My grandpa died when I was 12 years old. It was strange going to his funeral. He had on a suit I hadn’t known he’d owned. His face was pale like a piece of paper and when I reached out my hand to touch him, that’s what he felt like: smooth, flat, dry paper. My mom smacked my hand away and said, “Don’t do that. Be respectful.” She was angry. She wasn’t angry at me for touching him, looking back I think she was angry because of the suit he was wearing. See, my grandfather was a hunter. In his life, my mom told me later, he’d only ever worn a suit twice: when he was married, and when his best friend died (they’d been war buddies). I thought about this for days after, this life before I was born concept: how my grandfather was young like me, never wore suits, had best friends. I only know him as a distant figure at the dinner table, drinking his scotch with a silent grin or a stoic look (depending on whom else had joined us for dinner that evening). Because of this distance, he wasn’t a real person to me, and so, seeing him in the coffin didn’t effect me the way it did my mom and her side of the family.
I’ve always thought tears were a funny thing. Maybe not funny in the sense that they are silly or ridiculous, but just…well, strange. I used to be obsessed with rabbits at a very young age. I had all of these questions about them that I’d read up about at the local library. I read Watership Down and watched the cartoon and this prompted my ultimate self-reflective question to date: why do humans cry and no other animal cries. In the book Watership Down the rabbits have learned to laugh. I remember I’d spent a summer trying patiently to make my black bunny with floppy ears to laugh. I thought, if I could just find something funny enough he’d do it. Failing, I came to the scientific conclusion that rabbits have a strange and arcane sense of humor that I didn’t understand. Standing in the midst of family members (great aunts and uncles with too much perfume and too many fat rolls I couldn’t reach my arms across them to hug them so I just let my arms drop limp at my sides) I couldn’t understand why everyone was crying. It’s not a shock: death. Everyone dies. It wasn’t unexpected. Mom had been at the hospital for three days as grandpa struggled on machines (he was dying of cancer, did I mention that?) until, poof, magic trick, he’s gone.
I wondered why the tears? Why are the necessary? Why didn’t rabbits get to laugh but humans got to express themselves in this way. It was all so strange and made my head hurt. For weeks after the funeral I kept thinking about this question, why is there this fear of dying? What good does it do us to fear something that’s always at the end? My mom left me alone, thank God, she said she understood, that people process grief differently, sitting across from me at the kitchen table, offering me cookies, her face sympathetic, streaked with salt stains. I almost wanted to punch her, to give her something real to cry about. Not in a mean way, but more in a clinical way. To me, it’s pointless to cry about something; it makes sense to cry when you’re hurt, or your bone is broken-it’s merely a reaction to pain shooting up the neurons in your leg. But to cry cry from grief: how does the body even process something like that? What synapses in the mind trigger meltdown, tears, wailings?
It was all too much. So I cocooned myself in my room for weeks. Read. Played games. Just lived a solitary life. It bothered me more I guess that I didn’t get to know my grandpa. I like stories, and I think he had some good ones, after all, being in the war he’d have to have had something to show for his time there. I never saw his sleeves rolled up though, or him with his shoes off. In fact, I think other than the cursory hug hello and goodbye, touching him at the funeral was the first time I had actually touched his flesh. I never got to see if he had any scars, or tattoos. I wonder about that (because he was in the navy)…I wonder what ink he had on him when he died. Whose name he cursed getting because he ended up marrying my grandma instead, or what scars from battle he walked around with. I think if I’d known what he was like I wouldn’t have been so apathetic toward his death. If I could understand what makes a rabbit laugh, maybe I’d have seen those tattoos.
So, I was asked about lessons I’ve learned and what new perspective of life I’m now walking around with…but what does it say that I don’t think I learned anything new after my grandfather’s death? If I’m meant to sum up an epiphany, I guess it would be this: if there are moments that are meant to make us more human, they aren’t found at funerals. I think, whenever the story happens, when the scar is freshly cut in the flesh, or when a story is so funny it streaks tears down your face, or something is so sad, like only hugging someone hello or goodbye and never just because, then that’s what life is called. There’s no one word definition or simile to it, it’s just a feeling. And that feeling certainly isn’t found in touching paper, it’s more visceral than that, it’s something beyond the pages.