My mother’s mother was dying. It was official. She had contracted lung cancer. Funny that diagnosis considering her never having taken so much as a drag from a single cigarette. In the end it didn’t matter because her husband was a cigarette and pipe smoker for decades. it caught up to her. Ultimately it caught up to him as well, but that’s another story.
Taking on the mantle of the oldest daughter, my mother opted to leave her advertising job and make the exodus to the Midwest to tend to the moody matriarch. Mom knew well enough that if she didn’t do it nobody else would. We tend to be a bit of an insular bunch, my family.
Grandma declined rapidly, and it came as somewhat as a shock to us what with our being utterly unprepared to deal with the emotional weight of something so direct and final.
But before her undeniable end we all came together while she was in relative good health and good spirits and did our best to enjoy what we all knew would be the beginning of the end of an era.
It took place over the Thanksgiving holiday, a holiday which happened to coincide not only with one of the earliest blizzards on record, but also during the exact time that my father would arrive in Ohio as well to celebrate Thanksgiving with his sister.
What this meant was that my brother and I would have to be carted from family to family in order to oblige both halves of our broken family.
This trip marked the first time I would have flown since contracting a serious case of full-blown panic disorder. To make matters worse, we were flying two months after the events of September 11th, a fact that was not lost on my paranoid self.
The plan was to fly into Cleveland’s Hopkins Airport, meet up with my father, his wife and their six-year-old son, rent a car, and then head south to East Canton to my Aunt’s house.
Naturally this all took place during the first blizzard of the season.
I live in Houston, Texas. It pretty much never snows down here, and if it happens that it does, it virtually never sticks. Having said that, we have endured the occasional ice storm, and it is almost impossible to describe the near-total paralysis that overtakes Houston drivers whenever there is ice on the road.
This is the sort of thing that gives people in places like Ohio no shortage of joy. Whenever they find out you are from Houston, this is invariably one of the first stories they will whip out at your expense.
So you can imagine my amusement to find out that people in Ohio are just as hobbled by the presence of snow and ice on the roads as the people here in Houston. What makes them bigger pussies, however, is the fact that this happens to them every year and yet they somehow are still unable to remember how to drive on the stuff.
After much handwringing, battling with my electric window happy half-brother, and near suicidal confrontation with an ice covered hill mere yards from my aunt’s house, we miraculously made it alive.
After two days of turkey, hiking and Olympian battles of ping-pong in my aunt’s basement, it was off to the other family.
The mood at grandma’s was decidedly more cautious. Everything we did revolved around a sense of finality. Worse, the main goal was to keep grandpa happy and upbeat knowing full well how hard the coming months would be to him.
Adding to the Shakespearean drama of the weekend was the visit my mother had planned to one of her best friends, across town from my grandparents’ place. We were going there to eat dinner with J, a very kind and gentle woman my mother had known since high school. J lived in a beautiful victorian house listed on the national historical register. J also was in the throes of an advanced form of cancer.
It might help to note that I was utterly incapable of handling the gravity of all this impending loss at that point in my life. No one I had ever been close to had died yet, and considering the inability I was having dealing with even the most basic of life challenges, I knew this trip was going to extol a heavy psychic price on me.
So the dinner plan was to arrive at J’s place, chat it up a bit, and then have my brother and me run around the corner to the pizza place and grab some pies. Before then, however, J gave us a tour of her house. With the weather and the general mood the place came off as a sort of Bates mansion. Every corner seemed to hide secrets better left unknown, histories that rolled out lives half lived and dreams left unfulfilled. It seriously was that heavy.
Thing is, no matter how intense the situation during that trip, there was always something painfully funny to even things out. For instance, the place around the corner was called “Vittle Village,” and better still, the place was not so much a pizza place as it was a gas station. We trudged through the near white-out snowfall in the twenty-degree air, trying almost desperately not to let the pizzas get caught in a cross wind, just to feed our family. You had to laugh, the alternative was too much to even think about.
We sat down to eat; we were all happy to focus on our food and forget, for maybe a few minutes, everything else. The pizza was hot, and quite honestly, delicious. Tension seemed to melt, if ever so slightly, and discussion turned lighter.
After dinner the talking continued for quite some time, and eventually my uncle brought out a bowl of peanuts for people to snack on.
You have to picture now the seating arrangement. I sat directly across from my brother. Right next to him, to my right, sat my uncle. To my brother’s left, two seat over, sat my grandmother. When my uncle brought out the peanuts, the bowl made its way to my grandmother who looked right at me and infamously remarked, “Peanuts? Oh, I love peanuts, John!”
Thing is, it didn’t sound like “peanuts” at all. The lady was from pittsburgh, and in Pittsburgh the word “peanuts” sounds frighteningly close to the word “penis.”
Therefore, as my brother handed her the bowl and she followed by sharing with me that she loved “penis,” my brother immediately looked directly at me. This was a bad decision. Our agonizing attempts to bury laughter were totally unsuccessful. Eventually my uncle elbowed my brother, leered at me and gave me one of these: he closed his eyes, and quickly shook his head back and forth in that “I totally disapprove” sort of way, which could only mean one thing - he heard it too.
When I was a kid, I thought of my uncle as a hilarious guy. Over the years, it seemed as though the weight of dealing with the impending loss of his parents, and the impending arrival of his having to carry his emotional self on his own shoulders, simply wore him down and ended up robbing him of his humor. Worse, it seemed to rend him an insufferable asshole.
During the pizza “penis” incident though, the guy was still able to see the ugliness of the world in that indelible Cramer/Deluca way: he saw it as being totally gut-bustingly funny. That’s why I know he had to be hurting inside trying to be the “man” at this trying time, desperate to place himself at the top of the familial totem and ultimately into a role that would propel him towards a hopeful future of sanity and stability.
It had to take a herculean effort not to lose his shit. At the time that fact in and of itself was funny to my brother and me, but in retrospect I see things another way.
Within a few short months my grandmother would die, my grandfather’s heart would break as easily as would his oceanic will, he would die, my mother would virtually retire, move to Florida, acquire a series of illnesses and ultimately die herself, my uncle would pretty much fall apart, he would alienate himself from his sisters by taking on a tragic attitude as the greed-filled executor of their parents’ estate, and in the wake of all of this I would be sent on a trajectory of confusion and awkward stasis, admittedly happy just to be lost in a world of my own making for many years to come.
Yeah, so maybe it’s all reading like a pulpy melodrama with little payoff, but it’s still a story that helps define my narrative; and I have always wanted to tell it; and I don’t really give a fuck if you like it or not, whomever you might happen to be.
It’s too long, too depressing, too poorly written, and that’s my work in a nutshell.
This is the marrow of the Blind Butcher for me. I will do my best to leave the door open, but be sure that you will always have to stay in the next room.
These are roads that wear into the fabric of the future, and we might feel a level of control over the direction, but that’s a joke that delivers its punchline directly into your pocket and doesn’t wait for you get it.
It never waits for you at all ...