Here is part 2, as promised. <3 A quick reminder that this story has not been professionally edited. Please pardon any typos or punctuation errors. (They’re a big pet peeve of mine, but they aren’t always easy to catch!) Enjoy… Part 3 will post tomorrow!
Better Than Family…Part 2
Tests revealed excess fluid on my grandfather’s skull as a result of his fall. He was going to have to undergo surgery to relieve the pressure on his brain. It was a risky procedure at any age, but for an eighty-five year old it was even more worrisome. The initial reports were that the surgery had gone well. We were all relieved. Except Gramps didn’t seem quite right. He wasn’t completely lucid and his memory was compromised. I had one phone conversation with him where he seemed great at the beginning but didn’t know who I was ten minutes later. And although I wasn’t there to see the physical side, my brother reported that our once larger than life grandfather was withering away in a hospital bed. I had to see him before he died. The end was inevitable. Gramps would have been the first to tell anyone who asked that he was too old to buy green bananas. I remember him saying, “I’m old, but I’ve had a damn good run. When my time comes, I’ll be ready.” He probably had the right attitude. But it still hit me like a fucking hammer when I got the call I’d been dreading, three days before my scheduled trip home.
I was at home plucking at my guitar, working on a new song. It was mid October and the weather had inexplicably been a perfect seventy degrees for days. A college football game was playing at a low volume in the background as I strummed along to the tune in my head. Aaron had gone for a run, which I think had something to do with wanting to escape the constant starts and stops I made as I tried to get the chords right. I was probably driving him crazy. He didn’t complain, but he didn’t invite me along either. We were getting better at knowing when to give each other space. I was in my happy place. He was in his.
When my cell rang I was a little frustrated because I was just beginning to get the rhythm down. I was tempted to ignore it, but the name on the caller ID made my heart skip a beat. This couldn’t be good. I set my guitar aside and answered.
“Matthew, it’s Dad.”
His use of my full name and the tone of his voice told me I wasn’t going to like this conversation. I stayed silent on my end, almost daring him to tell me something I didn’t want to hear.
“Son, Grandpa passed this morning. He went peacefully in his sleep. Grandma, Mom, Aunt Jill and I were there with him. We don’t know when the service will be yet, but my guess is—”
“I’ll check the flights and try to get there tonight.”
“Good. Mom and I would like that. Matt?”
“Yeah?” I heard my voice crack. It sounded strange, as though it didn’t belong to me.
“He loved you, son. Very much. He was extremely proud of you.”
My dad’s voice sounded strong and sure, but I knew mine couldn’t be trusted. I nodded into the phone. He seemed to understand when he said his good-byes and told me he’d see me soon.
I stared unseeing out the window in a daze. I didn’t know how to act or react. I’d never lost anyone important to me. I was twenty-seven and nothing in my life had prepared me for this kind of … emptiness. I should be running through memories of all the great times we had. Scenes from my childhood should be playing in a tribute of sorts, accompanied to the sound of my grandfather’s booming laughter and the silly old songs he loved to sing. But nothing came to me. I was simply numb.
I flinched when the front door opened, but I didn’t turn around.
“Whew! It’s hotter than it looks out there! How long was I gone? I think I ran five. That’s not awful. Maybe we can go again later when it cools down. Actually, I should wait till tomorrow. Do you think you’d be up for running ten miles? If we go in the morning it should be cool enough and—” Aaron stepped in front of me, his beautiful olive skin glistening with a thin sheen of sweat. “Matty, what is it?”
His eyes clouded with concern as he took in my bewildered state.
“Matt, look at me. What happened?”
I did as he asked. His concerned expression immediately gave way to comprehension. He didn’t hesitate. He pulled me into his arms. I closed my eyes and let him hold me, loving his strength and the smell of his sweat. The sound of his gentle voice murmuring sweet nothings as he ran his fingers through my hair was what finally penetrated my comatose state. I wasn’t sure what he was saying. Maybe that he loved me and that we’d be okay. It didn’t matter. I just needed him to be there. My breath hitched in an undignified gulp. I gasped for air and gave in to grief. Aaron held me little tighter then took my hand and pulled me toward the sofa.
It had been years since I’d been reduced to tears. The last time was probably when our old family dog died when I was a kid. This was different obviously. But it occurred to me that there was something significant about sharing my sadness with Aaron. He was my partner, my lover and in three short years, he had become my best friend. He was safe. He was my home. And just as it hurt me to see him upset, I knew he felt my anguish keenly though he’d never met my grandfather. I felt more connected to him in that moment than ever before. When I finally pulled away from him, he gave me a look that spoke volumes. No words were necessary. I had all the love and support I needed.
We made love quietly, a physical expression of our connection before we showered together and I began the arduous task of changing my flight and making arrangements to be gone from the office for a few days. Aaron helped by packing a bag and making dinner. I didn’t want anything, but he insisted I would be no good to anyone if I fainted. I assured him I’d never fainted and gave him my best “as if” look, but in the end, I ate the sandwich and was grateful.
