When I was four, someone died. I am sure that a lot of people died that year, but a specific someone passed away and it changed my life. Willard Brumbaugh, my Willard Brumbaugh, was the best grandpa that any little girl could ask for. I am fiercely protective of his memory. I have so few, and the ones that I do have are quite dear to me. Every now and then someone says something about the way he was in the before time (meaning the time before me) and I block it out. I really do not care what he was in his younger days, what I care about is that without him and my loss of him, I would be a vastly different person than I am today.
Willard (I love saying his name, I do not know why) taught me to play chess and refused to let me win. He made me great at games and very competitive. I expected to lose and I expected a challenge; it made me think, and it made me crave a win. I have a whisper of a memory of sitting across from him and watching him explain the moves he was taking and then asking me why I moved the pieces I did. He honestly cared about what I did, he was not just asking to ask. He wanted to know how my brain was working. I remember that I always felt like a person around him, not a small child, but a valid person.
When my mom told me that he was dead, I yelled at her. I called her a liar and threw a fit. I do not remember the fit. I do remember telling her that I wanted to die so that I could leave and go be with him again. It is quite possible that at that point I was the world’s only suicidal preschooler. Death was so foreign to me. People did not go away forever, they came back. When I learned that death meant forever, I wanted it too. People tried to make it positive, they tried to make it happy. But my brain translated it differently: if Grandpa got to go away and be happy with Jesus, then I wanted to be happy with Jesus and Grandpa too. It did not make sense to me why I could not just tag along. It turns out that my instant reaction to grief is a lack of acceptance and extreme anger. That has never changed.
There are zero memories of a funeral. I am sure he had one, I was either actually somewhere else, or my brain was off in a different place. After the funeral, however, I can remember people at my Grandma’s house. I can remember everyone looking sad and that many of them had damp faces. My grandpa, I am sure like many grandpas, had a chair. We used to sit in it with him and his dachshund Midget. That day, I sat in it with my sister. People would talk to us. I wanted them to go away. I wanted everyone to just be quiet and quit telling me that it would get better or that Grandpa was happier now. That was not possible. He was happiest here, with me. He had to have been…
When I was at my grandparents’ house in the morning, Grandpa used to make me oatmeal with raisins. He made it on the stove the way it is best. After he died, I would not eat it. More, I could not eat it. Every time I tried, it sat like lead in my stomach and made me ache to cry. Crying, was not an option. Crying was letting go and final. I did not deal with his death until I was much older. It was sometime in my teens. Sitting in my room holding one of his old chess pieces, I grasped it tightly until I threw it across the room, and that was it. I broke. I broke hard. It was a silent and leaky mess. I am not sure I had ever cried so hard. I am not sure I knew I was really capable.
Death means a lot to me. Funerals and I do not generally get along, however, I compartmentalize the emotions of loss a lot better than other emotions. I have my grandpa to thank for that. From his death and my dealings with it, I learned that I love black and white crime scene photography, there is no shame in my favorite colors being black and grey, occasionally it is okay to want to find an end (sometimes it is very healing), winning is something that I should always try to do, failure is most certainly an option, things rarely turn out as I wish, people do leave… Maybe it is morbid, but without that slap-in-the-face experience with death, it is possible my favorite color would be pink and that I would have ended up being something happy and social as opposed to a writer who prefers old and dark poetry to most contemporary forms of expression. It is true that I do not handle people well, but I enjoy my quiet little life. Who knows how I would have actually turned out without the life and death of Willard Brumbaugh, but the truth is, I think I owe most of who I am today to him.