I went home this Thanksgiving, which I haven’t done since my senior year of college. Even in college I didn’t do this often—senior year was in fact the only time I did; I’m from California but went to school in Connecticut and even though we had the whole week off, it seemed like a waste, all that flying—but my grandfather is maybe dying and just in case it happens before Christmas, it seemed like the best thing to do, a good investment (for my mom, who paid for my plane tickets, who still pays for my plane tickets whenever I fly home because honestly, I don’t have the money).
I told people I was going home and when they asked me why—why was I flying home Thursday morning and back Sunday night; not enough time to justify the cross country trip—I would tell them my grandfather was dying and then things would get quiet and I would have to explain: he’s old, he’s lived longer than anyone expected, he hasn’t gotten out of bed in years. Which is true. When he was sixteen he broke his back in a car accident and he walked for a cane for a while but his bones were weak and he kept breaking and re-breaking his legs and at some point—twenty, thirty years ago—his doctors medically paralyzed him because he was a danger to himself: the worry was he was going to fall and break his back again, and end up a quadriplegic, instead of a paraplegic, so they snipped some nerves and put him in a wheelchair.
The way I always heard—or remembered—the car accident, my grandfather was sixteen, and he was in a car with friends and they were drunk. The way I remember the story, he’s thrown from the car and he’s dragged for a while, and that’s how he breaks his back. My uncle was also at my grandparents’ for the holiday and I asked him to tell it (I’ve only ever heard it from his brother, my father), and he remembered a car with only one other person in it, the driver. In his mind, my grandfather is thrown from the window and lands on his back. In mine, the door opens and he’s thrown but holds on. But in my mind, he’s also in a Model T, which doesn’t make any sense (my grandfather was born in 1936)—which tells you how reliable my memory is. My uncle’s only ever heard the story from his mother, my grandmother, who isn’t the most reliable narrator (or rather wasn’t—she’s been dead since 2005—and so there isn’t, in any case, any way of checking, apart from going back to my grandfather, problematic in its own, obvious, way).
So yes, it’s sad, because I love my grandfather, even if his way of expressing affection involves buying me a book titled JFK, CONSERVATIVE. (My grandfather still has, tacked onto the bookshelves above his desk, a “Rudy 2008” bumper sticker, but he remembers that I’ve always loved our 35th president.) He made some mildly disparaging comments about the connection between food stamps and Obamacare during dinner on Thursday, and I said something quietly and went to fix myself another martini. But also: he smoked unfiltered cigarettes and pipes and cigars for decades and he’s outlived his ex-wife, who loved spirulina and multivitamins, and he doesn’t seem to be suffering, and we’re grateful for that.
Thanksgiving, then, was four days in a remote cabin in the mountains between Sacramento and Lake Tahoe. In attendance were: my mother and father (who haven’t been in the same room since I graduated in 2009), my uncle (with whom my father is only recently again on speaking terms), my grandfather, my step-grandmother, and my uncle’s son, who is the very essence of a nineteen year-old college sophomore: dabbling in rap, asking me about the value of nostalgia, quizzing me on my favorite philosophers, taking nude selfies in the woods with the peacocks the neighbors allow to roam relatively free for a photo class project (his assignment involves mimicking the style of photographer Ryan McGinley). It seemed, so obviously, like a set up: for disaster, for an exploitative reality show I would never watch, for profound family rifts that will never heal.
And then it wasn’t. I’d expressed worry—or, more accurately, prophesied doom—to my uncle before the holiday, and he’d been nonchalant. Everyone, he promised, will be on their best behavior. And truly, they were. The moments of awkwardness between my parents were mostly limited to a brief interaction during which my father seemed about to quiz my mother, in Italian, on her knowledge of the 19th century (“Cosa sai dell’Ottocento?” he asked, in a vaguely accusatory tone).
I don’t have an especially easy relationship with my father, and that’s been the case for so long I sometimes forget why I resist interacting with him at length. Thanksgiving reminded me. It’s his relentless negativity, invariably coupled with a tone of authority. He’s a man, born mid-century to an upper middle-class family, convinced the world’s decks are stacked against him. He’s actually a good corrective: being around him, I move in the opposite direction: become more optimistic, more logical, more helpful.
His ur-complaint, the younger child’s lament, is that his parents loved his brother more than they loved him, or at least treated him better. Whether or not that’s the case—and my uncle, for one, would argue that it’s not—I also, for maybe the first time, saw clearly how sensitive he is, how truly young. Always on the offensive, rude and antagonistic, pushing people away, before they have a chance to hurt him.
On Thursday, in the afternoon, before dinner was served, I happened to be in my grandfather’s bedroom with my father and his father. My grandfather, in a hospital bed, hooked up to oxygen, told my father to go down to the basement to get liquor: gin, and bourbon, and rum, and my father, so deferential, repeated back the bottles he was to fetch, to verify he’d understood, and left the room. He was, in that moment, so vulnerable, so clearly hoping for affirmation and love, so obviously not just my father, but someone’s son.