Features | Children of men

On death, three generations, and the varieties of grief

I wondered if his voice would quaver when he stood at the podium, reading the Psalm. But it didn’t. It remained in the strong, familiar baritone register I had always associated with him. This was my father. This was his father’s funeral. Ned Waldo Farr, Jr. Decorated lieutenant colonel; father of five; automotive savant; emotional enigma. It seemed impossible that the small urn my dad towered over could contain such a man. Dad continued: “So teach us to number our days, that we may apply our hearts unto wisdom.” My grandfather was 91. Had he attained some sort of wisdom, when his heart gave out at the end? He was a private man – if he had, we would not know. I looked over again at my father, and down at the little urn, and finally at my feet as I decided to weep for all of us.

***

I found out about the death of my grandfather at the library. I cried for a couple of minutes with Olivia, my girlfriend, and then quickly hopped a bus home to be with my father. For as long as I’ve known him (in any sort of adult way), the prospect of death has haunted him. My mom was out of town visiting her own dad, and the thought of my father being alone with his pain was torturous. “I’ve been dreading this day for years,” he told me. “Every time the phone rang, I was sure it was someone calling to tell me he had died”. In the end, he was told by email.

Ned was born in New Roads, Louisiana in 1920. A Cajun boy, his first language was French, and he loved to practice what he remembered on us “Cuh-naydians” when we met. His life was blessed by the fulfillment of many dreams. He saw an airshow at the age of five and immediately knew he wanted to be a pilot. Sure enough, he went on to complete Civilian Pilot Training at Louisiana State University in 1939, flying until his retirement in the late sixties. He was a veteran of both World War II and the Korean War by the age of 33, and was awarded the Bronze Star for valour.

He loved women, many women, and, with his Brando looks and pilot’s wings, many women loved him back. After WWII, when he was still in his twenties, he met my grandmother, Frances Allen, in her home state of North Carolina. Over their 66 years of marriage, the two built a life together across America, from Alaska to the Panama Canal Zone, carried by Ned’s piloting career. His charm would get him in trouble along the way. He was not always faithful to my grandmother, though he and Nana stuck it out until his death. On my last trip down, I was touched by the ritual rhythm of their relationship; how even the furniture becomes invested with it: there is something sacred about a bed that has been shared for so long. As I sat between their two withered frames, Ned said to me, “I found her in Charlotte,” his eyes settling on his wife.

This gentler mode was rare for my grandfather. He was a hard man, and had a hard relationship with his son. In one of my father’s earliest memories, Ned had just returned from the Korean War. It had been years since Dad had seen him, so at night he crawled up to his father’s bed to get a good look. Ned woke up, startled, and instinctively reached down at his hip. It was only later that my father realized he was searching for a pistol. At the age of four, my father was told that he would no longer be hugging or kissing his daddy. It was now proper to shake hands. He laughs now when he talks about it, but this harsh upbringing left him ill-equipped for any other reaction: men flew planes, men joined the army, men hit their children. They did not cry.

My father turned his back on many of these roles, draft-dodging during the Vietnam War in the seventies and becoming a writer. The tears, however, still would not come, could not come. I lived my whole life without ever seeing him cry, and began to fear the very possibility of it happening (as I’m sure he did). A tall, barrel-chested, gruff man, my father’s tears represented for me the masculine apotheosis spinning off its axis into an unknown and terrifying space of emotional intimacy.

And yet it was his father who finally taught him to weep. We used to have family reunions, every year for 17 straight years. On the final day of a recent reunion, my grandparents were loaded into the van to go back to Florida. We weren’t sure we’d see them alive again. As everyone scurried for their luggage, my father slowly approached Ned. He embraced him, kissed him on the cheek, and, weeping softly, quickly turned away, still ashamed of his tears.

Papa mellowed out as he got older, but, as the firstborn son, my dad never much saw this side of Ned. Ned’s death was peculiarly hard on my dad, then, because it put a seal on a relationship for which there had never been much of an opening, and could have no closure. My father mourned his father like a stillborn child: the tears were for possibilities foreclosed, for a relationship, and a love, that died after a long, intimate gestation, but never quite drew breath.

***

The last years of Papa’s life were spent in a boredom unique to physical men whose vitality is borne steadily away by age. I remember sitting with him in his 90th year, on a North Carolina porch, looking out on the ocean. He in a wheelchair, me in a rocker. A former pilot, he loved to watch the birds. “Showoffs,” he said with admiration. We watched them fly in silence for a minute or so. “You know,” he told me, “I’ve been alive for ninety years. That’s a long time.” “I know,” I said loudly – he never wore his hearing aid. A pelican dove into the water. He broke the silence again. “I’m anxious to see what’s on the other side.”

Who was he? Who was he to me? He was the man who not only could fix cars, but loved fixing them. My mom still remembers how he and my grandmother would drive up from Florida to visit us in Quebec. He would spend most of the time under his car, or our car, or any car that needed work (or not). This obsession with the way things work never left, and, well into his old age, he would take apart his VCR and study the circuit boards like a fortune-teller’s tealeaves. Cars were his true love, though, and buying a new car to drive was a constant topic of his conversation during his senility.