He drove me to the airport, holding my hand the whole way. Usually I’d insist on getting behind the wheel because my man was a scary driver. That night I didn’t have it in me to tease him and I really didn’t feel like being in control. I wanted him to take the lead for now. I kissed him breathless before getting out of the car to grab my bag and begin my journey home alone. Except I wasn’t really going home. I was visiting a place I used to know. I turned at the glass door to take one last glimpse of him and was pleased to see he had done the same. We waved and he blew me another kiss before slowly pulling away from the curb.
That bleak feeling of numbness came over me again as I boarded the plane. I wished Aaron were with me. I thought maybe this was the sort of thing we should do together now. It wasn’t a happy occasion, but it was important. My grandfather had been an important person in my life and mourning him was heavy. I felt a surge of frustration with my family. If Aaron was a woman, none of this would be an issue. I hated the double standard and I hated that I hadn’t done more to make things right.
Sean met me at the airport in Pittsburgh. We exchanged a huge bear-like embrace, very unlike our usual grunt and nod greetings. There was an unspoken need to acknowledge our bond as brothers, and to shore one another up as we dealt with the death of a cherished family member. On the drive back to our parents’ house, Sean filled me in with funeral details and how the family was doing. Our grandmother was holding up well. According to Sean, Mom turned on the water works every now and then, but for the most part she was doing okay too. It was just hard. I nodded and stared out the window taking in all the old familiar sights.
“How about you? You okay?” he asked in a low voice.
“Same.” He let the silence stretch for a moment. There was an old Bob Seger song on the radio…“Night Moves”. If things didn’t feel so somber, I probably would have told him I’d mastered it recently, knowing he’d be suitably impressed. Sean was easily pleased. At least I used to think so. Now, I wasn’t sure.
“Did you hear me?”
“Huh? No. Sorry. What’d you say?”
“I asked if your friend was coming to the service.”
I turned in my seat. I couldn’t read him in the dark, but his tone wasn’t the usual antagonistic one he used when he mentioned “my friend”.
“You mean Aaron?”
He shrugged as he slowed the truck to a stop at a red light. “I guess.”
I looked out the window, thinking it might be best not to answer him. I didn’t feel like fighting.
“You’ve been with him for a while now.”
“Yeah. Almost three years.”
Don’t do it, I warned myself. It was useless to engage in any childish spats with my brother. We were too old for this shit.
“What’s that supposed to mean?” I heard myself ask.
“Nothing. I was just thinking if he’s your friend, maybe he should be here. That’s all.”
The second shrug indicated he was very uncomfortable. If I were feeling more like myself, I might have needled him until I was completely under his skin. Tonight, his seemingly innocent comment pissed me off. I couldn’t let it go.
“You’re right, Sean. He should be here. Not ’cause he’s my buddy and it might be kinda nice to have a friend along to keep things lively at fucking funeral, but because he’s actually my partner and—fuck it! I’m not doing this now. Let’s just say… I’ve got a feeling this is the last time I’m coming back here for a while.”
“Why? ’Cause I make you mad? Come on, Matt. Don’t be a baby. Believe it or not, I wasn’t trying to be a dick, I—”
“You don’t have to fucking try! You are a dick!”
“Damn boy. Relax,” he said in a cool even voice. The lack of heat in his tone stopped me. “Look Matt, I— I think everyone would be cool with him being here. If he wanted to come.”
I stared at his profile, noting his scruffy jaw and tousled hair. Sean was a good-looking guy in a rugged, muscular way. He had dark blond hair, blue eyes and a friendly manner that drew people to him. We’d been told too often that we looked alike, which was funny since we didn’t actually share a drop of blood. His dad married my mom when I was five and he was six. However, in every way that counted, there was no denying he was my brother.
“I’m not sure if I believe that, but thanks for saying so.”
“It’s true. We were talking before your flight got here and— I don’t know. It makes sense you might want him here.”
“Then call him.”
“Maybe I will.”
“Good.” We were quiet as he turned the corner on to the street where we’d grown up. When he pulled into the driveway he laid his hand on my elbow to stop me from getting out of the truck. “Question.”
“What?” I asked warily.
“Did you really say he was your partner? Is that like a law thing? The lawyer and his partner? Or is it cowboy thing? Like a pardner?”
The spark of humor in his eyes was hard to miss. This Sean I knew well and I knew exactly how to deal with him.
I cocked my head and gave him a serious look. “Could be both, I suppose. Are you asking if one of us wears assless chaps when we role play or—”
“Lalalala!” He plugged his ears and sang the childish refrain all the way into the house.
I chuckled as he slammed the door behind him, knowing Mom would have something to say about it. I wasn’t sure what that conversation was about, but it seemed… odd. And promising. Maybe.
