My grandfather – GrandBob – was the best grandfather any girl could have asked for. He was a cranky crotchety old guy who just happened to think that his granddaughter could run the world. He was a feminist – unconcerned with my looks or “girlishness” and only concerned with my brain and my heart. He was my only father figure. He was an unfailing rock of support. His love was home.
I loved him more than I can put to words. And when he died this last winter, I did not collapse into tears, because his Alzheimer’s had already been slowly taken him from me for years. There was no goodbye.
“It’s good he didn't suffer.” My brother and I said to each other.
“This was a good death.”
Instead, I sat in a mild depression that I wasn't fully aware of. Just a cloud of what I had lost following me around. My light had dimmed. I didn't know how to process it.
GrandBob’s funeral wasn't until this summer, in July. He had been cremated, so it was postponed until the family could all make it to Kansas where he had moved with his wife and son for the last years of his life.
This was going to be goodbye.
We arrived at my great-grandmother’s house the night before. Still looking very much the same as when I was last there, 8 years ago. We don’t visit often. We aren't close to this part of the family. We are the black ones. We are the ones who had babies too young. We are the drug addicts and poor ones and fat ones. They love us. They are more than kind. We don’t fit in. There are no pictures of us on the walls.
“I have nothing in common with them,” my brother worried as I gave him some Xanax for the trip, “What are we going to talk about?”
We say our pleasantries. We hug. I talk about the house I just bought. My cousin bought a house too. We share real estate stories. My brother wrestles with the kids on the floor. We eat a boring Kansas meal and go to bed.
The next day is all nerves. It’s funeral day. My mom doesn't know what to do. She doesn't know how to feel, I can see that in her. She wasn't close to her dad. He wasn't the same man when he raised her that he was when he helped raise us. He didn't know how to show love for her. He didn't know how to be a rock for her. So my mom is pacing. She’s worrying. She’s helping the kids get dressed and reminding everyone about the timeline. Her voice is too loud.
“Where are the ashes?! Do we have the ashes?” She asks the crowd worriedly. Someone hands them to her. They are in a large plastic bag. She looks up at me with giant, almost scared eyes.
“This is him.” She says, lifting the bag up to me. “Feel it, this is all there is.”
I shake my head and walk away. She approaches my brother and he does the same. None of us know what to do.
We are all ready to go, but we can’t leave. My uncle hasn't arrived yet. My grandma went to pick him up and she’s not here yet. We aren't surprised that he is making us late. We are all nervous waiting on him. My niece sweetly straightens up the back of her dad’s coat while he nervously prepares to play trumpet at the ceremony. I yell at the other kids to stop running around.
Finally my uncle arrives. He exits my grandma’s van and it’s like a punch in the stomach. I wasn’t prepared for this – I don’t know why. I thought I’d been used to seeing the man who molested me as a child, who punched my mother at my birthday party, who violently raped two women. I’ve seen him plenty of times. For a while he was living in my basement. But these years away while he’s been in Kansas have destroyed my defenses. My ears start ringing.
“You won’t believe what happened you guys” he starts to say, too fast. He’s high as fuck. He looks like utter shit.
My mom cuts him off, “I don’t want to hear it. We have to go.”
He tries again and my mom cuts him off again.
“Fucking cunt bitch.” He says as he throws a sprite can into my great grandmother’s lovingly manicured yard.
The sound in my ears is deafening as I rush to him. “NO” I say. I don’t even know what I’m saying. I just know that right now he can’t do this.
He puts his hand up in my face, “Stay away from me bitch. I don’t like you. You aren't a good person. Stay away.”
My 12 year old niece is at my side, shaking with anger, “What did he just say? I've never seen anything so disrespectful.” She looks like she’s about to hit him. My grandma pulls my uncle into the car.
I get in my car with my kids and my brother. I’m driving and I’m not hearing anything. I’m just driving. I’m worried about running out of gas.
My brother is fuming. “I will fucking end him. If he tries any of this shit at the funeral I will call the fucking cops.”
And then he puts his hand on my arm. “I've got your back” he says.
That’s when I realize I've been crying. And I look at his hand on my arm and I can barely drive I’m crying so hard.
“I've got your back.”
All these years, everybody knew about the abuse. We don’t talk about it. Nobody had said that to me before. Nobody has had my back.
So now I’m in the car, and I’m driving to my grandfather’s funeral, and I’m crying over the actions of a crackhead child molester. I almost start to hyperventilate I’m trying so hard to stop crying.
“But Ijeoma, I have a serious question to ask you,” my brother says solemnly, “Does it bother you that Bill thinks you’re a bad person?”
I start laughing hysterically.
“I bet he was a good person when he was a baby though” my six year old son adds. And I can breathe again.
By the time we reach the funeral my Xanax has kicked in. I’m numb. My brother makes a beeline for my uncle.
“Hey, I’m sorry I went off on your mother and sister like that, but you have to admit they were being a couple of bitches.”
And my brother completely loses it. They are shouting at each other. My brother is threatening to call the cops. My uncle is threatening to call them back. But my brother didn't hit him, that’s not who he is.
But his rage and frustration at our uncle collides with the sudden realization that we are here to bury a man that he loved just as much as I did. He collapses on the ground in tears. His daughter rush over, worried, and he clings to them like they will save his life.
I’m not feeling anything. My sons are crying now, I’m consoling them. I’m hugging my mom. I’m passing out water and making sure the kids stay put.
I don’t remember much of the ceremony. It was brief. I sprinkled some of his ashes. The kids sat down and read a book while the grownups figured out the logistics for the remembrance dinner at a nearby country club.
We got to the dinner and realized that there was no alcohol. “Can you ask a manager?” I say to the waitress as my brother looks on in similar panic. He sends an urgent text to a cousin who hasn't arrived. She shows up and sneaks us a flask. We run outside.
It’s just the two of us, my brother and I. Like it has always been. We avoid eye contact and eagerly wave over a member of the country club staff who is having a smoke break. He’s an older black man. He says we’re the first black people he’s seen at the club all week. We share a cigarette and stories. I want to hug him for giving us this break. He says he hates Kansas. Seattle sounds better. If he ever comes to Seattle he’ll look us up.
It’s time to go back inside for speeches. My brother has his written down. It’s beautiful. My mom’s is weird and honest and lovely. My uncle’s is all about how he met his girlfriend because she was wandering around his yard the morning after GrandBob passed. “I know my dad sent her” he says. Nobody is looking at him.
I can’t remember most of my speech, but I do okay. I am good at speaking on the fly. My uncle hands me a tissue as I leave the podium and I absentmindedly take it and set it on the table. I have no tears. He stole them all.
I don’t believe in God. I don’t believe my GrandBob was looking down on this, and I’m glad for that. But it should have been better. Nobody should have been high. Nobody should have been yelling. I should have cried. He deserved so much better.
And when I look in my heart for the things I should have said on that podium, the things I should have been able to feel – the words are few.
I am the luckiest girl in the world to have been loved by you. You were my safe place, you were my biggest cheerleader. You were the only one who knew me and loved me for exactly who I was. You were so PROUD of me and I felt that every single day. And goddamn I miss you so much. And I didn't know when your mind began to slip that we would never have a conversation about politics again. I didn't know that my kids wouldn't get to see how funny you are. I didn't know that I’d never get to say goodbye. And I’m so sorry I didn't get to say it. And I’m so sorry that I didn't ask for one more story or call one more time. But I will tell my kids every story and I will share every picture. And I will cheer them like you cheered me and I will make sure they know that it is because of you that I can. I love you. I love you. I love you.