Twenty Years Later
Twenty years ago today, my mother’s father died. I was sixteen years old, and losing my grandfather was the closest I’d ever come to understanding mortality. After the years of anger and confusion and fear of death that came as a result of that day, I feel like I’m finally close to understanding the lesson that John Hermann Tebo’s death was meant to teach me.
That lesson? Well, I believe it’s that life is brief, and unpredictable, but that it is also full of beauty that is right there in front of you if you will only just open your eyes and your ears, your nose, your mouth, your body and your soul.
I’ve been trying for twenty years to write a story about what the end of the summer of 1994 was like for me, what it was like to lose that man. This is the closest I’ve come. It’s not finished, but a story rarely ever is.
“The Right Set of Eyes”
The hardest thing, when it came to writing the family history, was figuring out where to begin. The beginning seemed like a natural enough place, but Matt knew that there wasn’t as much meat there. And he wasn’t writing some dry, lifeless genealogical register, so there was no real need to start at the beginning at all. What he was writing was memoir, and that meant that starting in medias res was as valid a choice as starting ab initio. But, if it was to be in medias res, then where in the middle? That was a question he still couldn’t answer. He could have started with his father lost behind enemy lines in some jungle halfway around the world. He could have started further back, with his grandparents getting lost on purpose during a road trip through the Merrimack Valley. Or he could have started even further back than that, with his great-grandfather losing himself in the pages of William Shakespeare while cousins lost themselves at sea.
Matt cast a longing glance out his open window. Choosing to make the old playroom his office had been a less than brilliant idea, what with the ghosts of giggling children who haunted him constantly, but on late summer days, like this one, his choice of a workspace seemed downright idiotic. This room got more light than any other in the house, caught more of the sea breeze too, and it had always been a place to escape from work, not to escape to it.
The room was filled with books now, stacks upon stacks upon stacks. Old paperbacks he and Grampy would pick up while cruising for yard sales on Saturday afternoons, library books that were so overdue he might as well have bought the damn things, and newish hardcovers and paperbacks he bought by the truckload whenever he went up to Boston. An enormous old map of Harwich, circa 1850, took up most of one wall, and though the map was one of only a half-dozen copies in existence, Matt hadn’t let that keep him from sticking it with dozens of pushpins, each of brightly colored marker indicating a significant location in his story. On the other walls, and then on the floors, when he’d run out of room, Matt had placed all of the old family portraits that he and Grampy could find, the same portraits that would travel with him to another office, some six years hence. And he had the collected works of Dottie Silver in there as well, just for good measure.
As far as his own book went, all he had to show for himself, after nearly five years of research and interviews, were six drafts of a bullshit intro, each one marked with a red X and a note which read, ‘It’s not about you.’ And so, he tossed the notepad back up onto the desk, stood up, and headed for the door.
He called out his grandfather’s name as he stepped into the kitchen. And while he waited for an answer, he pulled open the fridge and plucked a bottle of water from it. “Gramp,” he called out again. “I’m headin’ down the beach for a little while.”
But there was no answer.
And then, suddenly, the coughing.
The coughing—for years, it was something he just did. He’d still worked a forty-hour week down at his garage whenever there was work to be had. He’d still chased his grandchildren around the yard, and down to the beach, back when being chased by a shirtless old kook in a pair of yellow swim trunks was still fun. The coughing had never really interrupted anything. It’d never forced any changes in his life. As long as he had a hankie around to cover his mouth, he didn’t let the cough get in the way of anything.
But over this last year, things had changed. Lately, he hadn’t been able to get through Sundays at Church without going outside two or three times to catch his breath. And he hadn’t been eating much at dinner, something he blamed, in his hoarse voice, on a sore throat that just wouldn’t quit. Over the last month or so, he’d been having trouble getting out of bed because of his back, something he’d refused to see the doctor about—“Age is just catching up with me, Matthew. I am eighty, for Pete’s sake. ’Bout Time.”
And, of course, the cough had gotten worse. When Matt pled for Grampy to open the locked bathroom door, the only response he received was a hack so deep and so guttural that it sounded as if the old man was retching up his very soul.
Behind the door, there was the sound of the toilet flushing and then, of the lock turning. Matt pushed the door open gently. Grampy sat on the floor, with his back against the toilet, and he wiped at his mouth with a piece of toilet paper. Blood soaked the front of his t-shirt clean-through.
