Mourning My Grandfather through The Velveteen Rabbit
"Oftentimes it hurts. But once you’re Real, you’re Real forever."
My grandmother is a sensible woman with expensive taste. Most of the gifts she’s given me over the years have been jewelry. Or clothing: when I was young she loved to take me shopping at Neiman Marcus, then visit the top-floor restaurant for tea and miniature sandwiches. Each time I visited Cleveland, she took me to get my long, tangly hair cut, and for a manicure if I’d upheld my promise not to bite my fingernails since my last visit—not gifts so much as traditions. I’d sit nearby in the beauty parlor as my grandmother got her practical short hair restyled at her weekly appointment, then accompany her to her friend’s home salon, where she’d get her acrylics touched up and I’d eye the wall of colors for one that fit my mood.
I was eight when she gave me the rabbit, an unusually sentimental gesture in our relationship. She made no overtures about it, simply handed it to me one afternoon as we were passing each other in the hallway. I was coming up from the basement after some ritual exploring of the terrain—old stacks of Playboys, boxes of liquor, and letters on brittle paper; she was hanging her coat in the entryway closet after running errands. The endowment happened, and then it was over.
The rabbit was gray with satin ears, a smooth pink nose, a white face and white hands and feet. Its long limbs made it perfect for sitting upright or pulling close, carrying by one arm or dressing in doll clothes. Though I felt I was too old for stuffed animals, I started sleeping with the rabbit every night. Eventually, her soft fur wore down and became patchy, her body flattened, and her white face grew yellow.
My grandmother met my grandfather in 1945 at a Valentine’s Day dance held at the local synagogue. She was 19, just out of high school and planning to go to college for accounting. He was 22 and just out of the army, where he spent three years stationed in the Pacific theater and contracted dengue fever. This is one of my favorite stories: he spots her across the ballroom, sitting with her girlfriends. She’s the most beautiful woman in the room—big brown eyes, strawberry blonde hair, serious expression. He works up the nerve, approaches her table, asks her to dance.
“No,” she says. “You’re too short.”
My grandmother is a certain kind of independent. She was the bookkeeper for my grandfather’s industrial-barrel business from the day they married until the day he died, 65 years later. She was also an expert homemaker: adept at making beaded floral arrangements, crocheted blankets, and ample baked goods. Though introverted, she’s notorious for doing and saying whatever she pleases at any given moment. Once, in the middle of a dinner party, she removed a section of newspaper from her purse, opened it, and proceeded to read.
One afternoon, when I was visiting in the spring of 2011, my grandmother and I went out to get our hair done. Crossing the parking lot to the beauty parlor, I asked her what makes a person classy.
“The way they act,” she said. “Whether they’re kind and considerate. Not fake.”
“Not fake?” I said. “So, if you can be kind and considerate—”
“But not two-faced,” she said. “Saying one thing and doing something else.”
I reflected on this for a moment as we continued across the parking lot, how true this was of the Gerard family. I thought of my grandfather, always keeping his word in business—and my grandmother, getting up at four o’clock every morning to make sandwiches for the men working in the barrel yard. Yes, my grandparents considered good manners and promise-keeping to be simple matters of respect and forthrightness, I thought. Certainly this had been passed down to their children and their grandchildren. I swelled with pride.
“My hairdresser’s lost 200 pounds,” said my grandmother, interrupting my train of thought. “And he’s still fat.”
While my grandfather was dying, my grandmother would curse the cancer eating away at invisible places inside him. Her inability to stop it infuriated her. Contrasted against the rest of the family’s vociferousness, her anger was quiet, buried beneath the surface, and would come out in bursts: lashing out, then retreating immediately. Where the rest of the family argued and ordered one another around, she seethed. She drew herself inward. She talked less and less. Her mind seemed to wander. Days before my grandfather passed, while he lay on a hospice bed in their living room, she suggested we try to get him up and walk him around. It was inconceivable to her that he’d never again be the man who approached her at the Valentine’s Day dance in 1945.
