I have a vivid dream about my grandfather still being alive. The circumstances vary, but a few key details always seem to be present: I’m happy to see him, as is the rest of my family, because I know that he’s been dead. We’re thrilled to be reunited, but on the edge of everything is the sense that it won’t last. In the most recent version, things had changed up a bit because my grandmother, who passed three years ago in May, was also alive. For whatever reason, that wasn’t important; she had never been dead, and she was celebrating my grandfather’s return along with the rest of us. At the end of the dream (which always feels only vaguely like an ending), I found a note from my grandfather wishing us well; he had already left. The details are fuzzy, but I think the note was in a stack of papers that were supposed to be instructions for repairing an old computer; I thought it was charming how old the technology appeared to be. Anyway, the note was addressed primarily to me. My grandfather had been reading my blog, and he wanted to encourage me to keep it up. He liked my thoughts. It was at this point in the dream that I began to sob because he was going away again, and I already missed him. Not long after that, I woke up and felt actual tears on my cheeks.
It’s a strange feeling to describe this experience; I don’t typically remember much about my dreams, and, being dreams, they tend to be nonsensical things that aren’t worth spending much thought on. Even this dream, when I try to impose some sort of narrative sense on it, still feels disjointed and random. The remarkable thing about it is the way it made me feel. I miss my family members that aren’t here anymore, but most of the time it’s a detached sort of missing. If you’ve ever heard the metaphor for grief of the ball in the box, it’s probably the most accurate way to describe how it typically feels: long stretches where everything is fine punctuated by brief acute sorrow. What strikes me as weird for how it hits me is the way that it’s consistently my grandfather who seems to trigger the feeling. If I remembered being especially close to him when I was younger that would make sense, but I’m not sure that was the case. Memory is a terribly unreliable thing, but what I mostly remember about him was how hard it seemed for him to have to take care of my grandmother, who was particularly ill during the last few years of his life. I know that my dad and my aunt felt close to him, and I wonder if it’s awareness and empathy for those relationships that stirs the part of my brain that will randomly decide to remind me of something missing.
All this seems to be connected with my recent reading of Fun Home, the graphic memoir by Allison Bechdel about her life growing up with her closeted father in a small, rural Pennsylvania town and his sudden death while she was away at college. Bechdel’s narrative surrounding her father is preoccupied with trying to make sense of his life and how it relates to her own; she makes it clear from early on that her father was a distant parent, someone infinitely more interested in his own pursuits than the work of raising children. The central thesis of her recollections is that her father’s death could have been suicide (he was hit by a truck while doing yard work) precipitated in response to her own coming out, a decision that he had been unable to make when he was younger. There are a lot more moving parts than that built into the memoir, and it’s all relatively circumstantial (there’s no evidence his death was anything but accidental), but the purpose of the book’s narrative isn’t to establish hard facts about a life; it’s to make sense of feelings of alienation and lost opportunity that Bechdel experiences in relation to her passed father. Practically every page is punctuated with a tragic moment from their relationship, but the method of presentation is so relentlessly matter-of-fact. Bechdel is working through something extremely complex on the page, but she places the narrative at such a remove that the most heartbreaking bits (her initial eagerness to study literature at college as a way to connect with her father giving way once she realizes he’s more excited about the books than about her thoughts on them, for example) just slid past me on the way to the book’s conclusion. There’s a cerebral quality to the way Bechdel depicts her grief in Fun Home that makes sense to me, precisely because it feels so detached. It may in reality be far more visceral than that (in talking about the book after we both finished it, Rachael explained that her experience while reading was far more emotionally taxing), but what I found most relatable about Bechdel’s grief was how it turned into a thing she wanted to figure out and make sense of. I don’t understand why certain things strike me as sad or if there’s something unresolved about relationships I had with lost family. Once I’m past the moment where the grief has hit intensely, I’m left wondering what just happened.
Before too long the wonderings tend to slip away like the dream itself with just the impression of a memory and a feeling.