“Gramp,” Matt said, the words stumbling out of him. “You’ve gotta let me call…”
Much to Matt’s surprise, Grampy cut him off with a curt nod. “Must’ve forgotten my apple,” he wheezed. “Can’t keep away the doc no more…”
“It’s oat cell carcinoma,” the doctor told them. “And it’s metastasized.”
Matt wasn’t sure what metastasized meant, but it clearly wasn’t good. The look on the doctor’s face—or, rather, the absence of any look at all, the absence of so much as a twitch when he said the word—told him all he needed to know. This was a rehearsed line, and a rehearsed face. The doctor had stepped into the linen closet they’d passed on the way in, found the secret doctor’s compartment where they stored faces for different situations, and slipped the appropriate one on. Matt suddenly wondered if obstetricians ever accidentally slipped on car accident faces when the time came to go out into the lobby and announce that it was a boy (or a girl).
“Now, before we go any further,” Grampy was saying, his hoarse voice steady, though a near-whisper. “You’re only in here because I trust you, Matthew. You’re not to breathe a word of this to the family.”
“Mister Silver,” the doctor said, a note of concern in his voice.
“My children do not need to worry about this. I’m an eighty-year old man, for Pete’s sake. If it’s my time, then it’s my time.”
“Mister Silver,” the doctor said. “Sir, the cancer has spread to your spine, to your liver, and to your brain. Sir, we’re not sure how long...”
“Nobody’s sure how long,” Grampy rasped, his face contorted with anger. “Only God knows,” he told them, calmer.
“Gramp,” Matt said, surprised by the fragility of his own voice. “You’ve got to tell them. They’ll want to see you.”
“If they were meant to see me, then they’ll see me,” he said.
“But Mister Silver, how will you explain this hospital visit?”
“Why do I need to explain it at all?” asked Grampy. “Why even mention it? And if it is mentioned, we’ll just chalk it up the hernia, right? You said there was a hernia, didn’t you?”
“Yes, Mister Silver. We did repair a hernia, but…”
“No buts,” Grampy said, waving his hands as if to end the matter once and for all. “No one is to know.”
But Matt knew.
And when Michael and Uncle Albert showed up a few days later, it was all Matt could do to convince Grampy that he had kept his word. “Check the phone bill when it comes,” said Matt.
“What about that computer of yours?” Grampy asked, peeking out the window to get a better look at the new car that their visitors had arrived in. “You can send messages from that now, can’t you?”
“Yeah, Gramp. But the person at the other end needs a computer, too. And Uncle Al doesn’t have or want one.”
Grampy grunted, and Matt wasn’t sure if he was convinced. “That car they’re driving’s built like a damn spaceship,” said Grampy. “And look, here comes batty old Sally Brown from next door to have a look. Whole neighborhood’s going to be over here gawking soon enough.”
“I’ll shoo ’em off if I have to,” said Matt. “I’ll send ’em back over to Mrs. Brown’s, ask them to ask her why she’s got that damn nativity scene out at Easter again.”
Grampy rolled his eyes and gave Matt a brief snigger.
There were a few quick knocks on the front door, and then Albert let himself in. “Hello?” he called out.
“In here,” shouted Matt.
Albert came into the living room looking just as portly as ever. He’d shaved his full beard down to a mustache for the new year, but little else had changed. Michael, on the other hand, appeared a changed man. Sixteen going on seventeen, he was possessed now of the sort of body for which fellows—fellows of Matt’s persuasion, of course—would fall in line. Eager young lads and rogues and cads, Matt sung in his head, smiling. His cousin clearly wasn’t sure what to do with the muscles that had emerged from his baby-fat over this past year, or what to do with the handsome, brooding face that puberty had sculpted for him. Michael slouched, hands in his pockets, eyes on the floor, his longish brown hair looking like it hadn’t seen a comb in a week. But that was part of the charm. He was the best kind of handsome: the kind that doesn’t know it yet, and maybe never will.
“You’re driving a spaceship,” Grampy told them, his voice raspy and low.
Michael looked up at the sound of that voice, and he looked as if he were about to make some comment, but he said nothing.
“It’s ’94,” said Albert. “Brand new.”
“A Dodge, huh?” said Grampy, peering out the window again. “What’s your brother think about that?”
