I am four years old, sitting on Papa Larry’s lap in his kitchen.
George H.W. Bush is president. I do not know that.
Outside the window, it is a balmy New York summer. Robins and goldfinches mingle under a bird feeder hanging from a tree dotted with orange berries. I call them poisonberries. A tube full of sticky, red juice hangs from the eaves of the porch. Hummingbirds orbit it nervously. The air and lawn are heavy with cut grass.
My grandpa is dressed like he almost always is — in a white, short-sleeve button-up shirt. There is a click pen in his shirt pocket. He’s wearing blue Dickies work pants and featureless black Velcro sneakers.
He smells of sweet sweat and musky cologne and the grass he has just cut. If I even notice, I don’t mind.
A can of Old Milwaukee sizzles on the kitchen table. I ask him what it tastes like. He holds the can up to my lips. I take a sip.
It is cold and cuts my tongue with its bitterness.
I don’t try it again for 16 years.
I’m six. I’m seven. I’m eleven. And every age in between.
Bill Clinton is president. I may or may not realize.
I’m on the second floor of my grandparents’ house, where two full rooms are dedicated to Papa Larry’s beer can collection. Every inch of every wall is taken up by an empty can of beer.
Cans of Labatt Blue that celebrate the Buffalo Sabres. Cans of Budweiser that celebrate the Buffalo Bills. Cans of some forgotten brand featuring half-naked women, and cans that never belonged to any brand — they just say “BEER” in block text.
Besides the few that he traded for or bought at a speciality booth at the flea market, these cans of all colors and makers share one trait — my grandpa drank them all.
I stare and wonder.
I wonder whether they all taste different, whether they all taste the same. How one man could down so many beers. Whether he enjoyed them all or favors some over others. How there could possibly be so many different types of beer in the first place.
If only he could see the world now.
I’m 22, sitting on Papa Larry’s couch. Except… is it his anymore?
I’m not thinking much about the president. My grandpa has just been put into the ground.
I had just listened to my own words about him read aloud by somebody else.
I had just taken my place at the corner of his casket.
I had just carried him to a hearse.
I had just driven in a funeral procession down the roads where he used to point out cows and barns and tractors.
I had just watched as military men deliberately folded a flag and presented it to my grandmother.
I had just seen the casket lowered into the earth.
I had just held my breath as a ceremonial shovel of dirt was thrown on top of it.
I walked away, got into my car and sobbed. All of the feelings that I withheld as my words were spoken, as I carried him, as I drove to his burial, as the military men performed their ritual, as he was lowered to his resting place and as the dirt was thrown on top came pouring out all at once and didn’t stop until I got back to his house. It was full of people and hors d'oeuvres and drinks.
And that’s when I find myself here, sitting on his couch.
Blue. Budweiser. Old Milwaukee. I don’t remember. For the first time ever, I learn how to drink to cope with feelings.
It is not easy to unlearn.
Barack Obama is still president.
I’m not in New York anymore. A little distance can be good for the soul.
It’s summer. The second of July. And stifling hot. I’m downtown with my friend Manny, at the new craft beer place in town. He’s feeling bad after something like a breakup and he is sharing regrets.
I think about my own regrets.
I regret not visiting my grandpa more while he was sick. My mom and grandma had moved him to a foldout cot in the living room when the cancer and treatment had reduced his body to a scarecrow of itself. I came by a few times to see him but the sight was too shocking for me to swallow. So I avoided it. I made excuses. I regret it all.
I also regret not visiting my grandpa more while he was well. I was a typical teenager, spending more time with friends than family, trying to figure out who I was. And then I went to college. I was absorbed by classes and the student newspaper and new friends. New love. I regret some of it, but I cannot regret it all. I can’t even regret most of it. But I resent those calculations of finite time.
As Manny talks, I think about those regrets and I begin to cry.
Manny looks surprised. He makes fun of me. It’s good natured. I feel a little better.
I’m 28. She’s 29.
It’s a half hour before our wedding ceremony. My mom and grandma call me over to wish me luck.
My grandma says, “your grandpa would be proud of you, kid.”
I feel those words in every inch of my body. They are exactly what I didn’t know that I needed to hear.
I hug her and walk away and try to keep my body from heaving. I spend the next 15 minutes laughing and crying. It takes a walk around the venue and some love from my bride to come down. Someone takes a picture of this moment.
Then, we’re in Ireland, on our honeymoon.
Barack Obama is president, but the 2016 election is weeks away.
We leave Dublin and I drive outside of North America for the first time. I notice the cows and barns and tractors on the side of the road.
She was an anthropology major and knows about a tomb, older than Stonehenge, that isn’t too far away. That’s where we’re heading. I’m not sure what to expect.
We park and walk and pay. We walk some more and get on a bus. The bus drops us off and we walk again. And there on a hill is a tremendous disk, stone on the sides and grass on top. We walk around it, and then are led inside by a guide.
I’ve told this story before.
Down a long shaft, there’s a chamber with an altar on three sides. The guide explains how the tomb’s builders didn’t understand life or death or what comes next.
I think about how we still don’t.
The guide says that there is evidence that the builders brought the remains of their loved ones into the chamber where, on the solstice, the sun lines up perfectly with a tiny opening and explodes into the chamber like a burst of heaven. Then she manipulates the lights to simulate it. She talks through what the builders might have thought.
Maybe, she says, the sun’s rays brought peace to their loved ones. Maybe, more importantly, she says, it brought peace to the ones who brought them there.
I think about Papa Larry and feel a familiar, overwhelming sensation rise through my body. I duck into a corner. My body begins heaving in the darkness and I sob like I did in my car that day.
When the lights come on, I dry my tears and feel something I haven’t felt in years.
I’m 31. It’s November 22. Nine years.
It doesn’t matter who is in the White House.
I come home from work and crack a beer — not because I need to. But because I want to.
I sit on my back step and slowly drink it. I toast the sky and pour a little out on the ground for Papa Larry.
Tears come. Strong and heaving at first. Slower and with memories and laughs after.
I’m just finishing when she comes home and finds me on the back steps. She asks how my day was.
Fine, I say. I’m doing fine.
And I mean it.
I was in a journalism class a decade ago when my mom called to say that the doctors had found spots in a scan of my grandpa. A few months later, 10 years ago on November 22, he was gone.
I’ve thought about him every day since, typically to wonder what he’d think of something I’d done. Whether he’d approve. What he’d say. What he’d think.
One night, when I was in the middle of this essay, I had a dream we were sitting together on his couch. I was catching him up on how things were — Florida is hot and miserable, there are still no gas stations open late in Middleport and Gasport, the mundane stuff — and we laughed and joked like adults together, something we never really got a chance to do.
It’s hard to see time moving forward, until something jolts you into awareness for a few moments. A decade without him is a milestone enough to force me to slow down and think a little.
There’s so much I wish I could tell him, most of all how much I miss him.