MARQUETTE, Michigan — Some of my earliest, best memories are of Christmas Eves at my grandparents' house. I remember the taste of cookies, the feel of wrapping paper, steam coming from hot cider and hot chocolate, the heat of so many people crammed into a not-very-big house and later apartment. I remember the constant din of noise because of all those people. A great-uncle or two getting a little drunk, or a little too drunk. I remember playing video games with my cousins that we'd just opened. I remember how cold it was outside and how much snow was on the ground and watching the lights on all the houses on the drive over. I remember having to consistently shed layers because of - again - how cold it was on the trip there and how warm it was once you got inside. I remember not wanting to leave at the end of the night, even though that meant Santa was coming and there were more presents on the way in the mornings. They are, without question, some of the best memories of - not just my childhood - by my entire life. Unfortunately, one of the Christmas Eves I remember most... is the one I wasn't there for.
Christmas Eve at Grandma and Grandpa's was just expected. It was the one night of the year everyone got together at the same time. My mom has one brother and three sisters. So, there were lots of cousins my age. And - when I was young - lots of great aunts and uncles and second cousins... and non-family friends. There were so many kids, actually, that it became a joke that you were sure to open something on Christmas morning, marked for you from Grandma... that was definitely intended for someone else. Because, she'd wrap it... forget who it was for... then just take a guess. Because I guarantee the My Little Pony set when I was 12 was not for me. One year, my cousin Tony would answer the phone, "Merry Christmas, whose present did you get?" One time I got a teddy bear that I legit thought was for someone else because I felt a little old for one. I mentioned that - but, nope. It was for me. I think I slept with that thing for six months just out of guilt that I made grandma feel bad.
I'm pretty sure I have pictures of every year there at Christmas growing up. Except one. As my grandparents got older and their health failed, Christmas Eve parties moved. My mom became the chief entertainer and most of the family came to our house. My senior year in high school, I was dating a girl from a few towns over, and she really wanted me to go spend Christmas Eve with her family. I didn't think it would be a big deal to shake things up for one year. I really liked my girlfriend and I liked her family. So, I left.
We had a good time. Though I couldn't tell you exactly what we did or who we saw. But, I can tell you who everyone saw at my mom's house.
Henry Oscar Anderson was born in 1927. Everyone called him Bud. Or Buddy. to me and all us kids, he was Grandpa Bud. He was a Merchant Marine in World War II. They had one of the highest casualty rates in the war. Probably because they didn't carry any weapons. After the war, he worked for years a bread factory in town and raise five kids. What I remember most about Grandpa was his voice. Loud. He loved to yell. And he loved wrestling. Or, 'wraslin.' But, he was a softee. When my parents divorced and we didn't have a lot of money - like, at all - I did a lot of sleepovers and grandma and grandpa's. Every time when I went home the next day, he'd send me home with bread and peanut butter. And every time, I'd complain that it was generic. Not JIF. They didn't have money for the brand names either. And I complained. I didn't know. But, grandpa just smiled.
The other thing that really sticks out to me... One time I was with my dad. And he was dropping me off at grandma and grandpa's. I walked inside without him as he drove off. Grandpa Bud said, "Where's your dad?" I said, "he just left." He looked at me said, "He and your mom may have gotten divorced, but he's still my son. You tell him to come say hi to me next time."
Later in his life, Grandpa Bud was in and out of the hospital. All the time. Diabetes. We got to know the VA in my hometown really well. I always felt awkward going to see him there. Which, I suppose is normal. I don't know. It was awkward for me. It was the first time in my life that anyone close to me was really struggling medically. I had no experience with disease or death. And - cliche - it was weird seeing my big strong grandfather laying helpless in a bed.
Eventually, the diabetes progressed. By the time my senior year rolled around, Grandpa was back in the hospital and they had to amputate one of his legs at the knee. I still didn't have a great appreciation for how bad things were. Like I said, this was all new territory for me.
When my girlfriend asked me to go to her families for Christmas that year, I actually checked with - I think - my mom. Her or my grandmother. I wanted to see if Grandpa would be coming. He was in the hospital at the time, so I seriously doubted it. So did they. So... I left.
I don't know how late I was when I got home. Not too late. There were still some people there. And - lo and behold - Grandpa showed up. He surprised everyone and came in on a prosthetic. And as people told me - had a great a time. And so did everyone else. But he was gone. He already left.
I felt awful. I felt like - first - the worst grandson in the world. But, I also felt like a bad son. This was my mother's father. For a million reasons, I felt like I should have been there. And that's not even considering the fact that I wanted to see my grandfather. Instead, I had to listen to everyone else's stories. Look at everyone else's pictures. Wishing I was a part of those stories and in those pictures.
But, it was what it was. I'd wait for next Christmas.
A few weeks later, Grandpa went back into the hospital. I don't remember the exactly chronology here. But, this is the best I can piece together. Grandpa went in... and we knew it wasn't good. Someone came to my class and told me I had to go pick up my mom and go to the hospital. We went. And we could tell it was bad. We were there for hours and started calling family. We were preparing.
At about 2pm, I asked the doctor how grandpa would be. See... I was an actor in the school theatre department. We had a major competition show that was performing that Saturday. And we had rehearsal after school at 3. I wanted to know if Grandpa would be ok for me to go to rehearsal for a few hours. I was told he'd be fine. So, I left.
After rehearsal, I went back and more people were at the hospital now.
The next day, I went to school. But, someone called the school again and told me to get to the hospital. Family was starting to arrive from out of town. When rehearsal came around, I asked again if I could go. "Yeah, he'll be ok,: I was told. So, I left.
Same thing. After rehearsal, I went back and everyone was still there.
The next day, I didn't even make it through first hour at school. Get to the hospital. But... 3pm. Rehearsal. We perform the next day. I was told it was ok. "Go." So, I left.
Halfway through rehearsal, I was sitting in the audience waiting for my scene. I noticed my eventual step-brother walk through the door. There's no earthly reason he would ever been in the school theatre. I walked up to him and said, "Kevin, why are you here." He said, "Come out in the hall, I gotta talk to you." I followed him. When we got out there, before Kevin could say it, I said it myself. I said, "He died on me, didn't he?" Kevin just nodded.
I walked back inside the theatre. I had to tell my director I had to go. Mrs Smith was everything you'd ever picture a theatre teacher to be. Old, gaudy jewelry, big hair. And a big heart. She knew the situation. I tried to squeak out an "I have to go." Before I could, she jumped out of her seat and threw the biggest hug on me I've ever had in my life. And I cried. I cried loud and long and everyone on stage and in the audience stopped what they were doing and watched. And I didn't care. My grandpa left. And I wasn't there. Just like at Christmas.
By the time I got to the hospital, it was really odd. everyone was in tears. understandably. Except me. I don't know how much sense this makes. But i already got mine out. And I felt some solace in that - obviously - Grandpa wasn't alone when he went. I think our family had an entire floor of that hospital. but, I still felt bad. Everyone told me not to. I was doing what Grandpa would have wanted me to be doing. I was on stage, not worrying over him. At his funeral, my cousin Becky put it best when she said - and pardon the language, but this was grandpa - 'what are you crying about ya God damned dummies?'
That was Grandpa. I can't possibly consolidate all he was and all he meant to me in this short podcast. But every year at Christmas I think of him - and Grandma, of course. But, for at least a moment, I think about that Christmas I left. It's not guilt any more. I let that go a long time ago. But maybe a little melancholy. A little regret.
Especially since that show I was rehearsing for that Saturday.... there was a snowstorm. And it was postponed. Nice joke, Grandpa. Still love ya. Still miss ya.
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