“Robert’s got any complaints, he should send them to the guys out in Dearborn. I’ve been through two Fords in the last ten years, Dad.”
“Ford’s a good car,” Grampy said.
“They don’t make em like they used to.”
“Good enough to hand down to me, though,” added Michael, looking sullen.
Grampy grinned. “You passed your driver’s test, then?”
Michael nodded. “But by the sounds of it, my car’s gonna crap out on me before I…”
Albert groaned. “I never said it was going to crap out on you, Michael. All I was saying was…”
Grampy patted Albert on the shoulder. “Take me out and show me the car, son. Let the boys visit for a little bit.”
Matt watched the two of them go, wondering if Grampy would take this opportunity to confess his secret, hoping that he would. The door closed. Beside him, Michael let loose a heavy sigh. Matt wondered how he was supposed to keep the secret if Michael had already noticed something. He wondered what he was supposed to say if Michael asked.
“What’s wrong with Grampy?”
“Huh?” said Matt.
“His voice,” said Michael. “It was all raspy. What’s wrong?”
“Nothing,” Matt said, taking a seat on the couch.
Michael sat now too. “You would tell me if something was wrong, wouldn’t you?”
Matt pondered his cousin for a moment. In truth, he believed that there were some things that a sixteen year old kid didn’t need to know. While he felt sure that Grampy should tell Uncle Al, Matt wasn’t so sure he would say anything to Michael, even if he could.
“I guess not,” Michael said, his gaze drifting away from Matt, focusing in, it seemed, on Grampy’s shelves of records.
“How’s life?” Matt asked. “What have you been up to?”
“Woodstock ’94 coming up this summer,” Michael said. “We’ve been trying to convince Dad to let us go.”
“Your dad hitchhiked up to the first one. Did you know that?”
Michael sighed. “How could I forget? He’s like a broken record when it comes to the old stories. You know that.”
“You like being able to drive around on your own now?”
Michael shrugged. “I’ve got a lot more friends, it seems.”
Matt nodded knowingly. “That’s the way it happens. First to get the license, first to play the cabby.”
“Ashley hates it. All the kids she used to be tight with at the comic book store, they’re all hanging out with me now, now that I have the car.”
“So you’re still hanging out at the comic store?” asked Matt.
“Yup. Ashley’s still working there, of course. But she’s actually cut down on the amount of stuff she’s reading. And she ends up giving nearly everything she makes to dad, so he can sock it away in her bank account.”
“Hoarding the treasure,” Matt said. “Doesn’t seem too much out of character…”
Michael shook his head.
“So, sounds like life is good.”
Michael shrugged. “As good as it can be,” he said. “How about you?”
“Things’ve been better,” Matt said, feeling like that wasn’t betraying Grampy’s trust, because things weren’t going all that well outside of the Grampy situation either.
“Because Grampy is getting sicker,” said Michael.
“He’s fine,” Matt said, lying. “Or, I mean, he’s not any worse than he was before.”
The front door swung open, and the sound of Uncle Albert’s laughter drifted in on the breeze.
“It doesn’t even look like car under the hood,” Grampy was saying. “What are you supposed to if you need to fix something? Where do you even start?”
“You bring it to the dealer, Dad.”
“A man should be able to fix his own automobile,” said Grampy, scratching at his scalp. “Isn’t that right, Michael?”
Michael stood and wrapped his arms around him. The old man looked over Michael’s shoulder at Matt, raising an eyebrow. “What’s this for?” he asked.
“I’m just glad to see you,” said Michael, pulling away. “I wasn’t going to come, but Dad wanted company and… I’m glad I came.”
“I’m glad you came, too,” said Grampy.
Gramp wasn’t buying it when Matt denied telling Michael anything, and the two of them spent most of the next two weeks avoiding each other. Matt had begun to sleep up in his office, coming down in the mornings only once he’d seen Gramp head across the yard to the garage, and heading back upstairs the moment the old man came back for lunch. Grampy didn’t come upstairs for his afternoon visit, as he’d been doing all winter long. That familiar, nausea-inducing question of his—“How’s it going?”—was something that Matt quickly found he missed. The work became even more directionless, even more fruitless. Matt didn’t want to listen to the tapes he’d made of Grampy’s stories because every time he did, it reminded him that soon enough the tapes would be all he had. And he didn’t want to face the man, because he couldn’t stand to see the look of disappointment on that weathered old face. He hadn’t told Michael anything, but he was apparently responsible for what others intuited on their own now, too.
