He sat in an over-sized chair in the living room wearing bib overalls. One leg crossed over the other, his ankle rested on the opposite knee. He wore men’s classic style leather slippers and the bottoms of his pant legs were folded up forming cuffs. Every so often, he flicked the ashes from his ever-present cigarette into the cuff of the pant leg perched on his knee. It seemed such a bizarre ritual to me and, although I never asked, I wondered why my grandmother tolerated it.
He said very little. As I think back on those visits now, I have no recollection of him ever directly addressing me, and yet I tell myself that he must have at least asked me how I was, how things were at school . . . But I cannot clearly hear his voice in my head. All I remember is that he was soft-spoken and as I sat uncomfortably on the couch across the room from him, I noted the resemblance my father bore to him and wondered if, as my father aged, he too would be bald.
I don’t remember the day we learned that he had lung cancer. But I do recall that there came a point when I was no longer to required to accompany my parents when they visited him in the convalescent hospital where he was spending his last days. One night, they returned and told us that he had died while they were sitting at his bedside. He was in a coma. My mother relayed that, as she gazed at him lying in the bed, she realized he was not breathing and alerted my father. The medical personnel confirmed that he was gone.
I was in the fourth grade and his was the first funeral I ever attended. My parents talked about the logistics in advance, so I knew that there would be two areas in which attendees would be seated. We would be in the larger of the two rooms, rather than on the couches in the little room off to the side where the rest of his family would gather. My father made it clear that he would be driving us to the service at the funeral home and, afterward, the cemetery, in his own car. We would not be joining his relatives in the funeral home’s limousine.
Frankly, the image of that old, bald man lying in the casket is more vivid to me than all of the visits we paid to him in his home combined. I remember thinking how odd he looked. His face was different; his skinned appeared waxy and as though it had been pulled tightly across his face. His lips were an odd shade of red. But what really stood out was his salmon color, double-breasted suit with the unusually wide lapels. They were completely out of place in 1966 when men, including my father on that cold January day, wore dark suits with one row of buttons and narrow lapels.
I sat on the pew next to my father while a man I didn’t know talked about the man lying in the coffin behind him, whom I had never really known, either. Off to the side, I could see the room about which my parents had spoken and caught glimpses of my grandmother, aunts, uncles, and cousins through the opaque curtain that separated us from them.