Family is supposed to be our safe haven.
But very often it’s the place where we find the deepest heartache.
How much of a parent is passed on to their children? We know our hair colour, eye colour and facial features are all a result of inherited genes. But what other parental traits are contained in our DNA? Do we inherit aspects of their personality? What about our grandparents?
How do you tie your life story together? What makes us who we are? Genetics, life experiences, friends? How much of each of those things impacts us and shapes our very being?
It’s hard to know what to say about my grandfather. The words don’t want to come but I feel the need to say something, anything to try to make sense of what I’ve learned.
I have a few pictures of him. I look at his face, and I see him–his face, his smile, his shiny blue eyes. I stare at him and I can remember the way he moved. I can smell the Brut aftershave he used to wear. I can hear his voice. I can feel who he was to me–so close, so familiar, so strong and safe. A picture can bring him back to me and recolour my fading memories of him.
Even though he was a strict man, he was never cross with me. He taught me about camping, fishing and swimming and showed me how to be adventurous. He taught me the names of animals and trees and how to play cribbage. On Sundays, we would go for dinner and we would watch the old Disney movies–he always cried.
He loved to tell stories and would weave tales of leprechauns, banshees and shillelaghs. He sang along to Bing and Frank, The Clancy Brothers and The Irish Rovers. Every day, when he wasn’t working, he would go to ‘happy hour‘ at the local pub down the road.
Christmas was his favourite holiday. He would sit in his old chair with a beer in one hand and a rye in the other as my grandmother decorated the tree. I would hear his big loud voice as he would chide her playfully as she placed the decorations on the tree ‘not there Kate, a little more to the right‘ and she would respond back to him ‘oh shut up you old goat‘. They would banter back and forth until the tree was finished. He loved everything that came with the holidays–the food, the music and us.
I always felt safe when I was with my grandfather. He was very protective of me. I would lean into him (just like I would lean into the trunk of the old maple tree I used to climb as a child) and I could feel the soft flannel of his shirts on my face. He would wrap his big, strong arms around me and I would feel invisible to all of the scary things around me.
A part of us always dies with the death of another. Perhaps a very tiny part of us dies with a death even if we did not know the other. If one dies we all die. At least a little.
I saw him, the night before he died. He was sitting in his chair and I remember he seemed sad for some reason. There wasn’t the same sparkle in his eyes. He promised me I would see him the next day but it didn’t happen because he died that night of a massive heart attack. He was only 59.
When he died it was like a bomb went off. He was there and then he wasn’t. And nothing felt okay anymore. Nothing felt safe anymore. Nothing felt as it had before. Of all the people in my life it was him I think I would have eventually told these things to. Losing him, I think I lost the hope for many years of being able to tell my story. When I lost him, I lost the escape from my isolation. I lost my words for many, many years.
What do you do, if after years of believing something it all comes crashing down around you and makes you feel like a different person?
I don’t know how to absorb and process the information I’ve been given about my grandfather. My heart feels shattered and my lungs constricted. I don’t know how this information weaves in and out of my existence. Is everything I’ve ever thought been a lie? Was the one man who I’ve loved my entire life really a monster in disguise?
I don’t want to not believe my Auntie because I can’t imagine someone making something like that up–especially about their own father–but it’s hard for me to understand. She won’t say anything else about it, so I only have what she’s already said to go by. In some ways it felt more like a passing comment than an actual statement. But she said it, and I heard it, and now I’m just not sure how to feel about it all.
I feel completely defective. As though I just wasn’t made with the right DNA. I sit and wonder how many more layers there are to go through before I have reached the core of what makes me who I am. Something always hurts and has a weight to it that pulls me down. Some days it feels as though I am going to lose my mind, fall apart and disintegrate into nothing. Whatever this is, it holds me to the floor, and is so much stronger and heavier than me.
Why was I born into a family like this–one of addicts, alcoholics, child abusers and violent people? A family of not just one person, but multiple people on both my mother’s and father’s sides.
Why am I still here and am I really destined for a different path than that of my ancestors?