by Angeliska on January 19, 2014
Today, my beloved grandfather would have been 100 years old, were he still alive today. I had hoped that he would make it there in life – he was so close! Only two years to go! But he was ready, I think, to not be here in his body anymore. Still though – the glory of making it to centenarian status seems so impossible and marvelous. I stand stupid and humbled in front of a big number like one hundred. A century, the triple digits! What a marvel that humans can and do live now regularly, to be so ancient – and longer. For me, selfishly, it’s more about longing to have had him present over the course of these past two years. I feel like I’ve needed him and his sage wisdom now more than ever. His sister Dena died in November (I’ll be sharing what I’ve written about her amazing life soon!), and now all four of the Polacheck siblings from that generation are gone.
Charlie was child born in the year of the Great War, into a century of bloodshed and bombings hopelessly intertwined with relentless progress. Journalists and historians are currently struggling to draw parallels between 1914 and 2014 – predicting more dire change and global war, disaster. It’s hard to refute it, or to imagine that we could go on as relatively blithely (at least in this country) as we do. I feel like this day deserves some grander gesture than I am capable of: fanfare and fireworks and a parade in his honor. I feel like I have nothing. My hands are full of dust. His body is burnt up, and everything he ever owned is either in boxes in my parent’s garage or dispersed here and there. Elsewhere. Where is the hat I gave him? It was a good tan leather fisherman’s cap, with a slate blue brim ribbon, brocaded with acorns and oak leaves. I am his acorn, he was my tree. It doesn’t fit me, but I’d love to have it now – smelling of lime leaves, his gone-white hair, dusted with dear dandruff. He used to wear it all the time. It kills me that he’s gone, and that all the pieces of his life are scattered. Where are his ashes? Where are my grandmother’s ashes? We had talked about going out to the Pacific Ocean, and scattering them together. But, everyone has schedules, work, kids, stuff, so it hasn’t happened yet, as far as I know. We don’t bury our dead anymore, and I think for the most part, that this is a good thing – considering the vagaries of the funeral industry and the poison and waste that embalming and lead coffins create. But our cemeteries are standing forlorn, as we dump the dirt of our loved ones onto some pretty place they might once have walked near. We have no monuments to them to sit and reflect by. No dates engraved, no family names. Dust to dust. We are forgetting, collectively, where and who we came from. Names are not passed down from generation to generation as they once were. Hell, we don’t even use cameras anymore, really – much less print photos or have formal portraits taken, unless someone’s getting married. That’s what has changed in one hundred years: how we mourn, how we remember, how we perceive ourselves in relation to our past. So much of it is just sloughed off to languish in moldy storage units or attics, or be pawed through at estate sales. I should know, being a professional picker (antique dealer). I was in a woman’s house this morning, low ceilinged, small, but labyrinthine. As I fingered the silk blouses in her closet, her spirit clung around me like a miasma: mama, grandma, wife – I was all of these, and now I’m nothing. You don’t even know my name. At these sales, invariably, in the front yard there are always one or several adult potty chairs. Dragged out into the open, as if someone would actually want to buy an old person’s used potty chair. Who knows, maybe people do buy them – but it just seems so wrong and undignified to not only open their home to strangers, but also to put the personal secrets of their infirmity right there on the lawn. I bought her church lady hats, her cocktail glasses with gold horses prancing on them, a patriotic costume, a stunning gold lace dress from the 20′s and a photo of the woman who might have worn it. I left still feeling her long fingers clutching at my hair, calling: come back, come back and see me…
“We must rapidly begin the shift from a “thing-oriented” society to a “person-oriented” society. When machines and computers, profit motives and property rights are considered more important than people, the giant triplets of racism, materialism, and militarism are incapable of being conquered.” – Martin Luther King
So much has changed since 1914, it’s bizarre to think about being alive to see it all. I’d grill Grampa from time to time – try and ask him what it was like to witness so much change, growth, development. Of course it’s somewhat egotistical to think so, but it really feels like EVERYTHING happened to us this century – and to watch it all occur first hand just seems an utter wonder to me. From horsecarts and button up boots, to space travel and iPhones. Grampa was oddly blasé about it. He said he didn’t think about it, much. I think he liked all the progress, all the ease that was afforded with new inventions that made life run faster, smoother. He was delighted to watch a tiny video of a friend of mine dancing the Charleston in 1920′s gladrags on youtube, as I held my phone up so he could watch it in bed. He found nothing strange or ironic about that, but I did. I guess him being a television pioneer had a lot to do with it – going from radio to live television, black and white to color, analogue to digital. Always new, always better. My grandfather seemed only to really get nostalgic about times much more shrouded in the past – gazing at the cold light in the Flemish master’s painting in an museum in Bruges, or walking the boards in the King of Denmark’s own private theatre.