My mom burst into tears when I followed Sean into the kitchen a couple minutes later. I dropped my bag on the floor and held her tight. I didn’t try to speak until I knew I could do so without cracking. Dad rubbed my shoulder soothingly and stepped aside for my three sisters to wrap me in a huge embrace. For the first time since I’d left Aaron in DC, I felt grounded. This wasn’t going to be easy, but we’d all be okay.
Everyone was just as Sean had described. Grandpa’s passing wasn’t completely unexpected, but it was painful nonetheless. We all were a little zombie-like in our interaction with one another. However, we made plans for the service and notified old friends and extended family. We seemed to know when one family member had reached their limit, either by a look or a tremor, and someone else would step in to make the next decision.
It was grueling and emotionally exhausting. I talked to Aaron multiple times a day filling him in on the goings on around me. I leaned on him heavily, sharing all the little details of this macabre process. He was a great a listener and exactly what I needed to get through the days leading up to the funeral.
When that awful day came, the air in the house that morning was rent with an invisible cloak of melancholy. The mood didn’t fit the glorious sunny mid-October day, I thought when I met my family downstairs. I’d been requested to play my guitar at the service. No one pressured me to sing, but it was understood that if I were able to do so, it would be nice. We chose was my grandfather’s all-time favorite Frank Sinatra song. He would sing it at whim much to our chagrin or delight. It wasn’t a sad song, so I figured there was a pretty fair chance that I could honor my grandfather by playing and singing it for him one last time. I practiced diligently on the guitar I left behind in my old bedroom when I graduated from high school. It wasn’t much to look at compared to the beautiful one Aaron had given me last year for my birthday, but it would do.
The drive to the church was mostly quiet, but it was a good kind of quiet. Reflective. Not burdensome. We moved toward the main entrance of the church as a cohesive unit, though I walked a little behind so I wouldn’t knock anyone over with my instrument. I had my guitar case in hand but I couldn’t say where my head was. I was focused on just getting through the next couple of hours and I didn’t immediately catch on that I’d been ditched by my brother and sisters until I glanced up and realized I was walking alone. I looked over my shoulder to see if I was heading the wrong way. And that’s when I saw him.
I stood still for a moment before setting the case down. I cocked my head and stared intently, hoping I wasn’t guilty of an overactive imagination. He smiled and everything faded. All I could see was Aaron. I hurried to his side and pulled him into my arms.
“You’re here.” I whispered reverently, stepping back to get a good look at him. He was gorgeous in a beautifully tailored charcoal suit and navy tie.
“Yes.” He offered me a lop-sided smile as he reached up to brush a tiny piece of lint from my lapel and run his hand lovingly over my cheek.
“I just got here an hour ago. I called your parents yesterday and asked if they would be okay with me being here. For you.”
“I’m really glad you’re here. Thank you.”
“Me too, Matty. You don’t have to thank me. I’ll always be here for you.”
I looked away, struggling for composure. My eyes were wet with unshed tears and I did not want to lose it in front of all these people who no doubt were curious who the handsome dark haired man in the designer suit was.
Shelly walked up just then and swept Aaron in a bone-crushing hug. The twins were right behind her. I noticed my parents standing off to the side and wondered if this was where things got awkward.
“Thank you for coming, Aaron,” Mom said with a kind smile. Her giant dark sunglasses made it difficult to see her expression and gauge her sincerity, but I sensed a thaw. Or perhaps a truce. Dad graciously shook Aaron’s hand while Sean eyed him suspiciously then patting his shoulder by way of greeting, and maybe acceptance. Aaron nudged my arm and nodded toward the open doors of the church. It was time.
The service was a perfect homage to Gramps. Touching eulogies were given by a couple of old school friends who had known my grandparents for decades. My favorite was my brother’s. He talked about our grandfather’s passion for sports and the lessons he passed on about discipline, fairness and love. It was a fitting farewell and it gave me the boost of courage I needed to stand in front of a couple hundred people to play and sing his favorite song.
Aaron squeezed my hand and released it quickly as I stood. I took a deep breath and made my way on shaky legs to the front of the church. I looked out at the sea of faces before honing back on the one that grounded me. He offered the slightest inclination of his head as encouragement. It was enough.
“This isn’t a funeral song. It’s a sweet song. A love song. Gramps would whistle it or sing it… much to our embarrassment when we were kids. He didn’t mind. He used to say this song reminded him to stop and smell the roses. To take a good look at the people you love the most and to be grateful. I’m grateful,” I said, letting my gaze drift back to Aaron. “This is for you, Gramps.”
Someday, when I’m awfully low, when the world is cold
I will feel a glow just thinking of you
And the way you look tonight.
“The Way You Look Tonight” (music/lyrics by Dorothy Fields, Jerome Kern…sung by Frank Sinatra)