Crossing the Bar
I’m not sure how long she’d been watching me sleep. I continued laying there, left side, eyes closed, not wanting to ruin the moment for her. She would have felt bad if she thought she had woken me up and I’d spent my life trying to keep her from feeling bad. I opened my eyes slowly, the pretension of waking up naturally, looking first at the four-day-old baby swaddled and sleeping in the crook of my left arm, clean and warm. Feigning surprise, I jumped a little as if startled, and only then did I acknowledge her, my mother, standing there staring. I didn’t say anything and neither did she. She didn’t have to. I knew why she was hovering; eyes were swollen from the tears she shed when she was allowed a few minutes peace. We are not a family that flaunts our emotions. Tears are acceptable but public sobbing is not unless the circumstances are extreme. The circumstances now were extreme but my mother endured with her trademark restraint. We are a stoic bunch.
“The doctor came this afternoon. He said that if people are going to come that they have to come right now.” She stopped, looked from me to the baby then back again. “But you can’t come.” As she said this she put her face in her hands and wept openly at the ugly irony: her father on his literal deathbed just across town, her daughter here with her shiny new grandson. Me of all people, unable to go at the last to the side of this man whom I had listened to obsessively, always. Me, her surrogate, her pack-mule, her lieutenant, her heavy-lifter, laying there with my newborn baby and fresh surgical scars unable to go to him when the doctors had said we must. “It’s okay Mom, I already saw him. I said goodbye. And it was a better goodbye than most people will have.” I said that to make her feel better because I always want to maker her feel better, but I also said it because it was true.
I was nine months pregnant when I saw him the last time. I was scheduled to have a c-section two days later, both my belly and body swollen from the warmth of late spring. I could not drive, my doctor had prohibited it, and my mother had offered to take me for quick visit. I had planned on waiting until the next day but my bones told me not to wait. I hopped in her car, a teenager again being driven to guitar lessons, a middle-schooler who had missed the bus, not a thirty-something with mortgages, a marriage and another baby on the way. Mothers make you time-travel that way.
We pulled up to the tiny frame house that he shared with his second wife. Gladiolas and day lilies and hummingbird feeders crowding the sidewalk clambering over and around every window and door, displays of an arboreal knowledge rarely seen anymore. Candy tuft and bride’s lace. Old names for old plants. His wife is not my grandmother but she is like a grandmother and to my younger cousins who never knew our real grandmother there is little distinction. Us older cousins have always been more reserved in our treatment of her, because we remember our real grandmother who died unreasonably young, but we love her. She has been kind to us all. No matter the season, the home they shared was never less than 85 degrees. Thick clouds of cigarette smoke hung like bunting from the ceiling. An assault of brown shag carpeting and colorful afghans double teamed you as soon as you opened the door. Pictures of sons and daughters and grandchildren in old metallic frames were lined two and three deep on every flat surface. Books everywhere, in teetering piles and crammed into too tight bookshelves. The sheer quantity of books always impressed me because I knew that every one of them had been read.
My grandfather’s room was to the left, just off the small beige kitchen. That’s where we found him when we got there that night. We’d brought him a big bag of globe grapes and some shrimp. An oddball of an eater for most of his life he’d subsisted mostly on raw fruits and vegetables and canned fish. He would eat an onion as if it were an apple and would wash it down with the gallon of near-boiling water that he kept in the tool box on the back of his truck. He was his own creation.
He was sprawled across the fuzzy blue blanket on his bed reading when I popped in my head to say hello, the smoke in the room felt thick enough to chew on. On every wall hung dark wooden frames containing pictures of the battleships and destroyers he had served on in the Navy. The chest of drawers was lined with pictures of himself in younger versions, crooked grin and crisp navy whites, cigarette dangling from his lip, the arms of brother sailors draped around his shoulders. Books were shoved into his tiny bookshelf and stacked on top of the television. Great American Poems of the 20th Century, the David McCullough biography of Harry Truman, Will You Miss Me When I’m Gone- The Story of the Carter Family. He was eighty-one years old but he lay there like a child, facing the wrong direction his feet tucked under him. His bushy white hair stuck out in all directions. His already craggy and worn face wore the burden of the last several weeks, which had been marked by too many doctors and too many hospital rooms.
I walked into his little cave and he smiled a big smile when he saw me. “Hey kiddo. When you going to have that baby?” For years people have tried to imitate the way my grandfather talks. I have never met anyone who could do it convincingly or with any accuracy. Friends always asked if that’s really the way he talks or if it was some sort of an affect. I don’t own the words that would do a description of my grandfather’s voice and accent justice but here are a few: clipped, warm, clever, sensitive, smokey. It was the voice of a boy born to the cotton mills and raised to sing and drink and laugh and fight. No matter how much people have tried, they have never captured it.
I told him that I was going into the hospital on Wednesday. I would wake up that morning, Brett would drive me over and they would take the baby out. Simple. Always the worrier he seemed concerned, but really, he would have been concerned about anything. Four daughters had not alleviated the fear and trauma inherent in the possibilities of childbirth. When we talked about my baby being a boy his eyes went far away. My mother was one of four sisters. I had long heard rumors of a fifth child that my grandmother had miscarried very late in the pregnancy but he was never one to talk of such things.
