Everyday, my grandfather used to sit at his kitchen table in the same chair with a beer in one hand and the Daily Corinthian in the other. I’d visit him when I’d travel back to the South, and like the creature of habit he was, his greeting was always the same.
“Get in here, Hollywood.” He’d tease. That’s what he called me, since the rest of my new world knew me as Tennessee.
“You can always come home.” He’d tell me every time we spoke. I used to believe he was saying this in anticipation of my inevitable failure, but as I grew older I realized that it was meant to be a reminder: my family would always be there should I need them.
He never was quite like anyone else. An old-school cowboy, whose modern steed took form in an eighteen-wheel big rig. He drove cross-country for forty-something years, but no matter how far he went, his heart was always in Corinth, Mississippi, with his high school sweetheart, the love of his life, my grandmother.
When we lost her four years ago, I remember my mother saying that he wouldn’t make it without her. It angered me. Of course he would. You can’t die of a broken heart. But I hadn’t taken into account the fifty-plus years they’d spent together. She was his person.
Shortly after her passing, his health began to decline. The man who I used to watch tinker around in his shop and blaze trails on his John Deere tractor could barely shuffle himself down the hallway in a wheelchair. His sleep patterns became irregular, and bedsores were forming in inches and then feet.
My mother used to drive down from Tennessee to see him every week. They’d talk about life, history, politics, anything really. But he would always, always ask about me.
He loved hearing about the different movies and TV shows I worked on. The celebrities I’d met. The only ones he recognized were Barbara Eden and Tippy Hedren, but it was fun for him all the same.
Once, I even had Dawn Wells call and wish him a happy Birthday. He told my mother it made him the happiest he’d been since he lost my grandmother...
My mother often tried to get me to call him, but I was always too busy. A film shoot here. A red carpet there. Another crazy trip to Comic Con. So, my mother relayed to him the stories I’d shared with her throughout the week.
But the one thing they never talked about was my sexuality. I wanted to tell him I was gay. After all, it’s a centrally defining part of my identity. If he didn’t know that, he could never really know me. But my mother was afraid that he wouldn’t take the news well. In fact, she said that it might kill him.
So, I rarely called. Not willing to force a superficial conversation, I made excuses instead. I was just too busy. The time difference made it too difficult. I didn’t want to bother him...
The last time I saw my grandfather was September of last year. He no longer occupied his usual old chair, instead my Uncle pushed his wheelchair under the edge of the kitchen table and locked the brakes.
We sat in silence, save the rattling, ragged breaths he struggled desperately to take. I remember how hollow his cheeks had become. His pale skin, a ghostly veil draped over fragile bone. I could see the humiliation in his eyes. He hated being perceived as weak, letting others care for him, but he had no other choice.
The strongest man I’d ever known no longer wanted to be strong. He just wanted to speak again without losing his breath. He wanted to lift his own head up off his pillow. He wanted to wake up beside her again.
And then, one day... he no longer wanted to wake up. For the first time in almost four years, he asked my mother not to visit him. He said he wasn’t up for chit-chatting.
I never got to tell my grandfather who I was. I never got to share with him the thing I believed gave me the most strength. I never got to ask him what it took to fall in love with, and keep your best friend.
And because I never called, he wasn’t able to tell me how much his heart was hurting or how alone he felt. Instead, he left a simple note on the bedside table. “I couldn’t take the pain anymore. I’m sorry.”
One single round from his revolver, and my Grandfather was gone. They found his lifeless body on National Suicide Prevention Day. I believe he would have chuckled at the twisted irony.
In my mind, I see him alone in his bedroom. It probably took him hours to sit upright, and pull that heavy six-shooter from his nightstand. I’m sure he bowed his head, and prayed one last time asking God for forgiveness of the moments to come.
I’m sure the prayer was short and sweet, much like the note. Maybe the note was for God all along, a lingering apology in his earthly absence. An “I owe you” of sorts.
Having been raised Southern Baptist, I was taught to believe that suicide was the one unforgivable sin. Even more unforgivable than being gay, because at least queer people could repent. Suicide was final. A permanent severing from God and Faith.
But as I’ve gotten older, I’ve grown to understand factors outside of our man-made religions. I am strong in my faith, but I know that depression isn’t something we can pray away. It’s a mental illness that needs therapy and treatment. Suicide isn’t a sin. It’s a final nail in an already constricting coffin.
My grandfather didn’t want to die. But he couldn’t go on living in his condition. He had already lost everything that meant anything to him. All he had left to give was his life, so he gave it to God in hopes that he would be reunited with his wife again on the other side.
I believe, truly and deeply, that my grandfather found his way into heaven, though he probably didn’t make it easy on anyone. Maybe, with a soft chuckle, and a mischievous glint in his eye he gave his nickname, R.G, at the pearly gates, just to watch the keeper of the guest list scratch his head.
That was the kind of man he was on earth, and who I’m sure he will continue to be in the afterlife.
My grandfather was a good man. He loved his family, and in his final years he made peace with God. I don’t condone suicide. I don’t believe it is the answer for anyone, but I know that he wouldn’t have made that decision if he felt there was any other way he could carry on.
The loss of my grandfather reminds me that suicide can affect anyone at any age. That we must care for our youth as well as our elderly. It also reminds me that life is too short to hide who we are or what we’re feeling out of fear. That communication is key, and expression of love is essential.
I know that God is with him today, probably kicked back with a Coors Light and a newspaper. And years from now, when it is my time to join him he will meet me at the heavenly gates, laughing at the confused greeter when he calls out to me, “Get in here, Hollywood.”
is a writer, artist and human/animal rights activist based in Echo Park- Los Angeles, CA. The Stephens College graduate loves poetry, camping with her rowdy friends and tequila of many varieties.