When he was a young man, my grandfather harbored dreams of being a writer. A chest of drawers in the basement held his screenplays and short stories—love stories, mostly. My grandfather was a hopeless romantic. Even into their final years together, sometimes he’d turn to me and say, about my grandmother standing near us, “Ain’t she a foxy lady?” She would respond with, “Oh, shush.”
He was an avid reader of novels. He loved mysteries, but hated violence. He was always singing songs by Frank Sinatra and Rosemary Clooney, and Michael Jackson and the Rolling Stones—anything that got his body moving. When he danced, his hands became pistol-shaped and he pointed them away from his body, winking at his dance partner. His specialty was speechifying—he was always ready to drop a nugget of wisdom, based in principles starting with God and descending to the bothersome chipmunks eating his flowers—but he wasn’t arrogant. He was easily embarrassed.
“He loved mysteries, but hated violence. He was always singing songs by Frank Sinatra and Rosemary Clooney, and Michael Jackson and the Rolling Stones—anything that got his body moving.”
“Most important,” he’d always say, “guard your health. Without your health, you have nothing.”
One of my earliest memories is with my grandfather at the beach. It was a rare visit to Florida, before he stopped flying altogether—he always got sick on airplanes. I was three, and was wearing my zebra-print bathing suit. My parents had warned me about the sand spurs on the dunes, but I wasn’t listening, or didn’t listen. I marched straight into them, and before I knew it, my feet were on fire. Sand spurs were stuck to the bottoms, and the more I tried to avoid them, the more they stuck. I started to wail. My grandfather ran over and lifted me out of the spurs, and carried me down to the shore to wash my feet in the water.
When the last of their three children had left home, my grandparents moved out of their house on Rochester Road in Shaker Heights and into a sprawling ranch house in Pepper Pike, another affluent Cleveland suburb. I spent weeks there when I wasn’t in school, exploring the wonders of their dressers and record cabinets, the mysteries of my grandmother’s home office, and the sprawling landscape of the property around their home. The land was partially wooded and populated with deer and chipmunks, skunks and fireflies: Ohio creatures that I never saw in Florida. I’d wander through the trees, hunting for animal bones and unusual seed pods and peering into the neighbor’s yards. I spent whole afternoons rolling down the small hill between my grandparents’ paving-stone patio and the bottom of their backyard. I never left without visiting the room in the basement containing select garments from my grandparents’ old wardrobes—my grandfather’s army jacket, my grandmother’s knee-length rabbit fur coat—or reading again my grandfather’s screenplays and short stories, and my aunt’s letters from summer camp.
The house was also where I learned about my father as a child. I found his bar mitzvah photos in the guest bedroom nightstand; I ate the foods he ate growing up. Over a dinner of beet borscht in my grandparents’ kitchen, I would listen to their stories about him taking ballroom dancing lessons, tripping on acid, teasing my aunt’s boyfriends. Later, on the way to his favorite ice cream parlor, we’d drive by his elementary school and the field where he played little league baseball. I’d fall asleep that night beneath the same blankets that kept him warm when he was a child. My childhood was mapped onto his.
My father moved to Florida after college. His brother landed in Salt Lake City and his sister in California. Thanksgiving was our yearly reunion, and the family’s pilgrimage back to Cleveland. The holiday followed a procedure: Two days in advance of the dinner, my grandmother would tell my father to bring the chairs up from the basement. Then would follow a day of relative calm, broken up by my grandparents shouting reminders at each other across the house. I would begin sneaking bites of the mandel bread my grandmother left wrapped up in the kitchen.
Dinner would finally come and midway through someone would tell a joke in poor taste, and we’d all exchange looks. My father’s sister would breeze in with her family toward the end of the meal, looking frazzled, having caught a late flight. When they finished eating, we’d move to the yellow-lit den for drinks. I’d fall asleep with my head on my dad’s lap.
My grandfather fought his cancer for years. As it advanced, his children spent more and more time in Cleveland. Near the end, my father drove there monthly to help him eat, bathe, and follow his treatment schedule. He spent weeks at a time away from my mother and from his work. His phone conversations were consumed by names of doctors and experimental procedures, medications and dietary restrictions. Though grateful for his children’s help, my grandfather was a stubborn man. He grew depressed. His weight plummeted. He received a colostomy bag, and dressing himself became nearly impossible—not only because of the physical difficulty of it, but also because the humiliation of having to hide the bag was almost too much for him to bear. Once an avid moviegoer, he could no longer sit comfortably through a whole film. Unsteady on his feet, he couldn’t walk to the mailbox at the end of the driveway.
