any sort of ceremony, said things like, “we’ll keep it small, don’t worry,” and “he’s been out of circulation so long, I would bet it will just be family.” Grandpa had been THAT sick for THAT long. I think the people at the funeral home knew my grandpa, but they didn’t know the kind of loyalty a man like him engendered in his friends.
When I first started to worry about the size of the funeral was when we arrived at the funeral home. There were cars. LOTS of cars. There were people. LOTS of people. Standing outside on the sidewalk, in the carport, everywhere. And walking in was like going to a rock concert – squeezing my way past people so that we could get to the front of the chapel where the family was supposed to sit. His funeral was so big, they had to open the overflow room and start piping the service through the speakers outside so those who couldn’t get in could still hear.
My mother shot A Look to the director of the funeral home, who looked at us and shrugged, smiling as he cast his eye around the hundreds of elderly, potential client families who were in attendance. The funeral was beautiful. I didn’t cry once.
When we got home, my mother and I went to Grandma’s house across the street. She was perched in her recliner, cigarette smoke curling out from the ashtray beside her. And when it was the most quiet and my mother and grandma had collected their tears, and we were just breathing – BOOM! The entire house shook. And then it was quiet. Eerily quiet.
I ran outside, and there was nothing in front of the house. I had half expected to see a crashed plane in the middle of the road. And then I heard my mother.
“Harley, what the hell are you doing?”
I spun around – and I saw the car, which only moments ago was traveling eastbound down our street. It had somehow missed the house on the corner entirely, taking out only the heat pump on the side – and its passenger side headlight had pierced the siding nearest the foundation directly under my grandparent’s east bedroom window.
Harley’s car hit the house, within hours of my grandpa’s warned-us-about-funeral. My grandma was inside, chewing on valium like tic tacs, my mom was outside dealing with her friend being taken away in a cop car, my dad was chewing the fat with the tow truck driver, and I was standing there at 14 wondering how incredibly powerful my grandpa must have been on the other side to have taken control of a motor vehicle – and crash it into his house.