My Grandpa Irvine taught me how to dribble a ball and throw a Frisbee. He paid me a dollar to learn the "Books in the New Testament" song. He let me feed the baby goats with a bottle and eat all the strawberries I wanted, dusty and warm with sun, straight out of the patch.
He had a sailboat that was most excellent for all kinds of pretend games and a hill in the backyard made for rolling races. He cut a playhouse from a dishwasher box. He taught my sister how to pull her ears while sucking in a long piece of spaghetti, creating quite an amusing effect - even before the little girl's earlobes turned orange with marinara sauce.
He fed the neighborhood cats on his back deck, to the irritation of my grandma.
He served in a bishopric at the Utah State Penitentiary. A story: once at the prison, he left his meetings to find his car would not start. He prayed for help. The car started. He said this was the first time he experienced direct, unmistakable assistance as an answer to prayer. He was in his 60s. Yet there he was in a bishopric. (What did he survive on before that? That's what faith is, if you ever need a definition that does not involve a seed.)
When I was almost seventeen, Grandma and Grandpa visited us in Alaska for Christmas. It was one of those times where I was aware that everything was about to change. This Christmas and one more, I was thinking to myself, and then I will leave home and grow up. It was nearly the end of my life as I knew it. So I paid attention. The kitchen steamed with the combined cooking talents of Grandma and my mom. We sang carols. We rode over snowy roads to eat at the Old FE Mining Company, sitting on rough-hewn logs and drinking from jelly jars. The whole time, I thought to myself, "This time is precious. I have to remember this."
I was taking voice lessons that winter from a crazy lady with four dogs, two cats, six birds, a rabbit, and a live-in lesbian lover she described as merely the person who cared for the animals. She could identify all my vocal bad habits, but couldn't describe to me how to correct them. (Only years later when I took lessons from a voice teacher at BYU did I start to understand what she meant when she told me in her affected genteel accent that I was "impinging upon" myself.) And for some reason she was teaching me arias from Messiah.
I sang "I Know that My Redeemer Liveth" for my grandparents. Grandpa's response didn't surprise me. He asked me to sing it at his funeral.
This used to drive me nuts about my maternal grandparents. They talked all the time about dying. It was morbid, weird and scary. Death was mostly an abstraction for me - I had lost great-grandparents I didn't know well, and I vaguely knew a couple of kids from school who had died in accidents or by suicide. But I had never lost someone very close to me. Thinking about it was alarming. I would have preferred not to. I didn't know why they kept bringing it up.
I did have some idea of manners and respect, and so I told my grandpa that I would sing "I Know that My Redeemer Liveth" for him. I also told him I didn't expect to have to do it for many years.
It was three and a a half years later. I had married - young and happy. I was going to Girls' Camp on a June morning when I heard from my mom: Grandma and Grandpa were in a car accident. They hit a horse in Sardine Canyon. It landed on Grandpa's head.
I almost didn't go up to camp. I thought it might be time to brush up the song. But it wasn't. Grandpa survived that accident, which you would think would be something to be grateful for. If you have lived with someone with a severe head injury, you know it is more complicated than that. It was five more years before he left his body. During that time, it slowly changed, shrunk, lost abilities, decayed. One moment he was delusional and frightened and mean, and the next he was just sweet and slow and forgetful. It was a long, long, confusing goodbye. It was exhausting for Grandma, most of all.
When he died it was February 1999. The day it happened, my mom called in the morning. We had all expected it so long, I didn't know what to feel. I went to work and spent the day interviewing customers and writing profiles - the same work my grandpa did as a newspaper reporter his entire career, I realized on my drive home. Suddenly there was a giant hole somewhere in me, where the bond that tied me to him on earth had broken, and I wept with abandon.
He had written, profiles like the ones I was working on, news stories, editorials, humor columns that left people (ok, mainly my mom) shaking in silent, uncontrollable laughter. He had written letters - long, affectionate, typed epistles to his grandchildren, sometimes as a group and sometimes individually, before his decline began. When he died, I was working on an adoption application, the notorious 52 questions on the old LDS Social Services packet, dreaming of the long-awaited arrival of my first baby. I took my three days of funeral leave, thinking my mom would need my help. She didn't. And so the last thing he gave me was time to write, time to move the family forward, as I answered all those questions. I wrote some, and then I sang along with my Messiah CD, and I cried, and wondered how on earth I was going to hit that high G through my tears.
It turned out that I didn't, and it turned out to be all right. The real standout on the program at that funeral was "O Mi Padre," reflecting my grandpa's two Spanish-speaking missions - once in the Southwest as a young man, and once in Mexico City with Grandma in the mid-'80s - and his faith. The Spirit whispered to me that the words of the last verse of that song described Grandpa's true present state.
With the benefit of years and with the raw and humbled heart left by loss, I saw why my grandpa could speak of death in almost-cavalier fashion. He had no fear of it; it had no sting for him. He knew that his Redeemer lives. And though worms, in a way, did destroy his body, the grim advance of dementia and disability did not dim his belief. And the quality (or lack thereof) of my rendition of Handel's lens on Job's testimony was not so important as the way Grandpa told me that it was also his testimony. And I think it was more than my sense of growing up that whispered to me that winter in 1990, "Pay attention. Remember this."
I told my kids this story today over Grandpa's favorite dessert. Thus the photo and the rhyming title. Happy Easter.
Banana Cream Pie
1 1/2 c. flour
1/2 tsp. salt
1/2 cold butter
4-6 tbsp. cold water
Combine dry ingredients. Cut in butter with pastry cutter. Add water and toss lightly to combine. Start with 4 tbsp. and add more until the dough gathers into a ball. Roll out and place in pie tin. Prick with a fork. Bake at 410 degrees for 8-10 minutes, until very lightly browned. Remove and cool.
3/4 c. granulated sugar
2 tbsp. corn starch
2 c. whole milk
3 egg yolks, lightly beaten
2 tbsp. butter
1 tsp. vanilla extract
Slice 2 bananas into bottom of cooled crust.
Combine sugar and corn starch in medium saucepan. Gradually add milk. Cook over medium heat, whisking constantly, until mixture thickens and boils. Boil and stir 1 minute. Add half of mixture into egg yolks and stir. Return egg mixture to pan. Bring to boil. Boil and stir 1 minute. Remove from heat. Stir in butter and vanilla. Pour into crust. Cover with waxed paper and refrigerate to set.
1/2 pt. heavy cream
1/3 c. sugar
1/2 tsp. vanilla extract
1 oz dark chocolate for garnish (optional)
Beat cream, sugar and vanilla until stiff peaks form.
Slice remaining banana and arrange all but 8 slices on top of pudding filling. Spread whipped cream over the top. Garnish with remaining banana slices and curls of dark chocolate made with a vegetable peeler.