Friday, October 4, 2013

The Last Stone on Your Grave

The way I remember it, I was three years old and playing in my back yard. I chatted with my next door neighbor, a dark-haired man of maybe 20. That was all.

The way my parents remember it, they heard me outside talking to someone, so when I came in they asked me who it was.

"My friend Ralph," I said casually.

They say Ralph was 90 years old and had died a few days earlier.

Do I believe in ghosts? It makes no difference. Either they exist, or they don't. My belief doesn't make them real, and my lack thereof doesn't make them false. I do not fear ghosts, and I am puzzled when others do. For most of my life I labored under the assumption that they were either proof of life after death, or a form of death denial invented by people expressly to comfort ourselves. So what's to be afraid of?

"There is no record of a ghost ever hurting a person," I have occasionally reasoned, attempting to comfort a frightened child. You're right to snort. It works as well as it sounds like it would. Meaning, don't bother. At times, I have resorted to saying that there is no such thing as a ghost, which I always swore I never would, because how should I know? Of course, that doesn't work either. Expressing a fear of ghosts is a safer way of expressing fear of death. So what I'm really saying is, there is no record of death ever hurting a person, and there is no such thing as death. Even the youngest child knows this to be utter nonsense. I have concluded that there is little to nothing you can do to sooth someone's fear of dying. Whether you are an adult or a child makes no difference at all, because death turns us all into lost, ageless souls. All you can do is try not to make it worse.

Perhaps it speaks to my lack of imagination that the possibility of a ghost without consciousness only recently occurred to me. Seeing Ralph, whether it was real or imagined, offers no evidence at all that he hadn't been completely obliterated. Even if there is life after death, and believe me, I'm open to the possibility, the versions of us that lived on earth will not last forever. With him went his memories, and at his age, there were probably people in those memories nobody remembered but him. They died their final death on the day he left the earth, only this time around it went completely unnoticed.

For the last few years of his life, my grandpa suffered from increasingly severe dementia. It wasn't the backward march of Alzheimer's, regressing him to a younger man, then a teenager, then a child. He just gradually seemed to forget everyone and everything he had ever known. However, before that happened, aware that he was a very old man coming to the end of his life, he would repeat the same few memories more and more frequently.

My grandpa was born in 1915, so his birthday was not on a holiday weekend until Veteran's Day was first observed as Armistice Day in 1918, just as he was turning three. He remembered a big parade, and a man who carried him on his shoulders and pointed to the gutter.

"The Kaiser's down there!" he told the toddler version of my whip smart grandfather, who understood that it was not true.

For as long as he had an ounce of lucidity, he told that story whenever I saw him. Like most men his age, he later became a WWII Veteran himself. Although he was not one for war stories, there was one that haunted him more and more.

My grandfather and his unit were approached by a terrified German soldier. He was only a boy, and he came to them with his hands up, shouting an "I surrender!" that he himself probably did not understand. He hoped the American soldiers would, and they did. But one of them shot him anyway.

"He shot him!" my grandfather would say, his horror, shock and disgust as evident at the age of 90 as it must have been 65 years earlier. "He just....shot him."

The German boy seemed to be knocking, then banging, on the door of my grandpa's mind, demanding to be remembered.

Last week, my grandpa died. Who did he take with him? He was the last surviving member of his family of origin. His little sister had died a year before, making me grateful for his lack of memory and comprehension for the first and only time. Thank God for small mercies. Not that he believed in God, or, for that matter, that I do.

She'd had her own husband, children and grandchildren, and presumably a community full of various other players. So no worries there. Aunt Jackie will live on in memory for years to come. I myself remember her as a lovely, gentle woman, the perfect foil for her gruff husband. Those who knew her better would be able to provide you with a more nuanced picture.

But what of his older sister, the brilliant woman with the movie star looks who had no children and died young? Well, she wasn't that young, and it wasn't that long ago. Her nieces and nephews probably remember her, along with a smattering of other people I cannot guess at.

His parents lived long lives, so again they must be remembered at least by their grandchildren.

His grandparents, though. As much as he felt and feels like my "real" grandfather, the truth is he was my step-grandfather. Do I call his parents my great-grandparent, or his grandparents my great-great grandparents? Yes and no. I didn't know them and don't share their heritage, but to the extent that my grandpa was a part of me, they must be, too. They tried to force their fanatical religious beliefs onto my grandpa and his sisters, until they were informed by his parents that they were going to drive their grandchildren away if they didn't lay off. Did they die with him on Friday?

The man who carried him on his shoulders on the first Veterans Day? The woman who did the cooking for his frat house? The uncle who was a barrel of fun when he was young, but miserable when he became old and religious? He seemed to have been a strong influence on my grandpa's passionate Atheism. The German soldier? Maybe he, who never had the chance to live a long, full life, was about to die too, and he wasn't going down without a fight this time. All of these people might have left the world forever with my grandfather. Or none of them. Certainly there are a number of other potential candidates that I know nothing of. Perhaps it shouldn't bother me, but it does.

I will, of course, never know who who puts the final nail in my coffin, although I believe, with the smug arrogance of someone who is alive, relatively young, and doesn't really believe she's going to die, that it will be someone I haven't met yet. Still, I can't help but wonder who will die with me.

My best guess is Ralph, someone I met (or didn't meet?) when he was very old and I was very young. I wish I knew more about him, but I know nothing. It's such an intimate task for the universe to assign to a virtual stranger, and I'm sorry that I believe myself to be the one who is going to do it. But I think I'll be taking Ralph with me when I go, and I think it will be for good.