One night while I was there, I heard my grandfather calling from the bathroom. My uncle was with me—we rushed in together. His colostomy stoma had opened, and his intestines were spilling into the plastic bag attached to his abdomen. We drove to the hospital, and my grandfather spent the next several hours awaiting surgery while his guts sat outside his body, next to him on the table, under a wet towel.
A few days later, we took him to the movies. He made it through the film, and on our way to leave the theater he stopped at the bathroom. We again heard him calling for assistance—my uncle went in. My grandfather’s pant leg was spotted with urine; his embarrassment was huge. He couldn’t stand the idea of walking to the entrance, of who might see him and what they’d think. He was almost in tears. My uncle tied a jacket around his waist.
In August 2012, my mother called to tell me my grandfather’s body was shutting down. He would likely die by the end of Saturday; it was currently Friday morning. I flew to Cleveland, and spent the next two weeks with my family sitting vigil in my grandparents’ living room, waiting for him to pass. His hospice bed was situated in front of the picture windows in which my grandmother kept her potted plants—rubber tree, philodendron, peace lily—overlooking the verdant backyard and the woods beyond it.
As the days dragged on, his speech became distant and confused. His breath rattled. He called out in his sleep for relatives long dead. Our family worked in rounds, keeping him dosed with pain medication, and to keep his mouth from drying out, swabbing with a pink sponge on the end of a plastic wand. He developed thrush in his throat: a white paste that spread across his palate and tongue. He fell into a delirious sleep from which he never awoke.
“We combed his hair because he would want us to keep him looking presentable, even in his state. We rubbed lotion into his hands. We took turns reading him books.”
To keep him from developing sores, it became necessary to reach across his small body and move him. We cradled him toward us in the sheet while one of us stuffed a pillow underneath him. To keep him from aspirating his morphine, we tucked pillows around his head and placed the dropper inside his cheek, rubbing the outside gently to work the medicine into his bloodstream. We combed his hair because he would want us to keep him looking presentable, even in his state. We rubbed lotion into his hands. We took turns reading him books by Alexander McCall Smith, his favorite author.
One night, my father and I agreed to sleep in shifts so that one person could always be awake in case he needed to be made comfortable. It was already late when I fell asleep on one couch, my father sitting vigil on the other. At seven in the morning, I awoke to the sound of my father sipping coffee and realized he had never let me take my shift. He told me he’d wanted to let me sleep, but I was angry. “You denied me the chance to care for my grandfather,” I told him. I felt betrayed. I felt he’d taken something from me that wasn’t his to take.
In the years since then, I’ve wondered what my father was doing as I slept. I imagine he watched his father breathing. He held his hand, and fed him morphine. He mopped his mouth. He stared for a long time into the darkness. He rested his face in his palms and shook his head in bewilderment. He imagined my grandfather when he was young. He watched the sun come up.
My father and I were pallbearers. With white gloves, we bore my grandfather’s weight from the funeral parlor to the hearse and from the hearse to the grave. As they lowered him into the ground, we dropped our gloves in after him. In the Jewish tradition we bury our own dead, so each of us shoveled a mound of earth from a bucket onto the casket. Inside, my grandfather lay with a bottle of Johnnie Walker Blue, his favorite. My grandmother sat on a folding chair at the end of the front row with an American flag on her lap folded into thirds.
Soon after his death, my grandmother moved into a tiny assisted-living apartment: kitchen and living room, bathroom, bedroom, walk-in closet. There, she set about learning a new routine. She ate meals in the downstairs restaurant with the other residents—including Thanksgiving lunch, before having dinner with the family. Once a week, she took a van to the beauty parlor, and to the library. She participated in group activities: macramé, card games, trips to the movies. She joined my parents’ monthly book club. But for all the time she spent among others, she talked very little. She made few friends.
