We sat in a horseshoe of high-end furniture on the brick patio of my grandparents' house, the one they moved into just before my little sister was born. Gam sat in the center — equally composed and frazzled, ironclad-strong and fragile — flanked by my stepfather, mother and sister on one side, my aunt, her adopted son and me on the other side. We sipped ice water from stemless wine glasses that sweetened onto flowered cocktail napkins in the humidity.
She wore tailored black pants and a white linen jacket with a mandarin collar, set off with a brightly colored dragonfly stick pin: prim as always, but absent a bit of her luster and polish. The light started to leave her eyes, I think, the day she found out about Grandy's cancer.
He tried to fight it — tried everything, from medications and radiation to chemo — but the treatments only succeeded in weakening his body further.
When we saw him at Christmas, he was a physical shell of his formerly robust, barrel-chested self. In years past, he'd already be dressed in pressed pants and a casual button-down, the morning paper already half-devoured, by the time our pajama-clad crew arrived to open presents on Christmas morning.
This past year, he wore a robe like the rest of us, with soft drawstring pajama pants I imagine were the only thing he found comfortable anymore. What little hair he had left was reduced to an ashy down, sparse on his head.
But his eyes still twinkled — mischief and wisdom and wit still clawing their way to the surface through his broken body — and his voice, when he spoke, still echoed all the same.
That Christmas morning's celebration was a little more somber, and echoingly quieter. Instead of the big brunch, we left early to make room for an afternoon nap and all the attending difficulties life with someone dying of cancer inevitably brings.
Grandy had written my sister and I a Christmas poem every year for as long as I can remember. He was a master of the cutesy art of iambic pentameter, and it was impossible not to crack a smile, or giggle a little, when reading the poem aloud to the room (as we were always asked to do).
There was no poem for us this year, but on the table, wedged between the lamp and Gam's glasses case, was a plain piece of white printer paper folded in thirds. He'd written her a poem entitled "Our Last Christmas."
It seems, in the six and a half years since I moved to Chicago, my soul has blackened and shrunk; few things make me cry anymore. But I cried when I found the poem. (I didn't even read it; the title was enough to break my heart.)
I cried when I found out he'd died that morning in February: I was on the Brown Line to the Loop when my mother called, and I knew as soon as I saw the caller ID what I'd hear on the other line. I day drank and wore myself out running around town that day.
And I cried when I came home that weekend afterward, though not when I expected I might. I'd been dry-eyed, all smiles, when we arrived at the airport and when we went to the house to give hugs to our newly widowed grandmother. But as I padded aimlessly through their pin-drop-quiet house, his imprint still pressed into his easy chair but the smell of his pipe already beginning to fade, I started to tear up. And somehow, the sight of his Mercedes sedan in the garage, shiny, clean, dark and forever without its driver, is what brought the house down.
Grief is a funny thing.
Gam began the afternoon with the story of why we were there. Grandy had said, when he got word that he had four to eight weeks left, that he wanted a funeral only if everyone sat and sang nothing but Waylon Jennings and Willie Nelson music.
Gam said they'd compromised and agreed on a small family memorial gathering, where we would sit around and say nice things about him. And that's what we did.
We read letters Gam had received from friends and former colleagues both before and after his death. I read aloud from his autobiography a bizarre history of the cars he'd owned throughout his youth, as well as the tale of how he'd scandalously sold his 1935 lemon to his "buxom and very pretty" Spanish teacher, so he could upgrade to a "late-model beauty" of same manufacturer.
Then we sat in our quiet little horseshoe — his wife, his daughters and their small families — and looked through photos of him doing what he loved, trading fond memories and sage adages he'd shared.
I tried to put words to my own fond memories, but in the end, I didn't have much to say. My memories of Grandy are suffused with his wisdom, ooze with his stoic warmth, but lack form. My memories are hazy and vague, but they're all vividly focused in that twinkle in his eyes.
I remember my pleasant surprise at him occasionally picking up the phone when I'd call. I remember his patience every time Gam interjected into a conversation, and the way he said her name.
I remember him gleefully sabotaging our family Christmas Eve craft every year. I remember his lung-crushing hugs, and the dirty-sweet smell of his pipe emanating from his basement office.
Barely, I remember him at the helm of his boat, never doubting he could steer us back to shore.
And I'll remember him now, too, in the warm, gusty breeze that ruffled our cocktail napkins that afternoon, and the nightfall glow of the lightning bugs along the walk I took to clear my head that night.
I've never gotten close enough to catch a firefly in my cupped hands, but off in the distance, they blink and flicker with the essence of everything that's lovely about a Kansas City summer.
My black heart may not cry for him again, but it'll be impossible not to smile.