He was a joker, and laughed at everything, even his own death. It was part of his stoicism. He turned pain into laughter, and thus made it distant, manageable. Once, I was helping him down a set of stairs, and his legs and arms quaked as he struggled with his walker. As I held him by his shoulders, he turned his head around and said, “Normally, of course, I just slide down the banister.” You had to laugh. Even though humour was a means of distancing himself, it also made him closer to us – jokes were the terms of engagement that made the relationship possible for him. Otherwise, what else was there to say?

He was a man of anger, of vitality, untethered even by gravity, burning like an engine of one of his beloved planes. As a grandchild I was spared this intensity, but I came to know it in the character of my father. I remember Dad coming home with a present for my sister that was flecked with his blood. He had gotten into a fistfight when he went too far into a crosswalk at a light and a frustrated pedestrian kicked his car. Dad would literally experience blinding rages, getting so mad he’d temporarily lose his vision. He’d sit quietly in his chair while my Mom brooded over “that Farr temper,” and I knew Ned was somewhere in her mind.

But, as all these notions failed to complete a coherent picture, they faded away, and I saw that I was not really left with a person to mourn, but with a field of straw men who fended off any real sense I might have had of the man.

***

We grieve the living as much as the dead. We arrived in Florida a few days before the funeral to spend time with my grandmother in the memory care unit of her nursing home. Nana has been suffering from Alzheimer’s for the last few years. Her ability to recognize us varied day by day. Once, she saw my father and called him by name. “Tom!” she cried out with surprise. At another time, all she could manage was: “I know you… I know you,” in her gentle North Carolina accent, before bursting into tears with confusion. She had shrunk considerably in her old age, her small face outlining her electric blue eyes. They searched our faces for scraps of recollection, often coming up short. When I held her small frame, she was like a delicate, injured bird.

I sang for her as I had so many times before, and, though she couldn’t remember my name, she remembered the harmonies for “Amazing Grace”. As she closed her eyes and sang, I imagined her traveling back to the Baptist church of her childhood. She often spoke of her siblings as though they were there with her, though most of them had been dead for years.

It seemed to soothe her to live in the past; the present was a burden impossible to bear. Ned was her life, and his absence bewildered her. She does not know where her husband is. To tell her every day, as we would have had to, was unthinkable. Sometimes she seemed to know. In the courtyard of the nursing home with my mother, she wept and wept. Through her delirium, one lucid agony kept resurfacing: “It’s so hard without him here,” she said, clinging to my mother’s arms. It was decided that Nana would not attend the funeral. She had a first husband who was killed in the Second World War. As Ned’s funeral would be military – in accordance with his wishes – and given her fluid sense of time, we thought it wouldn’t be right to plunge Nana into the potential trauma of reliving both deaths.

On our last visit we wheeled her back out into the common room, where her fellow patients were watching TV in silence. We all kissed her, drifting from the room and from her mind as we walked away. Between my grandmother and grandfather on that trip, hers was by far the hardest goodbye. As I write this, she has been transferred to hospice care and can barely eat. She will probably not survive the month.

***

The whole family arrived at the compound at 11:30 a.m. – the service was held shortly thereafter. A folded American flag was presented to my father, Ned’s next-of-kin, and an honour guard fired three volleys over our heads. Stoic, detached: the ceremony fit the man.

The priest, my mother’s brother and a friend of the Farrs, delivered a short sermon. “We always say, ‘I’m dying to tell you something’,” he said. “And indeed we are, in this fleeting existence… I would ask you to consider what it was that Ned was dying to tell us throughout his life.” I don’t think I’ll ever know. Ned played his hand pretty close to his chest. We knew he loved us, but we didn’t know how. My father stood up to read the Psalm. The sky was a scintillating, empty blue; a hawk circled overhead, showboating. “The days of our years are threescore years and ten; and if by reason of strength they be fourscore years, yet is their strength labour and sorrow; for it is soon cut off, and we fly away,” he read.

As I wept, as hard as anyone at the service, I wondered why. Of course, Ned had obvious virtues: his physical courage, his work ethic, his ultimate, if oblique, love of family, all of which I construed as what it meant to be a man. But there was an underside to these virtues: his terrible anger, his casual infidelity. And, in the end, all these qualities amounted to a man I hardly knew.

Was I really weeping for Ned? Or for the unready hearts he left in his wake? Or for the truth that it is only by the sacrifice of death that we can know, without a doubt, that we lead good lives? Or for the inevitable dull thud when our stories are over and the book is shut? Probably I wept for all of it. Death is a force that draws pain toward it, like a black hole.

In a flash, I saw myself move three steps and thirty years forward, into the place of my father at the podium, and he, beyond. Then another three and thirty and –

 

“Thou turnest man to destruction; and sayest, Return, ye children of men.”


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