All Those Things I Can Do…All Those Powers; Impotence, Fear and Happiness In The Face Of Death

Posted: April 28, 2011 in Culture, Random Thoughts
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My grandfather is dying.

Cheery, I know.

I’ve had a…problematic relationship with family during my life. I moved out when I was fifteen due to a near fatal combination of my teenage rebellion and my mother’s hellish and sadistic early menopause. My brother and I have different fathers; his tried to be a parent to me when mine wouldn’t and, for reasons so clichéd they sometimes make me ashamed to have not been written by Dan Brown, I wouldn’t let him and so he lost interest.

I have had slightly more meaningful relationships with a couple of my favorite hotdog vendors than I have had with some members of my immediate family. And the guys at my local comic shop? They are dear to me in a way that the people who bought me birthday presents when I was six simply aren’t anymore.

I am not, in some cases, without regret in these matters. I’m sure some of the family I’ve distanced myself from are far more complex and nuanced as human beings than I ever gave them credit for when I was younger. And, to be fair, I have redeveloped some of those connections over the last few years; it’s amazing how quickly baby photos on Facebook will incentivize people to call you out of the blue.

But nothing fills me with more regret than the distance that grew between my grandfather and I.

There was no real reason for it. On my part, physical distance and a shameful kind of casual neglect were the culprits; on his, a growing desire for isolation and the calm comfort of his books rather than the frenetic demands of social interactions prevented him from reaching out.  Now, he is lying in a hospital bed, thousands of kilometers away, dying from cancer of pretty much everything. He has weeks, possibly months to live and in that time he will deteriorate physically and mentally and will, no matter how many people are around him, die alone.

When I was a child he was the only adult in my life who refused to pander to me. My birthdays were always marked by him taking me to my favorite bookstore, handing me an empty box and then allowing me to fill it to the brim with all the paperbacks I could fit. When I was eight, even though it must have been intensely painful for him on an intellectual level, he spent three hours having a conversation with me about the difference between ethics and morals. I can feel the crushing grip of his handshakes and see the smile of satisfaction he gave when I finally learned how to perform that simple act properly and thus avoid the pain. He taught me about Shakespeare and Homer and Dashiell Hammett. He turned me onto Dylan Thomas and I hope, when it is his time, that he will rage against the dying of the light for only so long and then allow himself to fade, despite Thomas’ advice. Whenever I would say something foolish and declare it fact, he would look at me and simply ask, “Where is it written?”

All of those things and a thousand more dot the landscape of my memory of him, and they should be enough. But they aren’t, because they’re all about me. I am who I am, in part, because of him. My love of reading and my desire to give others something intelligent (hopefully) to read come directly from him. My passion for politics and my need to understand the motives of people who seek power exist because he planted those seeds in me. Raising my children I have sought to do as he did and treat them, for good or ill, as something more than just children.

But why is he the person he is? What were his influences? More importantly, who is he as a man; a fully fledged and complete person, rather than my imperfect impressions of him?

It pains me that I have to say I don’t know.

We have, in our culture, a tendency to marginalize our elders. Everything we do is built around the push for continued progress while we simultaneously try to rebuff our inevitable ends. Eat healthier, work out, stop smoking, drink less, maintain a healthy work life balance, take your vitamins. We do these things to prolong our lives and yet our grandparents are a constant reminder that it is all in vain; we too will one day stare into the void, frail echoes of our former selves. Our living ancestors are sometimes too much a reminder of the ultimate fruits of  the progress we seek and so we maintain relationships with them from the corners of our eyes and hearts and when they are gone we grieve them, but most of us never truly know them.

My grandfather is ninety-one years old. He has lived through the greatest periods of social upheaval, destructive conflict and technological advancement our species has ever known. I don’t know how he feels about any of it. I know he loves the NY Giants, rye bread, Montreal smoked meat and Noam Chomsky. I know he loves records and never switched to any other modern playback devices. I know he somehow, after divorcing his wife, managed to stay friends with both her and his best friend who she eventually married and that he outlived them both. I know that he and his family moved to Canada from the Ukraine when he was very young, settling in Montreal. I know he was an accountant for most of his life. When he was thirteen he measured six-foot two and weighed over two hundred pounds and played football with boys ten years his senior. I know he is now five-foot eight and weighs less than one fifty and cannot carry a football.

I know all these things as abstract facts but I don’t know what his favorite subject in school was or who caused his first heartbreak. I don’t know what his thoughts and fears were when the world went to war or why, for a man who embraced liberalism and social causes to the degree he did, he loves Westerns so damn much. I know that he is Jewish, but I don’t know what, if anything, that means to him beyond a cultural identity. There are so many things I don’t know, because I simply did not ask.

Happily, I took my family home a couple of months ago, when we didn’t yet know there was anything wrong beyond the general infirmity that comes with age and he got to meet my wife and children. He bounced my son, who is named after him, on his knee and gripped his tiny hand as firmly as he could manage. He smiled when my son cooed at him and squeezed back as hard as he could. He stroked my daughter’s hair and told her she was beautiful. I probably won’t go back before he dies; partly for financial reasons, but partly for selfish ones. I want that visit to be my last memory of him.

I wish that, like Superman, I could fly around the world and cause time to reverse. Not to find some way to save him; he’s lived as long a life as any of us could hope, but rather to ask him these things that I don’t know. It’s too late now, you see, some of that cancer is in his brain and soon he will lose himself to it. I wish I had been a better grandson.

Benjamin Gurofsky is my grandfather. I love him, even though I did not know him well, for he gave of himself and helped make me who I am.

I hope my grandchildren, when I have them, ask me who I am.

I hope I can teach them how to shake hands properly.

  1. NCM says:

    This is a beautiful post. Absolutely beautiful. I hope you’re doing better. It’s hard to lose someone so special – someone who seems to understand you completely. Thank you for sharing this with all of us.

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