February 23rd, 2007

furious angels


We sit around the kitchen table, ham with chunks of pineapple on our plates, green beans drenched with butter on our forks, in our mouths and stomachs. We don't have anything in common, nothing to say to one another, but words keep coming. The bond is tenuous, but it tethers us to the table, to the mountain, to each other.

"There's a corner in Cairo," words edge out around bread slathered with butter, juice dripping from thin, dry lips, "Where a man stood, betting he could speak to any man who passed by. The men would bet him every penny they had, but he always won those bets. He knew dozens of languages."

The distance between us stretched miles, it always did. The table was the size of the universe and we were satellites revolving around different suns. But even if we were completely different--even though I was spoiled compared to him, with my indoor plumbing, schools with more than one room, college, not working sun-up to sun-down in a mill on the other side of the mountain, fighting and killing and flying planes in Egypt and France and everywhere in between--we are one in the same. We have similar personalities, we are voracious readers, we do what needs to be done and deal with life's injustices.

When he could still walk properly, when he could still drive, we would go shopping together. I was a speck of a child, he was over 15 times my age, and we first went to the bank, in downtown Beverly. We made our way into Elkins, stopping at Kroger's for canned items, Campbell's for meat, some other hole in the wall for fresh milk and eggs. It seemed like he knew everyone, or maybe everyone knew him. He bought me a stuffed animal once, one in the shape of an apple, because I begged and pleaded and he never did that for any of his children. I'm his favorite grandchild. I'm his only grandchild.

It was always so awkward, sitting at that table, wishing we knew what to say. The man in Cairo helped us connect, the work down in Maryland, the stories about the mill and the train and family who died years before any of us had ever been born.

He was 94 when he died, and upon hearing the news I began to study Russian. I crammed the vocabulary into my head, repeating every word deliberately, forcing it out, chewing on every syllable, spitting out the stress. While my head was full of Russian, my gut felt like a black hole.

He died because he couldn't read. He had heart attacks, low blood pressure, cancers of various sorts, but he kept going, kept living. In his prime, he came back from work, ate supper, and read a thousand-page book before bed; the books helped him stay alive, as they've always helped me. Then his eyesight went, and he was functionally blind. His life was a novel, he should be read and understood and there's just so much that I don't know, that I can't express.

I wish I were in West Virginia right now. Today, during his funeral, I'm going to be learning more Russian grammar. As his casket is lowered, I'm going to be preparing for my French news report. While everyone is black and somber and shuffling from their cars and into the house, I'm going to be hanging out with Amanda, and maybe Caitlin or Jayne will join us, maybe not. I'll be trying to nap while my grandfather is in the cold, soulless ground, and as I work tonight, he's still going to be dead.

There's a corner in Cairo, in Moscow, in Geneva and Nairobi and Seoul, where a man bets that he can speak any language you think up, and he'll take every cent in your pocket. Grandpa always thought I'd do great things, that I'd be the man in Bishkek or Buenos Aires. Even if I don't become great, even if I don't reach the great heights expected of me, I will live and love and evolve and change, and ultimately, I will become something. That's what's important.

The distance between us stretched miles, it always did. But we tried. And sometimes--sometimes we succeeded.
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