Wednesday, December 27, 2006

If We Knew Then What We Know Now, Would It Make Any Difference?

P.Z. Myers got me to thinking.

Last Monday evening, my mother called me with the news that my paternal grandfather had shot himself. His health had been getting increasingly worse over the past 15 or so years, various heart and lung ailments stemming from years of smoking and unsafe working conditions. He'd been using an oxygen tank since I was in high school and even sitting in front of the television exhausted him physically.

I never was close to my paternal grandfather, not in the way I was with my maternal grandfather, my Poppaw Bean. As a small child, I worshiped Poppaw Bean and despite the last five years of his life lost to Alzheimer's, I cried when they laid him in the clay some 13 years ago. But Poppaw Thompson, it just wasn't the same. Part of it lay in the fact we lived in Northeast Mississippi, near Tupelo, and Poppaw Thompson lived in Jackson, a miserable four-hour drive at best. Most of it, though, had to do with my with just the Thompson knack for emotional distance. We're private people who manage to wear our hearts on our sleeves. When we move, we move on. We don't dwell.

Poppaw Thompson was pretty much the same way. Shortly after my paternal grandmother died - six weeks before I was born - he married an old flame and helped raise her youngest daughter. That was that. One would think that caused a rift between him and the old man, except there were issues between my father and his mother. I don't know what they were or why they happened. He doesn't want to talk about it, I never knew her, and the most I can get from my relatives is she was a "pretty, unpredictable woman who smoke and drank constantly". No one wants to talk about it, so I let it go.

My mother tried to bridge the gap. She comes from a tight-knit hillbilly family, most of who still life within a square mile of the hill where they were all born. She's all about roots and old pictures and family heirlooms that are financially negligible but rich in memory. After my brother and I left home for college and Momma retired from teaching (my dad's been disabled and unable to work since 1977, on top of being injured and exposed to Agent Orange in 'Nam), my folks made regular trips down to Jackson to visit, but it never changed. It just wasn't the same as being immersed in my mother's family.

It was just different, and my mother still doesn't understand that. She tries but I don't think she ever will. It's part of what makes Momma what she is, just like her big, ready-for-hugs greeting to every child she meets and her habit of telling complete strangers stories they won't get because they haven't know her or me or some distance, yet fondly remember relative for the past 30 years. My mother's family are loud and squabbling and thin-skinned and big-hearted and completely mad and lost in time. My father's people, well, if one day follows another, things are okay for them. My brother and I are a conflicted combination.

My brother and I left Athens early and drove to Jackson to be with my family and my father's people, many of whom I hadn't seen in almost 20 years. Some I'd never met before. Some I didn't know existed. It's odd. My father rarely talked about his father's people, apart from one favorite aunt that, apparently, more or less raised him. However, as much as he apparently had issues with his mother, he loved her people. Of all my father's family, I know them the best and I still have fond memories of my Uncle John and my Uncle Sam and my Uncle Dallas, a whole wad of characters and all gone, too.

My grandfather's people were like him, and many of them commented that they never got together except for funerals. Things were said about a family reunion, but I doubt it'll come across. That's just how they are. It's how I am. It's why I haven't spoken to most of the folks I knew in Gainesville since I left or why I haven't talked to most of the people I went to school with. It isn't a lack of love that causes the distance, it's just that peculiar family trait. It's not like Momma's people, and even though I am my father's son in that respect, I don't understand it. I can't. It just is.

During the funeral, the preacher - a second cousin of mine who previously did not number in my recollections, which is a helluva note - said he remembered my grandfather as a kind, gentle man who always took the time to listen. That's how I always knew him, as well, as that warm, gravelly voice on the other end of the phone who was just pleased to hear from me. Most of my life, I've felt my family and friends expected far too much from me, more than I could ever hope to deliver, but Poppaw Thompson just listened.

I understand Poppaw's decision to do what he did, why he made it. He told my step-grandmother he was tired of living the way he was, and before she could reach a phone to call 911, she heard the shot. I understand, though I'm angry with him for not giving us the chance to say goodbye, especially that aforementioned step-daughter's daughter, who worshiped the ground he walked on. He was in pain, the medication dulled his senses, he just wanted peace, he wanted to call his time. I understand. I wish he hadn't have done it, but I understand.

Momma was five minutes from calling them when my step-grandmother told him the news. Momma and Daddy were going to make a quick visit before my brother and I came home for the holidays. I'd planned a trip to New Orleans and was looking forward to telling Poppaw T. that I'd come for a visit sometime in March. Both of us can't help but wonder, if we had just said something sooner. If maybe I'd been a better grandson, if I'd tried harder to ignore the lean towards my father's emotional distance for my mother's wide-open heart. If. If. If.

I worry about my father. He's been disabled for almost 30 years, but the past few have seen a marked downturn in his health. Momma can't help but cry when she tells me how listless he is these days, how he doesn't hunt or fish anymore, how all he does is stare at the TV. She doesn't know what to do and I don't know what to tell her. He doesn't want to talk about it. All I can offer is professional therapy but I'm not holding my breath on whether or not it ever happens.

A very wise friend of mine once told me, "Life is people you love hurting you and never even knowing what they'd done or even that they'd done it." It's a dark outlook, but there's truth to it. The best we can hope for, the best we can do, is love each other as much as possible despite what we do to each other. We must live with our regrets, but we also get to live with the better memories. I'll always cherish the memories of my grandfather's voice and I'll always regret I didn't hear more of it. That's life.

Here's to you, Prof. Here's to your dad and my poppaw. Here's to all y'all.