My grandfather’s name was Leo. He was wiry, and at six feet towered over his grandchildren like a friendly, nearly hairless giant. He always greeted us the same way: he would lean back in his chair, making it hard to hug him without falling into his arms. When you finally were off balance, he would wrap his big hands around what felt like your entire head and give you wet kisses on both cheeks. It was a ritual I learned to both love and hate; love for the attention, but hate for how I always felt the need to wipe the wetness from my cheeks.
My earliest memories of my grandfather always include the smell of pipe smoke. Even his wet kisses were tainted with it. He only stopped smoking his pipe after being diagnosed with lung cancer, but by then, it was already too late.
No, this isn't a ghost story, but guilt still haunts me. My grandfather passed away on a beautiful September afternoon in 1996. By the time I got home, all of his children had gathered around him and said their goodbyes. I entered their small apartment where they gave me the news, and all feeling left my soul. My face became an emotionless mask, and I retreated to my side of the house to inform my wife of my grandfather’s passing. The next few days were a blur as I isolated myself and listened to emotionally charged music in the hopes of bringing myself to tears. After a week, I finally let go, broke down and cried in my wife’s arms.
I was thirty-five when he passed away; I’d had half a lifetime to get close to him, to appreciate his humour, his emotionality, his presence. Looking back on my old self, I blame my youth for being so careless with the time I had had with him.
We would visit my grandparents regularly, Saturday or Sunday dinners depending on the week. I still remember the kitchen and how it combined with the dining room. The large table with eight or ten chairs in the middle, a small chair and table in a corner where they kept the phone that hardly ever rang. These days, when we visit my parents every Sunday, my mother serves chips, veggies, and fruit. My grandmother would have one plate of cheese that felt like it needed to last all afternoon. If any of the cheese remained when dinner time came around, it would have sweat out all of its milk and hardened. We had been conditioned not to ask for anything, so by the time they served the meal, we were no better than a pack of starving wolves closing in on a defenseless deer.
Back in those days, kids were chased out of the house so that adults could enjoy their coffee and share the latest gossip. My parents said otherwise, but I knew better. I was one of those kids who stuck around adults and listened in on everything they said. The only times when I wasn’t bored out of my little head were when my cousins visited my grandparents as well. Those were magical times for me. We would either be roaming the fields behind my grandparents’ house or sitting around in the dark living room playing games and listening to music. Most of us had our very own Walkman back then; cumbersome beasts that we insisted on carrying around everywhere we went.
On that particular Sunday afternoon, it must have been raining or extremely cold outside since all of us kids were sitting on one of the sofas in the living room. My grandfather came in and looked at us with one of his mischievous smiles and asked what we were listening to. I’m not sure which song it was, but it was something by Mötley Crüe; I want to believe it was Shout at the Devil, but I don’t think so. My grandfather stretched out his hand and my cousin handed him his Walkman. After fitting the old-style earphone halo over his balding head, he proceeded to walk around the house and dance to hard rock. For the next ten or fifteen minutes, he walked from room to room and danced his customary awkward dance with whoever was around; we followed him and giggled.
My grandfather did this without knowing, but he taught me an important lesson: never judge someone for their taste in music, and make sure they don’t feel like outcasts for what they enjoy. These days I find myself judging the music, but not the people.
My cousin reminds me often how the 70s and 80s were horrible for non-smokers. Everywhere you went, everyone around you smoked, and you could say nothing about it, especially if you were a kid. During the holidays, more specifically on Christmas Day, my father’s side of the family would gather at my grandparents’ house for dinner. As usual, parents would send the kids to play while the adults enjoyed the temporary quiet; on these occasions, they mostly drank, gossiped, and smoked. My cousin recalls one thing from these gatherings, other than the festivities: the smoke. It hung in the air of the dining room like a phosphorescent storm cloud.
My grandfather was diagnosed with cancer in September of 1995. My parents thought it would be a good idea if my wife and I purchased a house with an in-law suite so my grandparents could be close to their family and everyone could help to care for my grandfather. With my parents’ financial help, we bought our first house, and by the end of November, we had moved in and begun a new part of our lives.
In those first few months of moving into the new house, my grandfather’s health seemed to improve slightly, and everyone got comfortable with the idea that the cancer treatments were working. By the summer of the next year, my grandfather had lost more weight than we expected, and his health was in quick decline.
All of the family members began caring for my grandfather. Either feeding him, helping him to the washroom, to even washing him. My father and brother were very involved in my grandfather’s care in his last months with us. I could not bring myself to help, too busy at the time with my new career in a prominent call centre.
I still hear my grandfather’s voice calling for my grandmother in the middle of the night. His voice is gravelly, slurred, and filled with pain. I know it’s all in my head, but even after twenty years, his voice remains branded in my brain.
My kids never got to meet my grandfather, but they grew up seeing my grandmother a few times a year. Although she always kept her emotions in check and never really got close to my kids, I knew she cared. I would occasionally spy her looking over at them as they played, a small smile forming on her lips.
I like to think that our grandfather kept watch over us after his death. I write about the supernatural in my fiction but tend to dismiss it in everyday life. Some things are hard to explain, however, like my daughter, alone in her room, babbling and giggling to herself. I agree that this is a normal behaviour for a small child, but I found it a bit disconcerting that when we entered the room, she completely ignored us and continued to have this incomprehensible conversation while looking at the ceiling.
We live in an older house, but because my grandfather passed away here, we have taken to accepting it as a blessing when something strange happens that we can’t explain. I guess I’ve changed in that way as well. I like to think that I inherited his sense of humour and that he nods his approval from somewhere close by. I would also like to think that he forgives me for being emotionally unable to help him before he died.
Tomorrow we continue a tradition I started a little over a year ago; we dedicate every Sunday to my parents. My family and I visit them, and we all have dinner together. I even got my brother and his family involved. I want to give my kids every opportunity to get close to their grandparents. Life goes by too quickly, and family is one of the few constants in our lives. I like to think I’ve done a few things right in my life; my family is one of them.
Stephane Moisan is a student in the Professional Writing program at Algonquin College. He has been happily married (to the same woman) for the past 25 years and is the father of two teenagers. He enjoys reading and writing, as well as spending time with his family.