At the time, my father was semiretired and working on the novel he’d always wanted to write. Every morning, he’d bring a mug of coffee to his home office and think about plot. Around 11 o’clock, my grandmother would call to ask if he was coming to see her that day and he’d answer yes—then remind her, “Mom, I asked you not to call before three.” That evening, he’d pick her up at her apartment and bring her back to the house, or take her out to dinner at her favorite family-style Greek restaurant, where she’d order snails. He’d drop her off at her apartment that night and stay for a while to make sure the new phone in her bedroom was working and that she was taking her medication, which she couldn’t be trusted to do, even if she told him she was. He’d add books to her e-reader, then remind her again how to use it, and her cell phone. He’d kiss her on the top of her head. Then he’d leave.
My parents hosted the first Thanksgiving without my grandfather in 2013. My father’s siblings flew to Florida with their spouses and children, and we gathered around a new table together, in a new house, and began the process of building a new tradition. Familiar faces were missing: my grandparents’ closest friends, my dad’s cousins and their families. But others, like my mother’s sisters, had never been to a Thanksgiving in Cleveland. Dishes were passed around the table, wine bottles emptied, everyone laughed and stuffed their faces. In the midst of it, my grandmother fell quiet.
At the end of the night, my husband and I drove her back to the independent-living facility. Her apartment was cluttered, though a woman came once a week to clean it. Various papers were piled atop the kitchen counter with an open bag of individually wrapped Ghirardelli chocolates, two potted orchids, orange bottles holding pills, and orphaned items taken from the cabinets—cooking spray, cleaning supplies, an immersion blender. A cardboard box on the sofa held shiny blue gift bags, each containing a piece of costume jewelry she’d bought as Hanukkah presents from a vendor who made rounds in the facility. The side table held dishes of colored arts-and-crafts beads and a few lanyards. I asked her if she wanted help cleaning, but—as often happened by then—she didn’t answer. We followed her to her bedroom, where her engagement photograph hung next to my grandfather’s.
“He looked like a movie star,” she said.
He did. Blue eyes, pouty lips, sensitive jaw, thoughtful expression. He was a man who took care with his appearance: fine clothing, trimmed hair, clean shave, shirts always pressed, hat always matching his coat. His good taste extended into choices of restaurants and Scotch, friends and films.
I reminded my grandmother of a conversation we’d had years before. I was a freshman in college and dating my first serious boyfriend. We were fighting nonstop—he was jealous; I was secretive. Neither of us was happy. One afternoon, after a particularly bad argument, I called to wish my grandparents a happy anniversary. I asked my grandmother how she managed to make a relationship work for almost 60 years when I couldn’t even make one last six months.
“You said he was cute,” I said.
“He was,” she said. “Then he went and died on me.”
Three years after my grandfather’s death, my grandmother suffered a massive stroke. Though she had a DNR, she was resuscitated and awoke after the episode without the ability to walk, swallow, speak, or use a pen. The right side of her face hung slack from her cheekbone. Her right arm lay limp on the bed next to her, often contorted into a strange shape that she couldn’t feel. In the hospital, she developed a urinary tract infection that rendered her temporarily catatonic. She was in the ICU for two weeks. All we could do was wait, and hope she recovered.
My grandmother now lives in Sabal Palms, a hospital facility for residents who need round-the-clock nursing staff. The door of her room is always open. The room is tile and partitioned off in the middle by a curtain separating her space from her neighbor’s. She isn’t allowed to drink anything because she might aspirate it, but she begs for water constantly in words often difficult to understand. In place of water, she’s given lemon-flavored frozen suckers. As needed, an aide connects a saline pouch to a tube in her belly. She practices swallowing with pudding. When she needs to use the restroom, a complicated machine is wheeled down the hallway to lift her out of bed into the arms of someone who then carries her to the toilet. Behind her bed hangs a photo, famous in my family, of her standing next to my grandfather on a beach, both of them in bathing suits. They’re young and ecstatic to be together on the shore: my grandfather bares his teeth; she smiles a crooked smile into the sun.
“All we could do was wait, and hope she recovered.”
