An anniversary is generally a cause to celebrate. You found the love of your life today and made her yours through the bonds of matrimony. You turned ten, thirteen, eighteen, twenty one or some other significant age and you’re celebrating the miracle of birth by having a party with those you hold dear. You devoted fifty years to a company and on this momentous day they’re giving you a gold watch or a placard or some other heartfelt, sentimental trophy to commemorate your anniversary. But other anniversaries are less joyous and more bittersweet and heart wrenching than anything else. It’s been ten years since so-and-so died. The fire took our home last May. He’s been missing twenty years today but I’m not giving up hope. These are the sort of anniversaries that stick in me like a knife blade and twist with this exquisitely agonizing pain. Anniversaries of tragedy and loss and sacrifice that were beyond anyone’s control or that, maybe, could have gone differently had the right elements existed.
March 9th was six months since my grandfather died. Today was six months since I carried him to his grave and said good bye for the last time. Tomorrow is the one year anniversary of the end of my marriage. A lot of painful, gut wrenching anniversaries crammed into a single week and it just doesn’t feel any better now. The pain is still fresh, like a sunburn a day or two after the fact. While there’s a numbness there, the right stimulus reminds you all again how wounded you are and that pain becomes as fresh and vital as it was the day it happened. I thought about commemorating this week by falling off the wagon and getting completely smashed once my son went back to his mom’s. I thought about hitting every bar between here and Nashville and drinking until my liver, pancreas and stomach all chose to simultaneously erupt and die. I thought about everything that led me to this particular moment in time and decided that doing something I hate wasn’t going to make the pain go away but would only serve to numb it for a little while before making things so very much worse.
So how do you cope with it? How do you look at yourself in the mirror each morning and say that it’s going to be okay? My grandfather was my mentor, my teacher, and my dear friend. My home was the second greatest achievement of my life (the first being fatherhood) and was supposed to be mine forever. Marriage, well, I think I’ve beaten that horse to death in previous posts. Now, when I feel like I need his words of encouragement and advice the most, I have nothing but an echo to try and guide by. I can still hear him singing, picking his guitar with a sock clad foot propped on the coffee table in the living room as he crooned his Depression Era country and smiled, telling me stories about his “Little” Big Brother J.B. It was never an old man rambling on into senility, each story had a moral and point that he was trying to drive home whether I saw it at the moment or not. So often they started like this:
“We lived in about as close to a Utopian society as you could imagine, Danny,” he’d say in his deep, Southern accent as he plucked away the chords of “Wildwood Flower” or “Cigareets and Whusky.” He’d go on to tell me about his brother Jay who was born “crippled with MD (muscular dystrophy) but who refused to let a thing like non functioning legs keep him from walking. When my grandfather started walking, J.B. was about six and refused to let his baby brother walk when he couldn’t. Some kids today would try to sabotage a younger sibling that was succeeding where they couldn’t. Instead, falling a million times, J.B. finally worked until the muscles in his legs were strong enough to hold him and began to walk with Willie. After that, it was always Willie and Jay. Everywhere the one went, the other would be close behind. He told me stories of his brother climbing trees and swimming in creeks and refusing to give up hope just because something seemed like a lost cause. My grandfather would tear up a bit talking about him, would pause and wipe his eyes with the handkerchief he kept in the back pocket of his dusty, stained carpenter overalls and would continue on smiling as he told the stories.
But it was more than that. As he talked about his brother who he loved and admired and saw as a hero, he told a story about overcoming the things in your mind that tell you that you can’t do a thing. A boy who was never believed to be able to walk, was only expected to lay around and wait to die, taught himself how to stand, by will alone, and refused to ever back down just because someone said it wasn’t possible. So many stories that blur in my mind now, stories that I felt like I lived when I sat on that couch and listened to this man recite them as if they’d happened only that afternoon. Anyone can tell a story. It takes an artist to make you live it. Master carpenter, self taught musician and story teller extraordinaire, my grandfather… well… I don’t know that there are words to truly explain the man in any adequate way. And as I look back on my loss, I try to close my eyes and return to the warmth and safety of that familiar room.
I close my eyes and see him standing there, picking the steel strings with his calloused fingers with his foot up on the coffee table he’d built when he was the shop foreman at Peabody. I smell the white beans and bacon cooking in the kitchen as my granny smiles and hums along to whatever tune her husband was playing. There’s a lingering hint of sawdust carried in his cap and in his clothes that no amount of washing will ever fully remove, a pleasant odor of something being made from nothing. And as I listen tonight, as I see the reflection of that brown button down shirt and pin striped overalls in the picture window behind him, all I can hear is him saying to me “Don’t quit, Danny.”
Try as I might to let that comfort me, it doesn’t; at least not in the way it should.
I know it’ll all be all right in the end. The house was just a house, gone to foreclosure now it’s out of my hands and there’s no use abusing myself over what’s gone in the past. My marriage, well, people grow and change and drift as they get older. It’s even worse when you’re both children who married to young and became parents before they were even grown themselves. You hurt, you learn and you eventually overcome.
Still, anniversaries sting when they’re not the happy kind and they make you feel alone on this cramped little earth. Nearly eight billion people in all the world and sometimes something so small as a memory can lock you out on the open sea a million miles from everyone and everything. But, tomorrow is another day full of hope and promise and I mean to stand up and walk in it. It’s the only way to survive. It’s the only way to live.
I miss you but you’re not really gone so long as the music and the stories live on in me.