My nana’s message – to whom, I do not know

My grandfather committed suicide in October of 1992. The next morning, my mother called from Denver (I lived in Milwaukee then) wanting to know what was wrong with me – if I was ill or overly stressed about something.

No, I told her. No problems. She suggested maybe I should get a physical examination by a doctor “just to be sure.”

“Why would you think such a thing?” I asked. Frankly, she was freaking me out a little.

“Mom visited me last night,” Mom explained. “Sat on the edge of my bed. I woke up when I felt the pressure of her sitting down, and sure enough, she was sitting there, staring at me. She didn’t say anything, just shook her head sadly. Of course, I knew it had to be you. You were always her favorite, so I assumed she came back to warn me that something was wrong with you.”

“Came back” as in “came back from the dead.” Nana died in 1972 in Illinois, but she’s legendary in our family for making nocturnal visits when things are amiss. I didn’t think Mom was hallucinating because my grandmother once woke me up, post-mortem, when I was a college student. After literally being pushed from behind (I was shoved hard enough to lift me into a sitting position in bed), I could smell her perfume.

It was about 3:30 a.m., and I dismissed the strange waking as a (non-drug-induced) weird dream accompanied by an olfactory hallucination. I lay down again and immediately fell back to sleep. About 10 minutes later, I was forcibly shoved upright again, and again, my first conscious sense was the smell of Evening in Paris cologne. Truly alarmed then, I flipped on a lamp and investigated to see if there was, in fact, an intruder behind me who coincidentally wore my nana’s brand of perfume. Instead, I noticed a strange light and shadow dance playing on the hall wall, and so discovered a fire in a furnace closet. My basement apartment had only one exit – had I not woken when I did, surely I would have perished in an apartment fire.

Then, another time, she woke me up at 2:12 a.m. (I looked at the clock) – a hard shove in my back and the faint odor of Evening in Paris. At that time, I worked as manager of the Chicago Ronald McDonald House, where I lived full-time with my family. With children of my own now to protect, I didn’t waste time analyzing the merits of life after death or the likelihood of messages from “the beyond” – I immediately and thoroughly inspected the 18-bedroom mansion until I found an iron, left turned on by a distracted parent on the highest heat setting, face down, on the ironing board in the basement. The ironing board cover was just beginning to smolder.

You can explain all this however you want, but I know what happened and who interceded on my behalf. And my uncles had their own stories of her visits, so the family accepts it as true.

But I digress. Back to Grandpa …

This time, my grandmother’s nocturnal visit was not a warning to me. Mom would learn later that day that Granddad had checked into a Motel 6 in his hometown the evening before. Then he wrote instructions to our family to have his body cremated and buried without services. He then hanged himself in the room with a note to the maid of apology.

When Mom later told me about Granddad’s death, I remembered the way he looked when he put Aunt Sherrill’s wig on his head and danced saucily and merrily around his living room one Christmas. I remembered him taking us children out in his motorboat on the Mississippi River, patiently worming my hooks year after year. I remembered him checking up on my cousins and me when we camped out in his camper – in his driveway.

I was closer to my grandparents than the other grandchildren, though there was no competition. It was just accepted that I, as the first and so the oldest of 12 grandkids, had a special place in their hearts and lives. I often spent nights with them alone, or went on camping trips with them. After my grandmother died, I moved into the teeny little house on the back of my granddad’s property and he became my landlord. I was 18 and paid $80 a month for the house.

A quick funny story: That summer Terri, my slightly younger cousin, came home from Germany. I threw a party for her despite worries about how Granddad would react to a group of rowdy friends in my/his house. (The legal drinking age in Illinois then was 18, but being “legal” didn’t necessarily make it “right” to get sloppy drunk with a lot of teenagers, as we intended to do.)

I blacked out the windows facing his house. If he wanted to play party police, he’d have to ring the doorbell, giving me a few minutes to try to camouflage the tin tub full of beer in the basement.

He never rang the bell, and later told me that he’d checked into a hotel that night, just on a whim “for fun.” Hogwash. This man was a bridge engineer who religiously traded Buicks every three years and who always bought his khaki pants at Sears and his flannel shirts at J.C. Penney. He ate bread and butter with every meal. He wasn’t a spur-of-the-moment money waster. He went to the hotel to save us both from his need to ring the doorbell, and I loved him dearly for the thoughtful extravagance.

Who was Granddad, after suicide?

Before he committed suicide, we all thought of Granddad as a predictably good man. A family man. He left Nana’s side only to go to work or to indulge in a friendly poker game – but only with family menfolk. Even then, she was upstairs playing poker with their wives. My grandparents were the heart of our family, the center of our social plans as I grew up. We counted on them. Her death (she was only 58) crushed him, and that was as it should have been. We expected him to grieve, as we all did (and I still do); it happened, and we thought that though he would always mourn her, in time, he eventually would “get over it” because, in our eyes, he was far more pragmatic than romantic.

But when Grandpa decided life wasn’t worth living, suddenly he became undependable and unpredictable in a very sad way. Suddenly it was as if we hadn’t known him at all. He became unknowable, in that moment that we heard the news.

But we did know him. We knew how he laughed at Red Skelton and hated women’s lib. We knew his few jokes were worth waiting for. He had a shy manner, dry wit, and was slow to warm up to strangers, but he was faithful to those he loved.

Was he ill? Did he not want to become a burden? Or, as we all moved on (and we all did literally move on to other states and, indeed, to other countries, after Nana’s death) was he lonely? He dated a woman after Nana’s death who coincidentally looked enough like my grandmother to be her sister, but then she died, too, leaving him alone again. After that, he met another woman who did not want to date a man with “baggage” (funny how a family becomes “baggage,” isn’t it?) and he became part of someone else’s family for a little while.

But he came back to us the night he checked into the hotel and wrote the instructions. He wrote them for and to us, the ones he belonged to in an undeniable way regardless of the years or the tears or the miles between us. He wrote home, even though “home” by then was more of an idea, a memory, than a place.

Nana’s smile for my mother was sad because (I tell myself) she knew that we would mourn Granddad and have so many unanswered, hurtful questions about what we might have done differently to “save him.” How we might have kept him closer – as if he were a child who wandered out into the street and was hit by a car when we should have been watching him, instead of a grown man making a sober decision about the quality of his own life.

Suicide is so, so hard to understand. I still don’t understand it.

All I understand is that it was a choice he made in pain or in relief. And I believe he is with my nana now and they both know that I have learned, during my own journey, that it doesn’t matter how we go in the end. That doesn’t change how we lived.

My granddad lived a good life, and I’ll forever be proud to be his granddaughter.

Why write about this now, in 2011?

I don’t know why I’m sharing this story tonight (I’m writing late Sunday night), except that I have a very, very strong intuition that someone needs to read it right now. So this is our gift to you, whoever I am writing this for, from me and (judging by the sweet cologne that only I can smell at this moment) from my beloved nana. God bless and comfort you in this time of your own questions.

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