This is all the stuff I’ve been thinking about, lately. It’s not pretty, or happy, and I wish I had better. Today, everything seemed to go wrong. Crossed wires, lines of communication failing spectacularly every which way. Everything slightly askew, the picture gone crooked in the frame, the flavors of everything I tasted strangely off. I feel like I said all of the wrong things and none of the right things – even though I know it’s not true. I tried my best, and it wasn’t what I wanted it to be. I felt myself losing my footing, sinking into the muck of swampy quicksand, the alligator’s jaws visible out of the corner of my eye – and yet, I couldn’t stop the slow slide down into the thick of it. My grandfather’s birthday dim sum is the only traditional celebration my family has – the only day where all of us are together. Usually, it’s a somewhat chaotic, but amusing affair, and most of the peccadilloes of our meshuggeneh mishpoche are taken in stride along with slugs of jasmine tea from tiny cups and copious turnip cakes and dumplings. But today, it went awry – and it was my fault. I got into the muck when I ought to have nodded and smiled, and as I was doing it, I could hear Grampa’s gruff voice telling me, “Leave it alone! It’s not worth it!” Getting into an argument right in front of his shrine, on his special day felt so wrong. Underneath all anger is sadness, and often it’s easier to get upset about the little things, rather than let ourselves feel the big hurts. I have been so torn up about missing him lately, crying a lot and just feeling his absence so intensely. It’s weird how all that emotion can get channelled into being upset about something else entirely. In some ways, it’s related – just in thinking about how he was the glue, the cornerstone of our family. The one who brought us all into being and kept us together. Without our patriarch present, it feels like there’s nothing to bind the unruly mess of us. Old family hurts, old woes. These things can have big echoes. The family member I got into it with broke the spell of our contretemps by grabbing me by the shoulders and shaking me while almost shouting, “Families are dysfunctional! Our family is dysfunctional! Get over it!” And she’s right. Something that comes with age, at least in my Grampa’s case, is the wisdom that all families are imperfect. I hope I can start accepting that, because it hurts my heart so much. I am someone who always just wants everyone to get along, to be a big, happy, loving family. In these moments, I strain to hear his voice – to discern from the ether what exactly he would tell me, if he were here today… Maybe “easy does it”, which is an AA phrase I always mocked and scorned as hopelessly trite as a cynical teen, but only recently have heard in a new light. Maybe it was the way it was said, or the timing – but I think I finally got it. Go easy on yourself, be gentle, take it slow. You don’t have to get it right all the time. You are perfectly imperfect, and that is enough.
A friend of Grampa’s recently posted a comment on his obituary page that made me so happy. Hearing from his friends from all over is such a sweet gift, especially when they over little bits of his words and wisdom for me to hold close. These are some good ones:
“I did not know Charlie well in L.A. in the 1980s, but my beloved friend, Debra, and I still repeat some of his sage lines with laughter such as “MYOB” or “mind your own business” and “If your spouse says the moon is made of bleu cheese simply say, ‘It very well may be.’” When I asked how he had remained married for so many decades, was there a secret to be garnered, how did he do it? He said, “I let my spouse do whatever she wants and she the same for me.”
Here’s to you, Charlie! Wherever you are I know it’s good.”
