Dear Great Grandpa,
It’s been cold up in the canyon lately, Great Grandpa. Not that the chill made me think of you, but the storms and the trying weather did. From everything I've heard, you were more like the winter than the spring. But the storms Great Grandpa, they're vicious. None of the usual sounds of the woods are present: the cawing crows, the soft steps of deer, or the sound of passing hikers discussing their troubles. They completely take over the forest, and everyone and everything within it must wait until they pass. They’re like your memory, Great Grandpa, an unavoidable force.
Is that what killed you, Great Grandpa, in that Blind Pig in Detroit? That need to be seen? That desire to be realized? The impulse to be respected? I know the feeling. I think the whole family does.
And it rains all day, the showers sounding like a million fingers drumming on the glass above my head while I write freelance and continue to toil at my novels, stories, and poetry. It’s where I find life. I doubt it compares to what you did when you were alive. The sudden sounds of these storms are invisible and unstoppable. The bursts of violence feel like something that doesn’t want to be found, caught, or captured, yet still showing the world it exists, that it’s here and deserves to be. I’m learning more and more that nature doesn’t have to ask permission.
There’s violence in the downpour and indifference in the water rushing from the mountain down into the stream, over the rocks, the plants, and the dirt. I’m not sure if you want to hear this, but I used to explore the creeks and rivers as a kid - usually alone - tossing sticks and stones into the water, all quickly swept away. It was so easy to be satisfied by little, innocent experiences. Nothing seems like enough nowadays, even though we all know it is.
What did you do every day, Great-grandpa?
Who were you?
What was it that got you up in the morning?
What was it that comforted you when you went to bed?
Were there days when you didn’t want to wake up?
What was enough when you were alive, Great-grandpa?
Did you hear those sounds where you were from, Great Grandpa? Where were you really from? I’m sorry for asking so many questions. No one has ever told me this is the only way I could reach you.
Before these storms started rolling in, I took long walks in the canyon. The further I went back into the woods, surrounded by the Redwood trees and the Pacific mountains that stretch on and on, the more I realized that everything we do is, in some way, for our protection from nature. We pave roads, build steps, and construct our homes to escape where everything began. There is a distancing there that feels unnatural but necessary. I guess that’s how things have always been, from the first fish walking out of the ocean to troglodytes in their shelters, and now us in our insulated homes made of brick, stone, stucco, and wood. Being out in the world with nothing to rescue you from nature is difficult. I wonder sometimes how far we’ll take it.
When I first heard about you, Great Grandpa, I didn’t know what to think or how to feel. You were a stranger, but blood ties can trick one’s mind into thinking that stranger is closer than they are. Maybe it’s because I project how Mom is, how her brother is onto the thought of you, and in some transference, I assume you were like them.
Were you kind?
Were you charitable?
Were you sad even when you were happy?
Were you sure of yourself as everything else tumbled down around you?
Were you able to hold your hand to your loved ones no matter what they did or said?
My mother (your granddaughter) was the one who introduced me to you, which says a lot about her because she didn’t have to. She could have left you gone, but that’s the kind of person she is: always giving people the best part - the hope - of people, here or not here, a second chance at life unshared.
When I heard about you, I was told you died in a bar. Mom showed me the newspaper clipping of your murder in Detroit at that Blind Pig, which we assumed was its name, but that’s what they called illegal bars back then. I wasn’t surprised to hear that you were shot there, drunk or angry, in a bad deal or both, because alcoholism runs through our veins like the bullet that likely killed you. Instead, I was amazed at how your story made mine much more obvious. Alcohol has always been a means of escape for me and, sometimes, a way to end things as noisily and nastily as possible.
Many people talk about breaking the spell of alcoholism, and I wonder if you would want me to carry it on or kill it.
You know, Great Grandpa, I had my first drink in the closet of my first best friend's room with a girl I would fall in love with over the next couple of years - a girl who would never love me back; a fusion of rejection and instant acceptance. The fifth of Jack Daniel’s was heavy, and the bite of the liquor almost unshakeable, but I held the shot in to appear strong in the gaze of that girl, maybe how you Great-grandpa wanted to look strong at that Blind Pig confronted by whoever shot you that day. I kept drinking through high school, college, and after, and maybe it was her denial, or maybe it was you, or maybe it was nothing, or maybe it was everything, or maybe it was always me.
I’ve learned only one person is looking back at you in the mirror at the start of the morning and the end of the day.
Still, it escalated to a crescendo of physical and emotional negligence that killed a later relationship of mine, the longest, most challenging in my life. Alcohol blinded me to everything I was destroying: my commitments, art, and my family's hopes and desires for me, however undefined or unspoken. I got close, but thankfully, not close enough.
I’m not blaming you for anything. I’m not saying you were the one that initially led me down that path. I wish I had known about you and your story sooner to see the life you lived and ended because of what you did and didn’t do. Maybe that would have directed me, but maybe not. Perhaps it would have made me even worse.
Dear Ball (the name on your death certificate Mom pulled from the ashes of time), however small you thought your life felt at the time, did you know that your actions and death would ripple across generations that came after you?
Did you know that you are missed though you were never really known?
Did you know that you are dreamt of, void of memory or experience?
You weren’t small, dear Great-grandpa. However, much of the world made you feel like you were. It makes me feel small too.
Your life wasn’t meaningless, but did that bullet make you feel that way when it pierced your skin, entered your body, and killed you?
You were loved, hopefully then, and if not, you are now.
Most days I wish you could meet my sister. I hope you can see how smart she is. Most days, I wish I could show you how I got to know you: through the research of DNA and trauma passed down, through early mornings when the night feels more approachable than the day, through drink, through vice, through showing me I am special this time. Most days, I wish I could sit across from you, talk about the chill in the air, and ask if you have anything planned for the coming week.
I love you like a grandson, Great Grandpa, but life, as you probably know, doesn’t always give us what we want. So, from afar, in both time and place, I’ll love you like a stranger all the same.