When my father visits, he takes her out for walks. Her right hand is strapped to a small platform attached to her wheelchair so it doesn’t fall and hurt her. My father moisturizes her skin, which often becomes dry, applies sunscreen, and puts a baseball cap on her head. If it’s chilly outside, he tucks blankets across her lap. He wheels her outside, where they follow a sidewalk around the facility’s campus. On their walk, they pass two small ponds beside which they stop to do some bird-watching. They continue down a residential street, and as they come out to the main road, the tree cover disappears. My father adjusts my grandmother’s cap.
Back inside, she begs him, as best she can, not to leave her. She tells him she wants to die. My father kisses her and leaves.
The summer after my grandmother’s stroke, I decided to paint her nails. When I got to her room, I discovered the set of acrylics she’d been wearing at the time of her stroke still hadn’t been removed. Between her overgrown cuticles and the tops of the fake nails was a gulf of keratin. I asked her if she minded me painting over them. After working for weeks, she’d managed to learn to huff, “Yes.” We sat in the common area, which smelled of antiseptic and bananas, before a dark TV that reflected us in its glass. I had brought two bottles of polish—hot pink and electric blue. She selected the pink. I talked while I painted. “I got pink on your wheelchair, Grandma. Do you think they’ll care?” Silence. “This remover stinks, huh?” Silence.
When I returned in the fall, I found she’d been moved to a new room. I followed a receptionist through back hallways of the building, through the kitchen to the employee elevator, which I took to the third floor. The new room was identical to the old one, but had a window that cast sun across my grandmother’s bed. She was watching Turner Classic Movies beneath a white afghan that used to live on her family room sofa. She’d reached a point in her recovery where her right leg would move of its own volition, but when she tried to move it intentionally, it stayed put. The film on the TV told the story of a rodeo cowboy and his beautiful lover, worried for his life. It was nearing the end, and together we watched the scene of the cowboy’s last ride. He mounts the bronco; they open the gate. His lover watches from the sidelines, her knuckles white, her eyes unblinking. The bronco bucks and the cowboy is thrown to the ground—the lover screams; she closes her eyes. In the last shot, the cowboy lies motionless in the dirt.
I know what my husband will look like when he’s old. I know how the skin of his face will hang from his bones. His cheeks will hollow—he’s already thin. The lines around his mouth will grow more defined. Folds will deepen across his forehead, worry lines. His hair will never turn fully gray or fall out—he’s Italian. Tiny crinkles around his eyes will fan out like sun rays. His eyes will still be green and curious.
Three weeks ago, my husband was diagnosed with testicular cancer. A week later, a surgeon removed his testicle, and in one month, he will begin the first of four rounds of chemotherapy. His hair will fall out. Eating will be a challenge. We’re asking questions we’ve never considered before: How will his history of heavy smoking affect his ability to receive chemotherapy since chemotherapy puts him at risk for pulmonary fibrosis? How long will he be sick after chemo ends? What are the chances we’ll have to do it again? How will we pay rent in the meantime? How do we go about freezing sperm so that we can have children?
Sometimes I make him promise he won’t die. I tell him I’ll die, too, if he goes anywhere. Maybe this is cruel.
It used to upset my husband when I bothered him about smoking. I told him I was afraid of someday not hearing him breathe while he sleeps. I worried about how painful it would be for him to struggle to inhale, how it would likely be even more painful to exhale. I worried he’d suffer and that I’d have to watch him. That our future children would learn too soon of their own mortality, through their father’s. Even before I know them, I want to shield them from this pain.
My parents have a pact that my husband and I adopted: that one of them will kill the other if necessary. If they’re brain-dead. If they lose the powers of speech and movement. If they’re going to be a burden on each other. If there’s no possibility of a life of quality. If, going forward, life will only be suffering. An act of mercy.
Watching my father care for his mother, I wonder what I will do for him. What he will need when the unpredictable happens. How I will give it to him. How to prepare. I think about how little I have now, how I’m still so dependent on my parents for so many things—help with our taxes, marital wisdom. I will need to outgrow myself. I will transform in unthinkable ways. It will teach me the true meaning of dignity.