I used to be afraid of old people when I was little. Not my own grandparents: all four of them I knew and loved, even if I was childishly fascinated at times by Gramma’s crepe papery forearm skin, or Grampy’s leathery face with it’s startlingly deep creases and wrinkles on top of wrinkles. Nonnie would always draw me close for a kiss, and when her whiskers brushed my cheek and I’d screech and giggle. I was so lucky to have them all – to be so cherished and accepted by my four elders. I only wish I’d had more time with them – that I had been older and they younger, so we could have had more conversations. But the old people in the nursing homes my elementary school would visit around Christmas were full of a different kind. These old folks were cast off, forgotten in corners by their families, the staff, themselves. None of them seemed lucid, though most were docile and still, save the old woman with applesauce down her chin who gaped at us and started shrieking when we attempted to sing her carols. I dropped my cowbell in the kerfuffle and was traumatized for weeks. Maybe longer. There was something shocking to me about the idea that people would just ditch their parents and relatives in these places. It felt like coming across someone’s old toys tossed in a ravine. Why would anyone throw these good things away? You never picked them up to take home, though – because whoever did it surely had some kind of good reason. Maybe the toys were diseased, or cursed, or full of bugs or had touched poop. And I hate to say it, but there was that same sense of apprehensiveness about the nursing home residents: no one would have abandoned perfectly good old people if there wasn’t something horribly wrong with them. They were defective, insane, or maybe even criminals, considering the prison-like atmosphere of the rest-home. Kid logic, I guess. I think about the elderly a lot these days – how screwed we are as a society where we don’t value these people more. When I started traveling with my grandfather, it was interesting to observe how people in difference countries and cultures reacted to us tootling around with a portable wheelchair. In some places, people seemed shocked, in others – indifferent. At times, we were treated with special deference – and in most Japanese restaurants, invariably, were shown a deep appreciation. The gift of my grandfather’s company throughout my life is a treasure that has changed me forever. Being able to know him, talk with him, travel with him, and to be his friend until the end of his life was so precious. I know all people are different, and that Charlie was certainly a rara avid and a true gem – but all the same, I can’t help of think that there are some ancient gems moldering away in rest-homes, ignored by their families. And that just kills me. I think about going there sometimes, and trying to seek out some wonderful old lonely person, who needs a grandkid as much as I crave a grandparent. I think I’m still a little scared.
I have such a hard time not adopting elderly dogs from the animal rescue – wishing I could just give them a home where they could be loved and petted and sleep all day. I have had the honor of seeing two noble creatures through to advanced old age: my beloved feline companion Junior, who I had with me from age five until I was 26. He was 21 years old when he died. It was one of the hardest deaths I’ve ever mourned, and I still dream about him all the time. He was my familiar. Thelonious is my old man prince, whose company I have had the pleasure of keeping for the last 8 years. He’s 15 now, and totally blind. His retinas detached in 2009, but as border collies are one of the most intelligent breeds of dog, he has managed to get by surprisingly well by relying on his other senses. A few weeks ago, I thought he was having a stroke because he was acting really strangely. In that moment, it hit me that at any time, his health could fail, and he could leave us. I lost it – totally freaked out. But on the way to the emergency vet, he perked up, feeling the wind riffle his ears and chuffing happily at the breeze through the open window. It ended up being, thankfully, just idiopathic vestibular disease – which basically means old dog vertigo. For a couple weeks, he was seriously out of sorts, and I would carry him up and down the steps to go to the bathroom every day. This dog has survived eating rat poison and nearly dying from internally bleeding to death, being blind and lost in cactus and coyote infested country after getting spooked by fireworks, having his immune system attack itself and cause blindness and other issues as a result of Vogt-Koyanagi-Harada Syndrome, and just being alive on this earth for an unusually long time. I’ve heard of border collies living well into their twenties, and I wonder how long he’ll be able to stick around. I want it to be forever. I want him to live to be one hundred, too. Being with Thelonious every day, I am constantly reminded of my Grampa. His old man’s stiff gait, his snoring had sneezes, how I have to lead him through the house so he doesn’t get stuck or bump into things. I love his sweetness and little bursts of joy over the pets and massages I give him. I am here to help him, to be his nurse and his companion, for as long as he remains here. My stepmom told me this recently, And I know i’s true: “These animal companions and friends are old souls and have been given to us to bring comfort, solace and unconditional love. They are our teachers. We are never alone when they are near us.”
There’s something about the experience of loving someone, be it person or animal, up into their last days. They slow down, sleep a lot, react differently to stimuli – but the essence of their nature gets distilled down into this raw, undiluted, shining thing. I’ve seen it happen with the evolved people and creatures I’ve loved at the end of their time here: they become pure light, letting the physical fall aside, the ego dispersing into the greater consciousness. Becoming one with the world, with everything else. Becoming part of the sum total of all the energy in the universe. This is where the journey of the Fool in the tarot takes us, to the World – the final card. This is the ouroboros, the old one becoming a child again, the wise baby forgetting everything they once knew. A century of learning what it is to be alive, to be human. A completed circle, even if the ends of the rope are frayed, constantly unraveling – falling apart, and coming back together, all the time, forever.
These articles were helpful to me in writing this:
More about my Grampa: