We didn’t stay up late on New Years’ Eve. We almost never do. Crowded parties aren’t really our thing. Instead, we were trying to get up early. The husband, you see, wants to get fit(ter) before bike season starts, and I gamely agreed to be his exercise buddy. The predetermined time for this exercise was 5:30 in the morning. He has to be at work early, and the evenings are already full. So, we went to bed early, hoping for sleep.
Then we had the worst fight we’ve ever had, over the dumbest thing of all time, as it usually goes. Sometime just this side of midnight produced an extremely uncharacteristic screaming match, because he wouldn’t quit flopping in the bed (he doesn’t just roll over, you see, he bodily lifts himself up and throws himself back down. I can sleep through it, but he has to be still enough for me to go to sleep first.). I don’t remember what it was that I was doing to generate my half of the fight–probably nagging him to lie still. At two or three in the morning we finally went to sleep.
The phone rang at 5:15. My grandfather, who had been steadily deteriorating since a stroke in July, had passed away. New Year’s Day. First thing in the morning. If he’d been a more dramatic man, I would say that he wanted to make sure no one forgot. If he’d been a more contrary man, I would say that he wanted to inconvenience the family as much as possible.
As he was dying, he got angry with my mother. He wasn’t entirely himself anymore, and he had never regained the use of his left leg. One night in the hospital, he wanted to get up. Surely, he said, there was some work to be done somewhere in that hospital. Some sheetrock to hang or something he could do. He never did entirely believe my mother when she told him there wasn’t. Like all very active men who are suddenly debilitated, he was a terrible invalid.
I had to be the strong person at the funeral, which I can now, if there was ever any doubt, put firmly into the “Do Not Want” category of adult human activities. My own father is still very weak from his last medical crisis, even though his long-term prognosis is better now than anyone expected. He wasn’t physically able to do all those things that he’s quietly done at all the similar crises. I took my mother to buy the flowers, sat with her at the graveside, made sure she was away from the cemetery before the casket was covered. After the funeral, I took on the work of hostessing, making sure the coffee pot was filled and an endless stream of guests could find the bathroom and the food and whatever else they needed. Fortunately the post-funeral traditions in the American south are alive and well and largely self-regulatory.
When something happens on New Year’s Day, it seems to carry an extra weight. The superstitious human brain always tries to ascribe meaning: “Is this a sign for the next year? What does this mean for the future?” The death of a sick, elderly man who lived a good life is impossible to interpret in a single way: a beginning of grief and an ending of suffering. Like all cleverly constructed portents, it is inherently difficult to read.
And so begins the new year.