It was late afternoon on a Monday when my mom called me. I picked up and she said, “Ray,” in a tone I had never heard her voice make. Like an electric shock I felt a current of panic run from my heart to my core. There was a two second period of total fear where I wondered what awful thing was about to come out of her mouth. She soon continued in a tortured wail, “MY DADDY’S DEAD.”
I called my grandfather Big Dan, because he was a tall Polish man with the substantial build of a football player, which he was. Big Dan loved sweets, and I didn’t know this until recently but cherry pie was his favorite. His birthday was coming up soon, May 23rd, and I said to my mom’s mom who I call Gramary, “you should make one to celebrate.”
“I’ll never make another cherry pie,” she said.
Coming from the woman who had to be dragged, literally, out of the kitchen, her tiny 103 pound frame flailing in my dad’s arms as he lifted her up and removed her on multiple occasions from the kitchen when she tried doing the dishes after preparing and cooking a whole meal for us and we refused to let her, this did not settle right with me. Was this a selfish feeling that I would never get to eat her cherry pie again? Had I ever actually eaten her cherry pie that many times? There is nothing she can’t make and hasn’t made and the thought of her throwing in the dish towel to a certain dessert upset me. Was it because I knew she was getting older and I began to wonder if each thing she made going forward was going to be her last? Right now I was mourning my Big Dan so I decided to be okay with the fact that she was done with making cherry pie.
Gramary wears Big Dan’s watch now, it swims on her tiny, sun-damaged wrist. Her light, Irish skin has become the color of a splotchy eggplant. She still has a huge two-story, oceanfront house on Summerland Key, but she feels homeless, because he was her home. I don’t know how to comfort someone who is two generations older than me but seeing how deeply immersed in sadness she was brought something instinctually out of me, behaviors and words that quelled her momentary grief. But this damage was deeper than anything anyone could fix and that was hard to accept.
When I got the call from my mom all I could think about was, what did he eat for breakfast? My Gramary and Big Dan were very routine people all their lives so I could likely answer this question myself but a voice in my head kept asking on repeat. What did he eat for breakfast? I pictured him sitting with his back to the floor-to-ceiling glass sliding doors with the ocean view, in his black desk chair with the wheels at the big, round, dark-wooden table, with his breakfast on the oval-shaped cloth placemat in front of him, one of four that my Gramary had sewn for the table, and his coffee mug, likely the Boston University one I had gotten him so many years ago, with his dark, thick-rimmed glasses on to read the Miami Herald. Gramary likely served him his breakfast as she served him all three of his meals at the same time each day. While I could see this scene perfectly clear I still wondered, what did he eat for breakfast? What foods was he innocently eating just a handful of hours before he would fall to the floor outside the laundry room, break his neck and die soon after? He was just eating breakfast with no idea he would soon die. What was he going to eat for lunch I now wonder? I could not let it go.
When my Gramary came to New York to be with my parents and me soon after Big Dan’s passing I shared a bed with her. Laying in bed with her the first night we got to talking and I asked her — what did he eat for breakfast that day? She told me the usual. “But what specifically,” I asked. "Fruit with yogurt," she said. "And coffee." He had to be down to one cup a day more recently instead of three. “He loved his coffee,” she said.
May 23rd just passed and I wanted to make a cherry pie, but I just couldn’t. I say that I wanted to but something inside me didn’t want to. I think I have accepted Gramary’s wish to no longer make cherry pie and I knew that if I made one for his birthday it would be nothing like hers.
I miss him.
I have days where I do not know how to handle it. Accepting it is not easy for me. Knowing he did not have breakfast at his table this morning does not compute in my brain. I guess I will just start with accepting that Gramary is done making cherry pie and time will help me with the rest.