Saturday, August 31, 2013


As soon as the final fifth grade bell sounds, everyone I knew began telling me how awful my first year of middle school was going to be. They told me, and told me, and told me. They continued telling me throughout the summer (You ever notice how much quicker summer months expire?) It wasn't long after the opening bell of sixth grade that I figured out they had all been lying. It's not awful. Ask anyone involved, and they'll tell you the same thing. Teachers, students, parents, the custodial engineers (It would be rude to ask everyone else, and leave them out) name it. Sixth grade is not merely awful. It was the worst year of my life. And there's not an ounce of hyperbole in that sentence. 

Okay, there may not be hyperbole in that sentence, but I did leave off a crucial qualifier. Sixth grade was, in fact, the worst year of my life...up to that point. There are a number of reasons for this. For starters, I believe middle school teachers suffer from a condition similar to road rage. Something about being penned up with preteens sends them into outbursts of aggressive behavior. I learned that it wasn't that uncommon for a sixth grade teacher to shout obscenities at a disruptive class, or to throw a trash can across a room to get the attention of his students. Across the room and through a window. A closed window. True story. It wasn't a case of the inmates running the asylum. It was true, however, that a number of those running the joint should have been inmates. If the kind, elderly woman who taught your fourth grade class was Dr. Jekyll, the red-eyed, lunatic who taught your sixth grade shop class was certainly Mr. Hyde. 

Teachers were not the only change, though. All middle schools have an awful smell. It's created by pubescent boys who have yet to figure out that the foul aroma is actually emanating from their armpits. No middle school aged boy has ever heard the word deodorant. It's been shouted at him by his parents and teachers repeatedly, of course...he just hasn't heard it yet. The halls are filled with more than this malodorous stench. They are also filled with what appears to be real life giants. The students in eighth grade are only a year away from high school and many of them are huge. Not only that. A number of them have facial hair. Three months prior, I was one of the tallest kids in the school. Now, I'm straining my neck to (reluctantly) make eye contact with a bearded guy wearing a denim jacket covered in Iron Maiden patches, who reeks of cigarette smoke (Which is actually pleasant compared to the BO lingering everywhere else). As luck would have it, this monster is in your class because he's been held back the last two years. You know who else was in that class? Girls. When did they start letting girls in school? I swear, I didn't notice a single one of them in elementary school. Now they're everywhere and more interesting than pretty much everything else. Put all of these ingredients into a blender and you have middle school life. It's a huge culture shock and very intimidating. None of this has anything to do with sixth grade being the worst year of my life (up to that point).  

Roy Eugene Swam died January 1, 1986. You didn't know him, but that's okay. I didn't really know him, either. Despite growing up only a few miles from my father's father, we spent much more time visiting my mother's parents who lived farther away. If I had to guess (and I'm almost 40, so I do), I probably shared space with him two or three times a year up until I turned ten. It was about that time when, because of diabetes, he had the end of his left foot surgically removed. While he was recovering from his surgery, he moved in with us for awhile. Almost all the memories I have of my Granddad come from these few months. 

He was the most amazing house guest ever. Both of my parents worked and it was unusual for them to be home when we (my sister and I) got out of school. My Granddad lit up the minute we walked through the door. He was filled with questions about my school day. He would sit quietly with me while I did my homework or told him about some of the lunchroom antics of my classmates (never me, of course). Just the act of spending time with me seemed to fill him with joy. That meant a lot to me (still does). It's an odd thing to be unable to remember many specifics from those few months, but to have such vivid memories of the emotions I felt. If Doc Brown ever shows up at my house tomorrow in a Delorian equipped with a flux capacitor, I'll ask to travel back to those couple of weeks we got to spend with him.

We're going to borrow Doc Brown's gadget and fast forward to New Years Eve, 1985. I was eleven and my sister was nine. We were allowed to stay up to see the ball drop that year (it was a pretty big deal). My father worked a late shift with the police department at the time. He had many opinions about how a police department should be run, and was happy to share them. He told me several times that opinions were like assholes. Everybody has one, but not many people want to see (or hear) yours. Since he was unable to watch the ball drop with us, it didn't seem that unusual for him to call the house and say hello shortly after midnight. I remember the brief conversation he and my mother had, and I remember being upset to not get a chance to say hi to him. A short while after she hung up, she told us that Granddad had died. 

This was my first experience with death, and I was devastated. I didn't get a chance to know Granddad well, but what I knew of him, I liked a lot. He had a kindness and humor that was contagious, and I was never going to experience it again. The finality of it all was too much for me to wrap my head around. My father came home an hour or so after the phone call. I remember him coming into my room and sitting on my bed. He was still in his uniform. Just before he broke into tears he said to me, "At least he made it long enough to see the New Year." It was the first time I had ever seen my father cry (I've only see it happen one other time. We're very different that way.) I cried with him, and I'm crying again now as I write this.

My Granddad was a deeply religious man. He played the organ at his church and had perfect attendance for more than fifty years before he got really sick at the end. Years later, I learned that he gave a large amount of his savings to a con man, or televangelist. Which ever you prefer. I have a few blurry memories of his funeral service. People said kind things and talked of seeing him again some day. I do remember being lured in by the thought of seeing him again. I had given up believing in god, but maybe there was a way I could be reunited with my Granddad.

I have trouble remembering too much about his funeral, but I have very clear memories of a get together at my Uncle's house after the funeral. What sticks in my mind are the stories told about my Granddad. No one talked about the last year or so when he became sick. They were sharing happy stories, from a healthier time. My father told a story of Granddad chasing him out of the house after he had gotten into some trouble in school. My Dad was a high school football star (another way we are very different) and thought for sure that Granddad would never catch him (he was a short man). He jumped a fence at the end of their backyard into a farmer's field, and thought he'd glance back to celebrate his escape. Instead he turned to see Granddad coming down the other side of the fence, right on his tail. My father decided at that point to give in and accept his punishment. The laughter and smiles that filled my Uncle's living room that night...those I'll always remember. It was obvious that my Granddad was a great man and those closest to him would hold him in their hearts for as long as they lived. That was how he would live on. 

When I returned to school, I remember my sixth grade math teacher asking me how my grandfather was doing. I told her that he had died shortly after the ball had dropped on New Years. Sadly, one of the clearest memories of my Granddad's death is what she said to me. "Well, he's in a better place now." What?!? What place would that be? How was that "place" better than here with the ones who loved him most? Other than those few moments at my Granddad's funeral, I had never given much thought to whether or not there was an afterlife. No one I knew personally had ever died before. These were new and difficult questions to consider. Would I ever see him again? I didn't know. I was too upset and too young to have an answer to that. One thing was certain. Her comment, though well intended, offered me no consolation. 

I learned an important lesson from my Granddad's death. I would have loved some more time to spend with him. There was no guarantee, however, that time will come. What we do have is the time we share with one another in THIS life. That's the life I want to celebrate and take advantage of. It's something I could still do a better job of. What can never be taken from me are the memories of my Granddad. Some I formed on my own and some I've acquired second hand. Some are more accurate than others, I'm sure. All of these memories come back to me every December 31st . It's because of this (in my twisted mind at least) that he's been able to see every New Year since. 

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