“Your grandmother Margie was the best woman. You only get one woman like that in your life, and that’s a fact.” He says this as his current wife was sitting ten feet away from him in the kitchen talking to my mother. “She was a good woman and she suffered. She had a hard life. You know, she lost a baby. That baby would have been a boy.” He stopped for a minute while I stood listening, off kilter from this sudden intimacy. He sat still as if digesting it all. The babies, the ships on the walls, the young man in the picture frames, the bowl of grapes on his bed, the doctor’s visits he’d been subjected to. “It’s just so sad. There’s just so much sadness in life.” He was serious as he lay there lost to his own memories. His mind traveled to places of death, both sudden and expected, and of life lived just as unpredictably. His face dreamy and thoughtful as he sprawled across the bed eating his bowl of grapes, he said. “You know kiddo, there’s a lot of sadness in life. But there’s a lot of happiness too. And that’s what makes it okay. There’s happiness.”
We had realized too slowly that he was sick. Because he hid his pain and his problems, like many men of his age with a dislike of doctors, and also because like a mountain it was kind of hard to imagine him not being there one day. Mountains are immoveable. They are permanent. We always assumed the same of him. A couple of spells in quick succession in the spring of that year made it obvious that something serious and bad was going on. His eyes said that he knew it too. He was preparing for the big wind down. A sensitive and passionate man I like to think that he saw it coming and that he wrote the words to his last days in his own head himself.
I stood next to his bed in that cramped and dusty room and he told me a navy story. I had heard no less than a thousand navy stories in my life, most of them brilliantly funny and inappropriate, but this was a sad story and it was the first time I had heard it. He told me that once when his ship was in port at Okinawa he was granted leave so he took a walk around town. Unfamiliar with the area, he took a shortcut through a little stretch of woods and he accidentally stepped into a privy hole that some other sailor on some other mission had dug. Sunk into the filth and the muck he looked down at his feet to find that his shoes were soaking and ruined. They were the only ones he had and he had no money to buy another pair. With the telling he looked so sad for his eighteen year old self. “That was truly the ebb of the tide of my life.” Ever the poet, he described it just that way. He went to his commanding officer with his ruined shoes and explained what had happened, how the whole event made him that much more lonesome and homesick. “Go back home and find some shoes Eugene.” His commanding officer told him, pointing towards the harbor where the ship was docked. “That ship’s not my home.” A petulant young Eugene quickly replied, stung at the thought of any home other than his real home, hurt by the disloyalty of it. Home was by the cotton mill with his brothers and sisters. The place with his tall, quiet father and his mother’s deep warmth. At that his commanding officer stopped for a moment, sizing him up. “No.” He said quietly. “Eugene, you’re right. That ship is not your home. But that ship is going to take you home. Back to your real home. So until then, that’s home.”
When we left him that night he was sitting at the kitchen table. His legs were folded under him and his white-socked feet poked out on either side. In front of him was a bowl of boiled shrimp and a napkin upon which rested a mountain of spent shrimp shells. It was a good supper. A treat after so many nights eating hospital food and the restricted cardio-diet that he typically and accurately referred to as “swill.” I stopped in the doorway and looked at him. My grandfather. Not the kind of grandfather you see in Christmas movies or read about in books. The kind that wears cardigan sweaters and pats you on your head and calls you “champ.” A different kind than that, but to me one that was better. A grownup that treated you like another human being. An equal. A worrier and a poet, always a song or a story at hand. Kind and innocent and wise. “See you later.” I said. He looked up from the shrimp he was peeling and said “Okay, kiddo.” with a quiet little smile.
That was the last time I saw him. Deep into that night he got up, wandered onto the front porch for some air, and collapsed from a heart attack. He lingered in the hospital for several more days but that was basically it. Nine days later I sat in the dark hallway hunched over my computer and wrote his obituary. My newborn son lay in his beautiful baby basket on the floor right beside me. The baby didn’t flinch at all the next day when I had to cover his ears as the guns fired the twenty one-gun salute. I held my new boy and I watched those sailors in their crisp dress whites fold the flag and I thought of my eighteen year old grandfather with his ruined shoes dreaming of home. I thought about how on a last ride to the doctor a couple of weeks before his death he had listed for my mom a handful of poems that he would like read at his funeral one day. At that point in time “one day” being some distant point in the future, in reality, it was a day hovering just over the horizon. One of the poems that old sailor poet requested was Crossing the Bar, by Lord Tennyson.
Twilight and evening bell,
And after that the dark!
And may there be no sadness of farewell,
When I embark;
For tho' from out our bourne of Time and Place
The flood may bear me far,
I hope to see my Pilot face to face
When I have crossed the bar.
A poem about putting out to see one last time. Those were the memories he was calling forth during the last weeks of his life. He was waiting to go home. And like that old sailor had told him, long before me and my baby and long before even my mother, all he had to do was get back on that ship and trust that it was going to take him there.