The main consolation of my hectic meltdown in the last week in October was that my final grandparent barely suffered at all. In fact, my grandmother lived on her own right up until she had the stroke which sent her to the hospital for the last few days of her life. Until then, she could drive, and walk, and take care of herself. Even after that point of no return, she remained more or less herself until she fell asleep on a Sunday afternoon and died shortly afterwards. She was 87. I can’t imagine many better ways for an 87 year old to die.
Before that finality, I hovered at the edge of the country, waiting to find out where things were headed before I made any concrete plans to return to the Midwest. I got word of the end while in a grocery store, holding onto a box of Wheat Thins with one hand while trying to cram my phone into my ear with the other so I could decipher the sobbing voicemail that was nonetheless crystal clear.
After taking a moment in checkout to adjust to the thought of someone important permanently vanishing, my on switch flipped. I don’t think that, over the course of the next week, it ever flipped back.
The first order of business was to let my jobs know that I was vanishing. I’ve heard tales of the management of my crappy burger cult job being unbelievable assholes to people wanting to attend funerals, so I did my usual cult-fighting tactic and sent my boss a text, leaving no room for negotiation. The other job was much more supportive, even if that well-meaning boss waxed the usual sympathies. From there I got completely fleeced on a flight ticket and spent the following day wearing myself out from the hurry up and wait that comes with automated travel across the country.
It was on the midnight drive between the Minneapolis airport and La Crosse when I learned that my grandmother’s death wasn’t the only catastrophe to happen to my family that week. I will give absolutely no details as to what happened but to say that it was something horrible, and it made a terrible week so much worse.
Further piling on the week’s mountain of blues was the shadow of my Crazy Bitch Aunt, who tried to return from family exile to insinuate herself into and take over the funeral proceedings. The condescending shrew’s classiest sociopath tactic involved phoning my mom over and over and telling her – the person who stayed with their mother from stroke to death – to act like a grownup. Luckily, Crazy Bitch Aunt didn’t show, but the threat of her prancing in and wreaking entitled havoc sparked apprehension in all of us at a moment when none of us needed it.
The proceedings went about as well as such things can go. I avoided my grandma’s corpse at the wake because its makeup and smoothed face made the body look alien. I almost disrupted the funeral when I had to fight back a violent seizure of laughter at the expense of the pastor who kept staring at the ceiling instead of at the crowd. I’m glad my friends were sitting on each side of me to cover it up.
On the upside, I met a cousin’s brainy kids at the wake and got to dispense writerly advice to them. I also came up with the idea for an amazing Dadcore band called The A Little Goddamn Respects at the lunch following the funeral.
But what I didn’t do much of in that hectic week was think about my grandmother. In all the rushing around to get to all those regimented ceremonies of remembering the dead, the person being remembered kind of got lost in the shuffle. Sure, I had a twinge of horror and revulsion at the wake, and I spent the week living in her house filled with her artifacts. But I’m not sure if I’ve been able to be affected by the death of this person who had known me all my life.
I don’t think I do death, if that makes sense. Though I’ve become absolutely horrified at the thought of me no longer existing, I also have this detached view in which I view the death of a person with the same sense of pain as I’d feel from the loss of all the data on a computer that hadn’t been backed up. (When my grandpa died, I was the first person to see his corpse, and all I did was take its picture, as seen above.) In this mindset, death is wasteful, illogical, but not agonizing, void-creating. It’s certainly a safe rationalization.
I definitely don’t do funerals. I don’t do outpourings of grief, and I don’t react well at all to multiple people coming up to me and feeding me the exact same clichéd lines of sympathy. The only reason I showed up to this one was for my mom’s sake, and while I’m glad I was here for her it did nothing for me.
So here’s my memorial of my grandmother, weeks later, all cold text and white paper.
She may have been the smartest person in my family – she certainly was the most refined – but I still got her to call me a retard once. She didn’t mean it to be funny at all, which made it incredibly funny.
She was also responsible for my incredibly vulgar Halloween costume three years ago: the bloodsucking feminine product known as the Tampire. I’m a lazy Halloween participant, but when I described this old joke and flippantly said I could dress up as one of these creatures, she looked at me, calm as space, and said, “I think you should do that.” After that, I had to.
The last time I saw her alive was last Christmas, a time in my life when I had no job, no money, and was sleeping on a mattress in a flea-infested dining room. I had Frequent Fliered my way back into town and hoboed around destitute, but when the family gathering happened, my grandma kept handing me envelopes containing fifty dollar bills which kept me afloat for a few months. My final memory of my grandma is of her helping me out when I really needed help. There are far worse final memories of a person that one could have.
After and before and between the ceremonies that marked the end of my grandmother, I was left to spend Halloween week wandering around a town that no longer felt like home.
