My grandfather waits

By Christopher Wink | Mar 18, 2008

george-wink-graduation.jpg

My grandmother died on the Monday before Thanksgiving, November 2006, two months beyond my father’s parents celebrated 54 years marriage.The thought of the weight of loneliness, left after a half century of practiced, dependent love, made me shiver one night, then a continent away, studying in Tokyo. I made an effort to call my grandfather more once I returned in December.

The conversations after her death were always the same. He’d answer my questions with as few words as possible, as if he was waiting for a bus. I guess he was waiting for a bus.

“I don’t know anymore, Christopher,” he’d tell me. “I just don’t feel well anymore.”

“It’s okay, grandpa,” I’d answer. “I’ll talk to you soon.”

Maybe he wanted to say more. Maybe he didn’t. I never knew how to offer to help shoulder his burden. We so rarely know how to help shoulder another’s burden. We so rarely know how to shoulder our own.

My grandmother, his wife, had died, quietly, though troublingly near the beginning of the holiday season. It may have been the only time she was ever a burden. The burden of death is a particularly heavy one.

My grandfather was born Oct. 26, 1923 in Cambria Heights, then a safe, working class neighborhood in the New York City borough of Queens. My grandmother shared her birth with that of the year 1928, welcomed into the world on Jan. 1. They met a church social and were married at St. Albans the Martyr Episcopal Church in a leafy stretch of Turin Drive in Jamaica, Queens on Sept. 20, 1952.

My grandfather’s courtship of a single-mother divorcee is unknown to me. Similarly, all I know of most of their marriage is that they decorated the living room of their Levitt-style home in 1973, with all of that year’s fashionable colors, styles and comforts and never got around to changing it.

I know casual stories of his past, though their veracity is unquestioned enough to merit more scrupulous investigation. In the Second World War, before meeting my grandmother, he sat in a watchtower on some island in the Pacific Ocean, listening to Tokyo Rose and firing his issued firearm just once, to see how it sounded one clear and boring night. In 1963, he purchased a handful of .22 rifles, and took to brandishing them on his front steps, race riots plaguing the country, and two black communities – a suburban one to his east and a quickly changing Queens not far west – surrounding the home he had made.

What I know best, though, is how terrified he was after my grandmother’s death. He was never a great man outside of 15 Windsor Street in Hicksville. Those types you have read before, no picture in the newspaper, no great accolades, nor speeches in his honor. Just a small family and a woman with whom, for whatever reason, he spent the better portion of the last 54 years of his life. Before her death, he was smilingly oblivious, immersed most in maps, and history, stamps and coupons. He tended to repeat himself, but was coherent and kind enough that it was charming. After her death, too much was missing from his eyes, like he was removed, sitting on a bench, waiting for a bus that was already late.
By March he was dead, found by my aunt, turned over and gone in the bed of the home he had made with a woman who had already left.

“I don’t know anymore, Christopher,” he’d tell me. “I just don’t feel well anymore.”

As if that bus was four months late.