Some anniversaries we don’t need to remember.
My father just called to remind me that it was 40 years ago today that his father, my Gramps, was killed in a farm accident.
Do you have a singular day that changed the trajectory of your life?
I remember that day with crystal clarity. It was a Wednesday. I was going to the sitter’s for lunch because I wasn’t old enough to be a latch-key kid.
I saw my dad’s truck in the driveway. A silver GMC. That was weird; he and mum were both teachers. Didn’t come home at noon.
I was excited to see Dad at lunch; started running to the door.
Mum came out onto the front step.
The energy was wrong. All wrong. I asked, “can I eat at home today?”
She reached out for me, put her hands on my shoulders, and said “there’s something we have to tell you”.
My Gramps, man.
He was full of joy, all the time. I still remember his laugh, which he had trouble controlling. He spoiled me. I used to read to him (he’d left school in the fifth grade to go to work, and reading wasn’t his strong suit). He was my hero, in a way my Da couldn’t be, because Gramps never had to say no to me.
He taught me to drive. To pound nails. To dance. To wash dishes. To sew.
He taught me to set gopher traps and how to let rabbits out of them. He took me for ice cream every night and always had time for me, even at harvest. We’d take meals to the field and he would eat, then take me on the tractor or the combine.
Just the previous Sunday, he’d helped Dad load up the piano that had been a wedding gift to my grandmother’s parents into the back of the truck (my grandmother never forgave him giving me the piano).
He gave me music.
I’d spied his work boots at the back door and said “Gramps, I don’t like your boots” (they were dirty and beaten up and hard; everything he wasn’t).
He laughed (he was always laughing) and said “I’m going to die with my boots on”.
Three days later, he did.
Mum took me into the living room where Da was sitting in the rocking chair in the middle of the room.
I remember my heart pounding. Blood thumping in my ears.
He said, “there’s been an accident,” and then he started to sob. I’d never known fear until then.
Mum took me out of the room, led me to my bedroom.
I could still hear my father sobbing.
Years later, Mum told me she watched me shut down. Said it was the scariest thing she’d ever seen. She said it was like watching storm clouds blocking out the sun.
She got down on her knees and told me “your Gramps is dead”.
The next few minutes stretched out for eternity, and still do, in my recollection. her words swam around in the air between us for a minute. I began to put it together : the truck in the driveway, Mum on the step, Dad in the rocking chair, still sobbing. Alone.
I remember her pulling me close to her, trying to hug me, to hold me, but I couldn’t move. I was stuck in that moment. Maybe a part of me always has been.
She asked “do you know what that means?”
I was insulted. “Of course I know what it means,” I said. After all, we’d all been there when Mr. Hooper died. But more than that, death isn’t a foreign concept to kids who grow up on a farm. “Why couldn’t it be J’s grandpa who died?” I asked.
“Don’t say that,” my mum chastised me. “We should never wish for someone’s death.”
But the growing hole inside me was getting too big. It was swallowing up everything around it. Everything I knew. If it could come for me why shouldn’t it come for my best friend? Maybe we could understand the excruciating ache together.
Mum told me I looked at her at that point and said “I’d like to be alone now,” stepped away from her, and closed my bedroom door.
I remember sitting on the edge of my bed, hearing my father crying…my father, who was stronger than anything, invincible, really, was crying. He needed me to be strong. I didn’t know then that tears are a sign of strength, and he had tears enough for the both of us.
For years, people thought I didn’t understand death, that I didn’t really get it. Because I never cried. I didn’t shed a tear that day, and I didn’t cry at his funeral. Not even when my grandmother told me the sheaves of wheat draped over the coffin were from the road allowance. Every year, Gramps let me sit on his lap when we harvested the road allowance wheat, and the money he got from selling it went into a saving account in my name.
“That’s your wheat there,” she said. She made me sit beside her. I didn’t want to. I didn’t even want to be there but figured Dad needed me to be there. I wanted to sit with him, but Grandmother wouldn’t let me.
I didn’t want the wheat. I didn’t want the money. I didn’t want my grandmother. I wanted my Gramps.
This day, 40 years ago, changed the trajectory of my life. Every time I felt like quitting piano or band, I’d think about my Gramps and my Dad carrying the steel-backed upright grand piano up the steep basement steps and into the bed of the silver truck. I’d think about my Gramps listening to me plonk away on those keys, not knowing what I was doing. I’d think about what he might say if he could hear me play now.
It would take years…decades really, before I felt anything again. It wouldn’t be until the death of my grandmother in 2012 that I truly grieved Gramps’ death. When we put his ashes to rest beside hers (she’d kept his ashes at the bottom of her closet the whole time), when I stood at the gravesite and looked out across the cold river hills at the farm that had taken him…
..when I found his well-worn wallet, shoved into the back of a drawer, still with everything in it that had been there the day he died: his driver’s license, his Co-op card, seventeen dollars, and photos of me. My heart broke again.