A year ago today, my grandpa, Eugene R. Dailey, passed away. He was the first close family member I've lost, and his was only the second funeral I've been to for someone I was close to (I wrote about the first one here).
Last year, I found myself at a cemetery on Valentine's Day (I know, right? It's far too good not to joke about it). It was impossibly bright, but in a February sort of way; wan and pale. We were gathered for the burial and my Dad had asked me if I wanted to take pictures of the proceedings to document things. Want and necessity are two very different things, Dad. Whether or not I wanted to photograph my Grandpa's funeral is of lesser value to the fact that my very nature as a photographer necessitates it. I see, therefore I must.
So there I was, manhandling a Canon G9 for the first time (you could mordantly call it a field test of sorts as using it that day did, in fact, convince me to get one of my own) while the military men (whose ranks and functions I don't recall, but G-pa served in the Korean War, so he was receiving appropriate military respects) removed his coffin from the hearse. If you can imagine the sight, I invite you to: Yes, I had picked out a "funeral" outfit. Yes, I was the best dressed person in the cemetery that day. Yes, I realize this is profoundly whacked out.
The outfit included a shield of black sunglasses to deflect from the fact that I was about to transform from winsomely garbed cemetery patron to blubbering sad-sack. And true to form, when the first note of "Taps" wailed from somewhere in the distance and the initial crack of the 21-gun salute tore a fissure in the quiet Valentine's Day morning, who let out the most gutturally inadvertent sob you can imagine? Yep. That would be Sob-pants McGee over here in the cute outfit and black Wayfarers. This caused a domino affect amongst the family members, my uncle Gene later confessing, "I started crying because you cried so hard!"
However, there was still the overwhelmingly present task at hand (aside from mourning, grieving, and looking really cute): I was bearing a loaded gun in my hands and that event had to be documented. So I shot away, alternately sobbing and clicking, while my glasses fogged up (on account of the tears, natch) to the point where I could no longer see what I was taking pictures of. And so I persisted, now alternately sobbing, clicking, and de-fogging my specs, through the entire burial and back in the car on the way to the church for the memorial while Bob Dylan reminded me what it feels like to really live.
Two days before Grandpa passed away, at the moment I got the call confirming that, yes, this was the end, I wrote the following as a response. I never read it at the funeral as it wasn't quite the right audience for such a masterpiece, but today, on the anniversary of his death, I'd like to honor my Grandpa's memory by sharing it with you.
February 9, 2008.My dad asked me if I wanted to say anything at the funeral. I pictured myself nobly standing before a crowd of hundreds--thousands!--all swathed in varying faded blacks, heads bowed low, an army of mourners crying identically shaped tears. I imagined lifting my arms to quiet the sobbing, to direct their grieving, to uplift their spirits. I would open my mouth, leaning ever so slightly into the microphone, seeing the slight nod from the sound technician--yes, the volume is good, please begin--But instead of saying anything, I see myself instead as I was yesterday around noon, reflected in my rearview mirror, a slippery mess of tears, my lower lip curled into an involuntary snarl; the veins in my eyes pushing blood to the surface, flooding my veins; my face red and heaving.No, I would not address the tens of thousands of mourners. I have the smushy heart of my Mom, the heart that cries at countless things--movies, nature, puppies--and once those tears start falling, it's only a matter of a few choked syllables before I'm reduced to a blubbering mess. And that's no way to address an audience of tens of thousands.But back to my speech, the one I have prepared in my head, the one that will go unspoken because I am not a fearless public speaker:At night, as is the case right now as I write this, my mind is buzzing. All colors and sounds, words tumbling around, hitting the edges of my skull, bouncing back, past and present tense, conjugating themselves, staving off sleep. But during the day, during the day at my job where I am almost entirely useless, there are no words. Just white noise, the serpentine hiss of computers and bronchial hacking of copy machines and printers. Faxes. Skateboards. Headphones. Noise.I can't say then what I might say now, which is: I have no idea what to say.When I think about him, the only thing that comes to mind are his enormous ears. They are the size of a child's hand outstretched, lobes swishing, reaching for his shoulders. He has the biggest ears I've ever seen, which serve to enforce the idea that your nose and your ears never stop growing.I imagine that his never will stop growing, and that years from now, if one were to bisect the Willamette Valley, slice the earth in two, and peer at a cross-section of that rich grape-growing soil, they'd see him in his coffin, two giant ears which have kept right on growing without him. Ears agape, drums beating against the cedar, listening to earthworms squeaking along narrow tunnels, hearing the private chatter of ants, feeling the vibrations of footsteps falling six feet above on a ground that's constantly changing, in a city that won't look the same ten years from now, twenty. Thirty.Sometimes I'd be transfixed by the sheer size--the length! the width!--of his ears, though it was hardly the first thing that came to mind when I thought about him. But somehow now, as I sit in this purgatorial state between night and morning, between his stroke and his inevitable passing, between wanting to weep and wanting only to sleep, the one thing I remember most fondly about my Grandpa are those gigantic, ever-growing ears. I don't fool myself or pander to my heartstrings to think that he can hear me now, but...If he could, I think he'd be smiling ear to ear.