Tootsie Rolls in the Casket
Stomach cancer. The words were said over and over but they were just words, that is, until the day I went to the nursing home with my mom, dad, and grandma. My grandpa had stomach cancer. It was misdiagnosed for too long and it was too late to do much about it. None of the treatments were working.
I was ten and still wearing my ballet outfit the day I saw him. We had gone straight to the nursing home after my afternoon practice. In grandpa’s room I stood by the doorway, inches away from the hallway. I was as far away from grandpa as possible. He didn’t look right. He was smiling and talking, but he just wasn’t right. I remember my mom telling me to show him some of the dances I’d been practicing. My heart was racing, and my feet were clumsy. I just wanted to get out.
Mom told me to give him a kiss goodbye. My stomach seized. I didn’t want to get anywhere near him. But somehow, I did, and I was pulled into a crooked embrace by his withered, bedridden form. I wanted to pull away. I wanted to get as far away as I could. If I could get away from him now things would be better later. If I didn’t look, it wasn’t real. I kept to that mantra up to the last time I saw him. At his funeral.
I squirreled myself away in a corner on one of the plush armchairs in the funeral parlor. I curled up with my gameboy colour and played a Beauty and the Beast game. Belle riding away from wolves on her horse or punching wolves across the screen as the Beast was my reality. Grandpa’s body was just a room away.
I’d been avoiding going up to the lacquered black box the whole time. Then it came time for “paying respects.” I watched the back of my mom’s hair as she dipped down. She squeezed his dead hand, patted him, wiped her eyes, and told me to say goodbye to grandpa.
I didn’t want to kneel. I didn’t want to move a step. I felt the crowd behind me growing restless. The flowers smelled too strong, and my head was throbbing. I wouldn’t move until my mom took my hand and walked with me the foot or so I needed to. I didn’t want to let go of her hand. I didn’t want to face him alone.
I wasn’t a puddle of tears. I was a knotty-stomached, clammy-palmed ten-year-old who didn’t want to kneel or even do so much as look at my dead grandfather.
My mom told me to give him a kiss. I looked at her, wide-eyed, and shook my head violently.
“No no.” I said softly.
I let go of her hand, as if she’d drag me down to plant a big one on him. I squinted and kept my eyes narrowed and downcast, towards his legs, the fancy black pants he was wearing, the cushiony silky looking fabric on the inside, and his pale, knobby hands.
There were little brown and red logs all scattered around him, Tootsie Rolls, his favourite candy. He stuffed them into candy bags for me and the other kids on birthdays and holidays. He always had some in his pockets. At any given moment, Grandpa would slip a tootsie out, unwrap it, eat it with a wink, and then hand one over to me for the taking.
I let my eyes open a little wider. I shifted my gaze up higher. I saw his neck, chin, and face. Oh, I saw his face, and I knew I had to get away. I whipped my focus back to his hands, reached in, and touched one of them for a good few seconds. Then I jostled past my mom to get away. The mourners continued. After the tootsie rolls, the touch, his face, it all started to sink in.
When it came time to go to the burial plot the grass was green and lush, the sky was blue, and it was sunny and warm. It was Memorial Day, after all, and summer was starting early that year.
I remember thinking that funerals in movies were dark, rainy, and shadowy. This was about as far from that grim atmosphere as possible. There were birds chittering in the trees and a sweet warm wind.
We gathered around the rectangular dirt hole and I watched as the dark casket was lowered down with the metal bars that encircled the plot. I had a flower in my hand, and so did my mom, my sister, my dad, my grandma, and many other mourners. All the flowers were dropped down into the hole, landing on the coffin. I held on to my flower the longest. I swung my hand and watched the white rose float down and land among the others. I stared down at the flowers and the casket again, when it hit me. Really hit me.
It’s going on thirteen years now since my grandpa passed away.
Grandpa, I love you. I love you and I’m sorry.
It was what I’d wanted to say all along. Ever since that ballet day.