My earliest memory of death

Today I remembered something curious.

Sometime back, I had to write (for an assignment in a workshop) about my earliest memory dealing with death. I’ve unfortunately been aware of the inevitability and permanence of death from a very young age. But as far as remembering and really understanding its impact for the very first time, it would have always been my experience of losing my grandfather when I was very young. This is what I was able to remember and wrote for the workshop. – Chris

At first, I remember thinking this room looked like a theater. Textured walls lined with carpet-like material. A velvet finish to everything. So many people… yet silence was absolute and took center stage. I remember, for the first time, noticing the expression of deep sadness in Jesus’ face as he hung on the wall, just over him. A red tinge covers the sum of my memories of that event, as if a filter was placed in front of my eyes and everything’s color is more a dark, reddish rust tone. But as I thought more about it, I realized it must have been those lamps. The two scarlet-tinted lamps, dimly-lit by two flame-shaped bulbs. They stood, flanking his coffin. The whole thing seemed kind of Roman to my young mind. And I’m still shocked I made that connection at such a young age.

The air was dense and almost sickly, heavy with the failed and desperate attempt at the aroma of flowers. There was, however, also a faint boxed-in, kind of humid smell, like an old closet. This room had not experienced fresh air or sunlight in many years. I was surprised to find that off to the side of the room was a large wall covered in flowers. Real flowers. Apparently they didn’t stand a chance against the canned flower smell variety. So many different colors, shapes and sizes. Sympathy flowers they call them. These mean to convey love, appreciation and shared condolences. At least back in those days, those meant something. They said something about your standing in your community, your profession, your life.

My grandfather was a character. Coming up in 1940’s New York at some of the greatest hotels and restaurants, eventually becoming a sous-chef and salad master at the New York Plaza Hotel. He had a certain old-school mobster vibe to him. His male-pattern baldness actually worked well with his razor-thin mustache. He rocked pin-striped suits with this impeccable finish to his attire in every single picture. That’s another thing I recall, every photograph of him was with my grandmother and always surrounded with friends. The scenes were always spectacular: The Copacabana, Long Island with his cousins, Coney Island with all of the kids or dinner out on the town.

I remember approaching the coffin with a sense of fear. I began to catch a glimpse of an old man I didn’t really recognize. The poor soul in that box looked nothing like the superhero in those pictures. But neither did the poor old man in the wheelchair or paying in bed for the better part of 20 years. My grandmother’s life also changed forever. She became a quasi-nurse to care for him. You see, his adventurous streak ended with his fire-engine red convertible MG, wrapped around a pole. The “Jaws of Life” had to be used to free his mangled body from within the cocoon-like crushed metal the car was rendered.

His expression was always of kindness and frustration in that bed. I’m sure he loved me, he tried to say it, with not a great deal of success. All I could do to ease the old man’s strained-face was to try and say it before him. And tack-on, “I know grandpa”, to ease his frustration of not being able to form his words. I, however, never doubted his mind being all there. When I became older, I came to understand how sad the latter part of his life had truly been. Now his expressionless and heavily made-up face lay in front of me, in that box. I was just a kid, but I understood he was no longer there. The Jesus on the cross hanging above him wore a similar pained expression. I couldn’t really say I was happy, but even then at that age, I was relieved the old man was no longer serving time in that bed.

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