Last Sunday I had a beach party with a bunch of friends. You wouldn't have approved; girls wore biknis, it was Venice Beach, one of my neighbors invited his "motorcycle club" who were just the sort of gentlemen you'd worked hard to avoid. Still, it was fun, particularly when I persuaded a friend to get in the ocean with me for the first time in about ten years. It was cold at first, colder than the Atlantic. The riptide is much stronger, too - so the footing is perilous, and the waves more fierce. Until you get out past the whitewater, it's pretty chaotic. I decided to do some body-surfing. I had lackluster results until I finally caught one. I sailed in as straight and true as the pelicans that glide over the water in a line, following their captain. When the ocean finally scraped me along the bottom, and I abraded my stomach, knees, elbows - got sand in my pants and ears and hair - I stood up laughing. Not just a little bit, but laughing like a jackass. Then the riptide caught me, and flipped me right over, literally head over heels and I did a backwards somersault into the washing-machine mix of riptide and crashing waves. This was even funnier. I laughed even harder.
I remembered summer in New Jersey, when we used to get a shore house in Ocean City. I was very young, and for whatever reason, we stopped doing it after that. But I remember you going out further into the waves than seemed at all safe. I would stand just at the edge of the water, nervously watching. You would dive into a wave as it passed you by, and glide right in. You'd stand up, laughing just like that - and every time you'd get the comb out of the back pocket of your bathing suit and comb your hair back, pat in place, and put the comb back into your pocket. Then you'd do it again. It's one of my fondest memories of you. I was thinking about it, and realized that all my fondest memories of you are from when you were laughing.
All that time you spent at your desk playing chess or building airplanes or paying bills or watching tv - all that time in the choir, at work, shovelling driveways, vaccuming and mowing the lawn - all the hard work of the long years of your life? All that didn't matter, it was at the beach, or with your glider in a field, or best of all, on a sled in the snow on Steuben hill or at Valley Forge park - that is when love and you were in the same room together.
So I was thinking about something you said, after Grandma died. You were showing me your latest calculations on world population growth, one of the many 3x5 cards you would work out the calculus on. You were quite the amateur epidemiologist, really, with your exactly year and day that Africa would be 100% infected with AIDS; when India would have more people than the rest of the planet put together - all the grim statistics that you took such perverse pleasure in. You said that "those people" (as if they were different than "us people" ) kept having children when it was clear that many were already starving. When asked why, you said that one man said, "Who shall hold my head when I lay dying?"
I thought that, at that point in your life, with your wife of 55 years dead, and your own health on the decline, you were valuing the family you have around you. That you understood the motivation of "those people", even if it seemed contradictory to the greater good. After all, you'd sacrificed so much yourself, for the sake of your own family. You always put family first, you always did what needed doing for all the people around you before you took time to please yourself. Your entire life. I thought you were understanding the dividend on all that investment, all those years of selflessness.
But now, I finally understand. You were as scornful of your own choices as you were of those people. After all that time, I suppose it just didn't matter that there was someone to hold your head while you lay dying. Your last act; disinheriting my sisters and I - and moreso them, and especially Lydia, who had sacrificed years of her life to take of you - showed that care of family was an obligation, not a joy. I think you died a tremendously lonely man, and had spent your entire life just as lonely. I was puzzled by the excessively fond letter you wrote to a woman named "Mary" that I found amongst your affects; it certainly seemed to be one of many, part of a long correspondence. Who was this woman? Who were you writing such ardent letters to? I wonder now if perhaps you hadn't all along felt that you'd made the wrong choice, and that perhaps there was some other family you wish you'd chosen.
I wish you had spent more time doing the things that made you laugh. I wish you had set aside more time for yourself, to have friends (I never met a single person you called a friend) and to be amongst people other than us. Maybe then your bitterness wouldn't have been so complete. I marvel at the rigid self-control with which you kept your tongue in check; to hold back that kind of bile for so many years. It only ever showed through the cracks a few times; but now that I think back, any chance you had to be rid of any of us, you never made any effort to be welcoming.
But this, more than any other - in my entire life, I never once heard you tell anyone "I love you".
I learned a lot from you, Grandpa. All else aside, I have a good moral compass today, and it was your own example more than any other that is my guide in moments of doubt. You always did the right thing, always - and I respect and admire that tremendously. Let me never fail to sing that praise of you - you always, always did the right thing. You were also a tremendously practical man, and at those times when I get down to nuts-and-bolts of just doing a job thoroughly, well, and efficiently, I know that I'm channelling your spirit, and that of your father the math teacher and his father the pattern-maker. America was built by you, and men like you, and it's a lineage of which I'm proud.
In the end, I don't think you were happy. And you turned, with one act, the entire lives of my sisters and I from those of family members to boarders or clients. You left as much hurt in your wake as you ever did happiness, and I don't know if I can ever forgive you, though I'll try because I know that's the right thing to do. But I honestly suspect you wouldn't care one fig if I never forgave you. You've passed on, and left behind all the need to be dutiful - on your way out, you could finally just have your way.
And you did, and it was bitter.
I won't be like you. I don't know if I will ever have a family - it seems unlikely and less likely daily. But I will have friends, to be sure - and I try to let them know how much they are valued. I will say "I love you" a lot. I will not secretly harbor any anger for years - I'll try and deal with it as best I can when it comes up. I will not keep a silent tally of all the favors I've ever done for anyone; if I've helped a friend it's because I wanted to, and not because I had to. If ever I do anything kind for someone, it will be out of love, and not obligation .. and when I die, I will not stick with them the check. When I die, I sincerely hope that my presence will be dearly missed, that as many people as I can possibly love will be sad - but they'll remember a whole lot of times in my life when I was laughing just as hard as I can.