clean-up in aisle four

The laptop in front of me is new. The nylon jacket tied around my waist is new. The Detroit Tigers baseball cap on the seat beside me is new. The used books shoved in any free space whatsoever in my carry-on are new (to me).

But some things never change.

I am 30,000 feet above the Earth. My gut twists, but it has nothing to do with the gentle burr of the plane, or with the massive quantities of excellent Italian food I’ve been stuffing in my face. It is the same, the only contraction of good-byes said to people I love.

My earth shifts quickly these days, little shudders of difference, of newness. Laughter comes easily and genuinely, and my abdominal muscles thank me for it. Each day I wake up looking forward to whatever life might throw at me.

Of course, that means I have to take the bad with all this good. That means I can’t become spoiled with all this happiness.

On the 23rd of August, my paternal grandfather had a massive coronary, and his heart stopped beating for thirty minutes. As a result, he fell into a deep coma from which he would never fully recover, so my grandmother, uncles, and father made the decision to shut off life support and let Grampa pass on.

He fought eleven hours on his own, and then died, right as I was tossing random clothes into my backpack 2300 miles away and whispering, repeating, “I’m almost there, just hang on.” Just hang on.

I have no idea what I was asking him to hang on for. No; that’s wrong; I do know. For me. For selfish me, I wanted him to hang on so I could have some closure.

Is there such a thing as closure, ever? You can’t erase things that happen to you, or at least *I* can’t. Every single instance, every single person, has left their imprint on my sometimes-too-malleable surface. People speak of closure as if it were possible to bag up a moment, Ziploc style, and make it all make sense and somehow come together and end just as you want it to, when you want it to.

But my life has never been that way and I don’t think it should start now.

Possibly the worst linguistics professor I ever had the excruciating difficulty of studying with also gave me my favorite platitude. “Language,” she said to an exasperating student, “is messy. LIFE is messy. So you just … deal with it.”

I’m pretty sure she was talking about phonemes, but it applies. Not only does it apply, it’s the life lesson my grandfather’s death is teaching me right now.

ï ï ï

Grampa knew how to laugh. Moreover, he was silly. My grandmother tells the story of how at parties he would be speaking to her and one of his business associates and suddenly turn to her and say, “See, he’s not as ugly as you said he was.” Or there was the first time that Gramma met Grampa’s family, in mid-July, and Grampa built a fire in the fireplace. Or there was the time I walked into the front room of their house to see Grampa crouched on the floor, peering intently underneath the sofa.

“Grampa, what are you doing?” I laughed, knowing that there was of course a completely unreasonable explanation.

“I’m looking for the cat,” he replied plainly.


“Grampa, you don’t have a cat.”

“That must be why I can’t find it.”

(They should have invented a portable rimshot for the man.)

He enjoyed telling his jokes much more than anyone ever did hearing them, and would most often break into chuckles about halfway through, costing his intelligibility greatly. I couldn’t not laugh if he laughed and the only person I know who could is Gramma. But then again, after you’ve heard the same jokes over fifty-seven years, I’m pretty sure the novelty wears off.

ï ï ï

He and I used to sit at the kitchen table and play Solitaire together. An oxymoron, that, but let me explain: we’d each have a deck of cards and we’d play separate games, side by side, sometimes stopping in our own to comment or help the other, or just to talk or laugh. Solitaire remains my favorite card game because it is so imbued with the memories of family, of holidays, and particularly of Grampa.

Last Thanksgiving, Grampa was in the hospital. I went downstairs to the gift shop and bought him a deck of cards and we played Solitaire for a while, together. Visiting hours ended and Grampa pleaded with me and my dad not to leave him alone overnight in the hospital; he was confused, didn’t know where he was, kept calling it a boarding-house. I held, brave face forward, until the cold air of the parking lot outside speared my eyes lengthwise, pain and anger all at once, saltwater bleeding out as my dad’s arm went around my shoulders.

Then, it was obvious that Grampa would not make it to this Thanksgiving. It was the sort of obvious that perches in the corners of every room, glaring at you because you refuse to look it square in the face. When you do get up the nerve to turn your gaze its way, it is painted clowny and bright, so harmless you think you will be able to handle it when that time is up.

And you never do. I never do.

ï ï ï

Dad smiled when he saw me in the airport Thursday morning; we hugged, and he put his hand on my shoulder and squeezed just momentarily before letting go. That out of context is nearly meaningless, but from him right then I knew: I was too late. Right then I was too angry and selfish and tired to cry. It didn’t hit, that slicing sensation again like a flat bar thrust against my throat, until Saturday morning at the memorial service. I was sitting next to Melissa and staring at Uncle Greg’s feet when Gramma’s voice broke, and she said something I don’t even remember because I was utterly shocked that she was crying. In the twenty-six years I’ve been around, my grandmother has never once cried around me. It’s not that I view crying as weakness — quite the opposite — but her vulnerability to me had not existed until that moment.

Common to our family was the wish, morbid as it sounds, that Gramma would outlive Grampa, because quite frankly Grampa wouldn’t have known what to do without her pragmatism and her reliability, and Gramma has always seemed impenetrable by pain or tragedy. She is well-acquainted with them — her favorite part of the paper is the police blotter, which she recounts with photographic detail — but she is immovable.

Her tears yesterday were the first sign I had of her impending loneliness, and of how much she would miss Grampa.

“Fifty-seven years,” Melissa whispered to me at the memorial service. “Can you imagine being with someone that long? I wish that for you and Chad.” And that is when I started to cry.

ï ï ï

The rest of the day was spent rising to our usual joviality, aided greatly by the presence of my cousin Matt’s daughter, Brittany. She’s just twenty-eight months old and already a true, loony Mencotti. My favorite part of Saturday was watching Brittany stare at my dad’s antics in abject horror and then refer to him as “the big boy.” Big boy, indeed! Brittany was getting so much conflicting information that she just kept referring to me as “that girl” and I felt appropriately Marlo Thomas-ish for the occasion. With the secrets of the disposable camera explained to her by an unknown relative Brittany was ON THE LOOSE and I have it on good authority that several pictures of my nostrils and feet made it onto that roll of film.

Mencottis have always known how to enjoy themselves. It’s a genetic thing as far as I care. I started out this life pretty sullen, but I’m working against it because my grandfather had it right: really enjoying yourself is the key to getting through … well, getting through anything. Being able to laugh at yourself, at the messiness of life, at both the absurdly silly and the absurdly heartwrenching, while taking it seriously enough to care about it: Grampa was a master.

I’m not searching for closure anymore; I want the real deal, and I want it visceral and open-ended. No matter how messy life gets, I’m still strong enough to handle it. Let’s just hope I learn the lessons well so I can continue to clean up my own messes.