It was necessity which brought them back together in that last week of March. On the twenty-eighth, after calling up north to wish Veronica a happy birthday—Matt had listened to the conversation from the top of the stairs, had frowned when Grampy said into the phone, ‘Nothing’s the matter, dear.’—Grampy had called Matt downstairs by banging on the ceiling.
Matt had rushed down, wondering if this was it, but Grampy was still alive. He was sitting on the couch, the phone receiver held to his chest, a sheen of thick sweat covering his pale, almost ashen face. “Help me to bed,” the old man said, and that’s what Matt did.
More instructions followed. He wanted his sister’s painting of Christ hung above the bed. He wanted a record player brought in, and placed within arm’s reach. And he wanted everything Matt had in the way of a manuscript.
Though it took him some effort, Matt managed to fulfill each request. The small painting of Christ was hidden at the bottom of a stack of still-lifes and landscapes; finding a table for the record player had required a hunt through the attic, finding an extension cord to allow for proper placement had required a trip downtown to the hardware store; and actually giving up his half-hearted manuscript for review was something that could only be done with a fifth of vodka in his belly. But he did it. He did everything the old man asked him to do.
“You’re not taking care of yourself,” said Grampy, as Matt set down the manuscript, and a red pen, and a stack of post-it notes. “You’re overdue for a haircut, and by God, when are you going to shave?”
“I’ve got take care of you,” said Matt. “I don’t have time for…”
“Make time, Matthew. There’s only so much you can do for me now.”
Matt put his head in his hands and shook it. He felt a pair of gnarled old hands grab hold of his own, and when they implored him to look up, he did.
“I’m scared, too,” said Grampy.
Matt stood to go. “You comfortable?” he asked.
Grampy nodded. “I’ll be fine.”
And for the next few days, that was Grampy’s answer for everything. It was what he said when Matt came to collect tray after tray of uneaten food. It was what he said when Matt found him resting against the wall, halfway down the short hallway between his bedroom and the bathroom. And it was what he said each night as Matt tucked him into bed, as Matt kissed him on the cheek, hoping that, in the process, he might breathe just a bit more life into the old man, that he might give him whatever he needed to power through just one more night. “I’ll be fine,” Grampy said, and for a few days, he sort of was.
But Dad had not been down, and neither had Veronica or Ashley. Time, Matt knew, was running out. He didn’t dare betray the old man’s trust now, though. He could only pray that serendipity would strike again, as it had with Michael and Uncle Al.
Matt sat amidst his papers and his books. It was a Friday night, Good Friday actually, and were it not for the cancer, they might’ve been feasting on the pepperoni and onion pizza that had been a fixture of their Friday evenings these past five years. There would be an empty box on the kitchen counter, instead of another bowl of uneaten soup.
Downstairs, the front door opened. Matt looked out the window and saw Grampy headed out toward the garage in his bathrobe, a fallen tree branch serving as an impromptu walking stick. Grampy waved up at the window, as if to say, once again, “I’ll be fine,” and Matt went back to his desk. If he could make it to the garage, then why not let him go to the garage. The old man knew his limits. He wouldn’t try anything stupid. He was probably just headed out to sit in the old Ford for a spell.
Matt looked down at the charts and pedigrees he’d been working on, and he rubbed his eyes. For many of the people he’d be writing about, this was all he had—pencil scratches on a piece of paper, names and dates and causes of death. It was all so lifeless. There were pictures of some, photographs of others, and, of course, the stories that Grampy had recited into the tape recorder these past few years. But there were so many blanks, so many people with whom he had no connection, save for a few lines cribbed from a public record or a rubbing he’d taken at a cemetery. How could he give himself permission to guess at the details of these people’s lives? Once upon a time, they had all been real, as real as Matt himself, as real as that man down there in that garage. If he couldn’t get it right, should he really be doing it at all?
Matt looked down at the garage, and he remembered again the answer Grampy had given him when he’d asked, “Why haven’t you ever written it all down, Gramp?”
“That chore was meant for someone else,” Grampy had said. “Someone with the right set of eyes, someone like you.”
Matt leaned back in his chair, tilted his face to the ceiling, and let out one, long exasperated breath. He did a drumroll on the desk with his bare hands, picked up a pad of paper and a pen, and decided to give it another go.