La Crosse has become different.
I’m willing to admit that much of the weirdness and alienation and oddness of wandering around my hometown that week might have come from sleeping poorly, feeling rushed from one event to another, typical Autumnal depression, and of course the fact that I was there for a funeral. It’s true that La Crosse will certainly be different without my grandma’s house serving as the family’s home base.
But it’s more than that. I spent a lot of time wandering around old streets, smoking my grandmother’s final pack of cigarettes – artifacts which certainly contributed to how she died. What I noticed most in these trips were the things that had disappeared, after which I noticed the things which had altered, and then the things that were new. The bars which had closed up were the obvious signifiers that time had passed since I had left, though I’d say that balance was secured with the reopening (and far overdue repolishing) of the Casino. I’m really, really glad that the Casino is back.
The most startling change I noticed in my time back hit me as I walked past the Second Supper office on Main Street. Planning on dropping in and saying hello, I instead saw a For Rent sign on the front door. I had picked up a tiny copy of the paper while walking downtown, so I had evidence (beyond my sporadic contributions) that the Supper still existed, but it wasn’t as it was. Combined with the fact that the Supper’s website no longer reprints its issues, that gave me a feeling of dread.
My friends who still remain in La Crosse were as they always were, and that was about as much comfort as I could wring from the week. When I wasn’t on the job in the mourning parade or sitting around my grandmother’s empty house attempting to level myself out with video games, I got to roll around town with my gang of ne’erdowells, drinking cheaply and watching beautifully awful cinema. We went to the Ed Gein shindig that was more performance art piece than haunted house, and I rambled through the rooms loudly wondering why they weren’t playing Killdozer’s epic musical tribute to the Butcher of Plainsfield. We lurked around the Casino, drinking Colors of the Bar and being generally glad the place had returned to the land of the living.
Still, Halloween weekend was kind of a bust. Reverting to my usual Halloween laziness, I donned a cheap skull mask purchased in readiness for a time when the world would need a man dressed as Skeletor. I put on the shirt and tie I wore to my grandma’s funeral and stuck a giant duct taped M on my back and a smaller one on my chest. With a new pair of crappy skeleton gloves, a plastic sword I’d almost immediately lose, and drunkenly grabbing some of my grandmother’s old respiratory equipment, I hit the streets as a horrible pun – the Rasputin-praising German disco band, Boney M. Har har har.
I committed no acts of drunken awesomeness, just huddled over my screwdrivers and tried to drink through a breathing tube and a mask. My friend, more awesomely dressed as Robin, the Boy Wonder, accompanied me through Saturday’s overcrowded boredom. We played the traditional Halloween game of “Would She Be Hot If She Wasn’t Dressed like a Stripper?” while we hid from the crowds as well as old assholes and sociopaths from our pasts. I suppose I did learn the liberating power of wearing a mask, if anything.
I’d spend Halloween proper flying home on no sleep, raging through plane delays and long shuttle bus rides, and unloading my tweaked-out aggression on my Vegas cop friend via internet. It was a hateful, lost little day.
I’m sure there’s a reasonable explanation for what happened the night before Halloween. That reasonable explanation would probably contain the lack of sleep and subsequent stress that I gained through the week’s funeral proceedings. I’m sure that I just went crazy, but the problem is that there’s this chronic doubter in me that can’t dismiss the possibility of anything, no matter how fantastic or terrifying.
I swore I was going to get some sleep that night, and my nodding off at a friend’s house seemed to confirm this hope. But once I got back to my grandma’s house, where I planned to collapse on her unoccupied bed, I was on like a wide-eyed light. I went between channel-surfing the internet to watching crap TV to playing video games to getting really frustrated with my life. Soon I downloaded some really amazing albums and wandered around the pitch black neighborhood soaring to these epics. Almost immediately after returning from this journey, I walked right back out the door and over to my friend’s house in the dead of night, where I got a copy of the delightful Fred Schneider album which I’ve always meant to get from him. Finally I returned to the house, where I laid down in my grandma’s bed and hoped to get a few hours’ unconsciousness.
The only problem was that, every time I felt myself fading out, something would poke me.
Like I said, I’m sure there’s probably a perfectly reasonable explanation – but at the time, I was all out of reason. At first I turned on the light and stared at the ceiling, but after a few attempts at sleep that all ended with the same pulsating poking I got the hell out of my grandma’s room. I paced around her hallways with flickers at the edge of my vision, attempting and failing to dull the encroaching madness with entertainment. When my mom woke up in the morning and saw me sunken and beaten in my grandma’s recliner, she knew something had gone wrong.
I spent the next week back here, recovering in a foreign land and trying to get normal again. I’m much happier here, and I’ve been able to sleep, at least – but I rarely feel very rested.