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Thursday, February 4, 1999
By Paul Ford
Another on the death of my grandfather. He was a good fellow. I miss him.
"Well it's good he needed to, he didn't want to be as faded. He's still downstairs, they're coming to get him? I guess I'll wear my black slacks, white shirt, black tie, black jacket. Monday. Good we got down this last weekend. Let me call Greg.
He picks up after two rings. "Hey. My God, that was it. Mom's a little--yeah, well. Monday. No, I don't believe it's real, I'm crying and not even thinking about it yet. If you're reserving, get me a hotel room too. Holiday Inn, Sunday night, okay. Do you have my work number? I'm just thinking about whether I should take Amtrak or just NJT. Numb is right."
Sonofabitchuary. He did it, gave it up, and now it's just a body, no spark. Goodbye, Pop, you beautiful old man. You cranky chicken-eating scrapple-making PA farmboy, goodbye. I loved you. When my Dad would vanish, you would press those dollars into my palms and look at me with your hand on my shoulder; when my Mom would go apeshit you would talk to me and tell me to keep going. You watched me mess some stuff up badly, watched me at the close edge to suicide, and at a diner--at a Friendly's, I think--never addressing the problems by name, you said, "just go on and say fuck it. Just say fuck it, buddy." Fuck them, fuck it, fuck it all save six and they're the paulbearers.
I loved you. You loved a joke, some ice cream, a walk by the stream. They haven't come for you yet, while I'm writing this, I could go down and see you if I left this minute, still in the bed, if I ran I could get there an hour ago, before you were dead, and put my hand on your shoulder. It's lightning and thunder out but I could get to you before they spill out your blood and put in chemicals, just touch you for a minute as you are, still a body before they pickle you for the graveyard. I wish you would call me with a joke, a story about Lion's club, telling me that it's all bullshit but you keep going anyway. You're the only one in the family who didn't disappear on me, you know. You kept your word. And you told great dirty jokes.
This essay is losing structure, but so am I. I should have come down every weekend to talk to you, but I called, I stayed in touch, you knew me, we were friends. You knew I loved you, I told you over and over, and every time you said in reply, "same here, same here." You told me you loved me exactly once, when I was 15 and we were sure you were dying. So the last 9 years have been a privilege, sir.
You wanted to be a surgeon, and when they let you, you watched doctors operate on your own heart, viewing your open chest on the monitors. You were smart, whipsmart, shining, temperamental, a musician, a good painter, and you could spin off a story so that all of your friends--all of them younger than you, because you were never really old--would slap their knees and congratulate you, and if I was in the room, I would laugh too, proud to see you at the center of the attention, proud that you were mine and I was of you. You fished with worms, because sportsmanship was a way to feed your family and flies be damned; you didn't hunt but you loved venison. You ate souse, gelatinized fat with flecks of spare venison, on white bread with lettuce and mayonnaise. You would spend three hours on a fruit salad, dicing it with a cutting board into a huge bowl, grapes, apples, grapefruits, and equal time on dressing a trout with peas and carrots, everything diced, broiled, perfect. You admired flowers, going out to the shed and tickling the tiny green buds coming up in a plantbox, admiring tulip bulbs, with a boy's enthusiasm for spring and blooming. You hated snakes and cottage cheese. You never ate a bagel before you were 79.
Did you wait to say goodbye to us this weekend, then die three days later, in your morphine fog? If I hadn't decided to come down, would you have waited another week? I remember sitting by your hospital bed, seventeen or so, too young to be sad or brave, and I told you I'd retell some of the stories you told me, that I'd talk about you in novels I was going to write, in order to perpetuate your story. Your old hair hanging off your head, and you were proud that I wanted to know you, that you mattered so much to me. Maybe that's not over, maybe I'll make it there still, I'll write something that lots of people read, and your voice will echo through its pages just like it echoes through my mind, coming out in every sentence. My family accent is strong with your tone. But in the meantime, until I write that novel, until I find a way to memorialize you, let me introduce you to the 46 or so people who read Ftrain.
To my readers, please meet Bill Yocom, my grandfather, who is dead today, 3 March 1999. He is very important to me, and I am very proud of him. He ran away for the Navy when he was 17, escaping the Pottstown, PA farm. He had grown up there with hex signs and church meetings, baling hay in wooden barns, born in 1917. He was short, and handsome (he would tell me, swelled with pride, "I had a 35-inch waist and 50 inch chest when I was 18,") and had real blue eyes.
He won raffles. It was the weirdest thing, he would enter a contest for a new fishing pole or a scale model of a triceratops, and he'd win it. It became a joke among his friends. He could cook, fix things, work with tools, and I trusted him. I didn't tell him my secrets, because he didn't care about them. He just wanted to make sure I was doing well and working hard. I loved him. I never really knew him; there was always something else to find out about his life or just his way of living. He wasn't to be known, he was to breathed in. He picked blackberries every summer and I remember coming into his kitchen, the gas stove boiling and paraffin packages everywhere.
He sold more fruit in the Lions Club fundraising fruit sale than anyone else. He started a mineralogical museum for West Chester University, 55 years after he dropped out without a degree. He knew the names of thousands of kinds of rocks and all the fishing holes and greasy diners in Southeastern PA. He would come into the house almost every day in the summer with 8 trout in ziploc bags; he always caught the limit. Or he would show up lugging a single striated crystal the size of your neck, pulled out of some ancient mine that no one had visited in 30 years. Once he brought me out to the car--I was ten--and showed me a live, cranky snapping turtle wedged in the backseat. He had caught it out fishing and grabbed its tail. It became soup, and the shell became a decoration.
You would have liked him, if you like reading Ftrain; he and I are a lot alike. He was very proud of me, and of my brother. I make a good salary for a lower middle-class boy, and he bragged about us to his friends, his bright, clever grandsons. He played chess, collected stamps, watched Phillies games on TV, and ignored religion. He was not a lamenter; he never said the world was going to hell in a handbasket and how times were better in the past. He believed in the world, and was never ashamed of progress. He loved the future, the Buck Rogers, Star Trek, blinking-lights and agribusiness future. He wanted to live to see the millennium very badly, but he gave that up in the last few months; he knew. I will toast him when the clock spins around, while the world is braced for the Y2K bug to either wreak nuclear havoc or pass unnoticably, I'll raise a glass of champagne to his gravebound frame and tell him I miss him, and that I believe as he did that the next 1000 years will be good ones.
He had a 400-volt defribulator implanted in his stomach. They turned it off before he died, so that when his heart stopped, he wouldn't flop around like a fish. My brother and I agree that he would have loved that anecdote, about the guy who dies and then bucks around the bed like a cowboy on an invisible bronco. My grandfather would have told that story to his friends with a dark wink, embellishing it until the dead man's coffin was bouncing like a jumping bean, and his friends would have all given out deep, long, appreciative laughs. But it's better that they turned the defribulator off, especially for my grandmother.
Tonight, at around 10:30, he's dead, and it isn't all that great.
Don't be dead! Christ, I'm still here, what will I do without you? They can talk all they want about the stages of grief but I don't want to forget you, father to me at times, beloved old crank poring over stamps and stones, frying sea bass or making pancakes. I will pray an agnostic prayer for you, and hope that blood and spirit are the same thing, that I carry you somewhere inside of me. Travel safely, sir.
Bill Yocom, 1917-1999. It was good to have known him. The teeth are false, but the smile is genuine. (1990)