After my grandfather died, I immersed myself in death. I worked at a bookstore at the time and used my staff discount to buy books constantly: an anthology of essays about grief by famous writers, a popular science book about corpses. I read about the funeral industry and eco-friendly ways to dispose of bodies. I became fascinated by ghosts. I studied time, eternity, and the number zero. My grandfather’s death was my first death. It moved me in a way I’d never felt before, and I thought that if someone, some authority outside of myself, could explain the feeling, then my experience of it would seem natural. But nothing got at the core of what I was feeling. Each experience of grief I encountered was different, and none resembled my own. Then I reread The Velveteen Rabbit.
My parents read me this book every night as a child. I think it was their favorite, too: I can still hear the sound of my mother reading it, her alto register, lilting and musical. Our abridged Golden Books edition still sits on the bookshelf in my apartment. Its cover is glossy with a colored pencil drawing of a stuffed rabbit sitting in a thicket of ferns and ivy with a sprig of blackberries over its shoulder. Inside, it tells the story of a boy who receives a Velveteen Rabbit for Christmas. At first, the Boy prefers other toys: mechanical ones, like the engine and the model boat. The Rabbit is shy and self-conscious; he knows that his velveteen fur and his sawdust filling are the stuff of simple toys. The other more glamorous toys make fun of him—all except for the Skin Horse, who has been in the nursery the longest and is therefore the wisest of all the toys. One day, when they’re alone, the Skin Horse tells the Rabbit what it means to become Real. It’s not how you’re made, he says. It’s a thing that happens to you when someone loves you enough. Oftentimes it hurts. But once you’re Real, you’re Real forever.
“Each experience of grief I encountered was different, and none resembled my own. Then I reread The Velveteen Rabbit.”
The Rabbit is fascinated by this idea of being Real. But he doubts it’s likely to happen to him, being plain as he is. Then a toy goes missing at bedtime, and the Boy is given the Rabbit to sleep with. The two become inseparable. When the Boy falls ill with scarlet fever, the Rabbit stays by his side, day and night.
As a child, it seemed to me that the Boy’s scarlet fever sat someplace outside the Rabbit’s story, that the fever had little to do with the Rabbit. It was something that the Rabbit had to live through, put up with, because of the Boy. Now I understand that it wasn’t for the Boy’s sake that the Rabbit stayed with him through his fever; it was for the Rabbit’s own sake, too. Afraid he will be removed from the boy’s side, the Rabbit hides from sight under the bedclothes, perfectly still. As much as the Boy needs him, the Rabbit needs to be needed as well.
When the Boy is well again, the Rabbit is thrown in a sack with the rest of the contaminated nursery toys. Of what use was it to be loved and lose one’s beauty and become Real if it all ended like this? he thinks. He sheds a tear, and where it falls, there grows a flower, and from it springs a Fairy. The Fairy takes him to the forest and kisses him on the nose. Then she sets him free to run wild with the rest of the rabbits.
My father has his father’s eyes, as do I. That first Thanksgiving without my grandfather, I asked my father to read me The Velveteen Rabbit. We sat on the couch and I listened, slipping in and out of sleep, as his blue eyes moved across the pages with familiarity and he performed the characters in his gentle tenor. He stopped now and again to ask questions, amused at reading to me again as though I were still small. I thought of the rabbit my grandmother gave me. Over time, she accepted the shape of my body and gave up her own. As she wore down, I’d slip my finger through a hole in her seams and find a thread to repair the damage. Finally we reached a stage where I’d sit her on the bedside table at night instead of bringing her to bed, afraid I’d ruin her. Days went by without my lifting her. One day, she disappeared.
Now my rabbit lives in a box along with our winter coats. Each year when the weather turns cold, she comes tumbling out in a ball of familiar scent. I hug her close: my neck still knows the way her arms wrap around it; my right cheek knows the feeling of hers, soft against my own. I look into her neutral expression, which has turned downward over the years, and I think of all those nights drifting off in my childhood bed. Then I put her back in the box, out of sight, not forgotten.
From Sunshine State. Used with permission of Harper Perennial. Copyright © 2017 by Sarah Gerard.