“Grandpa drove his car into the garage and closed the door, and he died.”
I was 12 years old, and I didn’t understand what my dad was trying to tell me. I assumed the door must have somehow closed on the car, and that the death was an accident. Later that night, my mom explained to me what carbon monoxide poisoning is, and that my grandfather had taken his own life.
Grandpa died in July 1987, and when I think of the days immediately following his death, I always remember the intense summer heat. That week my siblings and I were shuttled from one air-conditioned space to another, and that pitched battle against the heat has become mingled, in my memory, with the struggle to accept the reality of my paternal grandfather’s sudden death.
My grandfather had just moved into an apartment, having arranged—for reasons unrelated to his death—to sell his house to my parents. We were getting ready to move to St. Paul from Duluth, and when we drove down after Grandpa’s death, I encountered strange new spaces. I first went with my dad to visit the house, which was empty and smelled of the paint being applied by workers transforming it from Grandpa’s old house to our new one. The curtains had been professionally cleaned and there were paper bands wrapped around them, giving the familiar house a novel feeling of a present waiting to be unwrapped.
Then we drove to Grandpa’s apartment, which I hadn’t visited during his lifetime. I recognized all of Grandpa’s most important possessions relocated to the small new space, and I tried to imagine how Grandpa had been living his life without that dog-devastated backyard and that appliance-filled kitchen and that closet with a shelf where he kept a jar of candy for the grandkids.
At the apartment, my dad collected Grandpa’s mail, which fascinated me. Until I saw Grandpa’s remains in the open casket at the wake, that pile of mail was the most jarring evidence that the only grandfather I ever knew (my maternal grandfather died when my mom was young) was gone. Looking through a grown-up’s mail felt like an intimacy that I, as a child, would never have been permitted during that grown-up’s lifetime. It was also poignant evidence of how, precisely, life goes on after one’s death. It was a little scary to realize that if I were to die, the world wouldn’t end—Boys’ Life would still arrive on schedule, and the monthly tenting tips would be read by all the Boy Scouts but me.
The wake was intense. Not only was it the first time I’d ever seen my father cry, all of my aunts and uncles were crying too. It was like skydiving: the sensation I experienced was not surprising, and yet was also something I could never have really prepared for or understood until it happened.
Most of the wake and funeral are now, for me, a blur, but I remember a few things. I remember my little brother reaching into the coffin to touch the mole on Grandpa’s face. I remember my dad introducing me to Eugene McCarthy, with whom Grandpa had worked in the 1950s and 60s. The former U.S. senator and presidential candidate towered over me, shook my hand, and told me that my grandfather had been a great man. At the time I had no idea who Eugene McCarthy was, but it was clearly impressed upon me that he was Someone Very Important.
I also remember being temporarily taken into the care of our family friends Ed and Norma while my parents attended to some funeral-related matters. Ed and Norma drove my siblings and me, along with their daughter, down to Post Road, where you can pull off the freeway and park to watch the planes take off from the Minneapolis-St. Paul airport. I remember standing by the car in the dry heat, watching the almost incomprehensibly powerful machines roar through the sky over our heads.
My life, when I think of it from that point on, feels like one of those movies that begins with a dramatic event having a significance that only becomes clear later, as more and more things are revealed. Up until his death, I knew my grandfather simply as a kind man who would cook “flapjacks” for me and who taught me how to play cribbage. I remember lots of details about his life as I experienced it—his buzzing plant light, his book about Hong Kong (I was confused as to why the book was filled with pictures of what looked like China, with no skyscraper-climbing apes anywhere), the beer stein he used as a pencil cup—but I didn’t know Grandpa as a person, the way I know my friends and family members now.
Later, I learned more about Grandpa’s life. I learned about his work as a professor, as a politician, and finally as head of the Minnesota bureau of the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development (as a kid, I knew Grandpa only to work in some kind of office). I learned about his marriage to my grandmother, and about her long struggle with the cancer that took her life just before I was born. I learned about Grandpa’s subsequent battle with alcoholism. That side of Grandpa’s life was something we grandkids were carefully, and successfully, shielded from.
I’ve also learned why my grandfather committed suicide, though I’ve also learned that with suicide, “why” isn’t a question that can ever completely be answered to loved ones’ satisfaction. Grandpa had just been diagnosed with cancer, and he explained in a note that he wanted to spare his family from the prolonged agony they’d endured over the course of my grandmother’s illness. That makes sense, and yet I still see my father and his siblings working to come to terms with Grandpa’s choice, all these years later. For me, as a child, Grandpa’s death was simply something to be accepted as a fact. For Grandpa’s children, it had to be comprehended as a decision.
Each grandchild was invited to choose one small item from Grandpa’s apartment to own and to remember him by, and I chose the beer-stein pencil cup, which I associated with happy memories of writing and drawing on the paper Grandpa kept in a drawer. Years later, I was told that the mug dated to Grandpa’s years as an English professor, when he and many of his modestly-paid colleagues at the College of St. Thomas spent their summers delivering Hamm’s beer to help support their families.
I’m sure there are many more things I’ll learn about Grandpa, and many more that I never will. Once someone is gone, his memory belongs to the living, and it’s both the privilege and responsibility of those who survive to decide what to say and what not to say about the person they knew and loved. What we think and feel about those who are gone, though, is something that can’t be decided. It’s something we discover over time, while life—as it does, for better and for worse—goes on.