I was in Winona, Minnesota, when I got a call from my dad: Grandma June had passed away. The funeral was in Nebraska, two days away. My plans to buy a fuel efficient car a necessarily expedited, a friend loans me 900 and another friend sells me his 98 Ford Escort. I sign the title and pack my bag. On the way out of town I get several calls from California, so I pull the car over to hear the news: there’s been another death. Our friend Amber Kellar. She was too young. Not even 30 yet, I think. My grandma was 94. Grandma lived a full life. No reason to be sad and cry about that, that’s what people do, they are born and they live and then they die. Amber’s death was a tragedy, too young, and too good. She was so full of compassion and love for everyone. Amber was great. Of all the knuckle headed asshole people in the world that I would have picked to leave the Earth, Amber would have been the last. So now my 9 hours in the car felt a lot more ominous. What was I doing with my life? People were dropping like flies and I could be one of them soon. Another reminder to stop fucking around and get did what I want done.
The radio stations between Winona, Minnesota and Hastings, Nebraska are not so good, a few hot jams going thru Des Moines, and then again in Omaha. The rest was a lot of bad country. Like yeah dude, we know what colors are on the flag, duh. Remedial patriotism. Big brother coming at you with a country song. Is mainstream country music subsidized by the government?
Rolled into Hastings and meet my folks in the parking lot of the Walmart. Of course they had to go inside and buy some stuff so there I was shopping with my folks in Hastings Nebraska. Walking around inside a hideously illuminated Walmart is not the first thing you want to do after driving a car 9 hours.
It was late. We went to Mary’s house and I slept on the couch after meeting her dog Cody and Bubbles, and another dog named Jesse that was my aunt & uncles. Bubbles was a little terrorist chihuahua, barked madly in a high pitch whenever it saw me. Damn those dogs. Jesse and Cody were cool. Jesse was a black lab that loved his frisbee.
In the morning I got up with the sun, made green tea, and waited for the old folks to rise. One by one they shuffled zombie steps to the kitchen for the coffee. I had conversations with everyone. Uncle Chuck. Cousin Alan. Aunt Mary. Aunt Jeanne. Aunt Mary got off the phone with my one remaining grandparent, grandpa Bob.
“Somebody needs to go shave him.” my Aunt Mary said.
My Aunt Jeanne looked at me, “Do you feel comfortable doing this?”
“Uh… No. I haven’t seen him in ten years.”
“Okay, I’ll do it.” Jeanne said, “But will someone go with me?”
“I’ll go with you.” I said.
Aunt Jeanne drove us to Grandpa Bob’s house. My dad was already there with Grandpa, sitting watching TV and conversating. Grandpa Bob is 96 years old and still walking, sometimes using a cane, when he remembered to use it. Grandpa wouldn’t let people help him get up, he would swat your hand away if you tried. The famous Sutter family stubbornness! The only thing about Grandpa that seemed to have stopped working was his memory.
“Hey, remember me? I’m Robert Earl Sutter the 3rd!” I said and shook his hand.
Grandpa looked at me smiling and said, “Well, we hung a name on you!” and then seemed to promptly forget who he was talking to. Probably didn’t help that I hadn’t seen him in ten years. I would catch his eyes across the room and he would blink and look perplexed, no sign of recognition. Strange to be forgotten by your grandparent, or only remembered for a second. He must live in a strange world now, what is that like? Is it like being so drunk at a party that you cant remember anyone’s name or use language to talk to them, so you sit there on the couch watching people move around you and wishing you were sober again?
Aunt Jeanne shaved Grandpa Bob with a small battery powered shaver, he leaned his head back and closed his eyes.
“Hey check it out,” I said, pointing at the TV, “the final space shuttle is about to launch!”
“Oh, this is LIVE!” my dad said, turning to face the TV.
A few minutes after Grandpa was shaved I pointed at the TV, “There it goes!”
All four of us turned to watch the three main thrusters under the space shuttle Atlantis ignite amid a shower of sparks, then a great flame and billowing smoke and the rocket took the sky, gently rolling onto it’s back and heading for a low earth orbit to rendezvous with the International Space Station. The final mission in the space shuttle program, after the Atlantis returned to Earth, the entire fleet would be grounded and scrapped.
“Dad, are you ready to go to June’s funeral?” Jeanne asked Grandpa, “Today is her funeral.”
“Yeah.” Grandpa wrestled himself out of the easy chair and grabbed the cane that was offered.
June was Grandpa Bob’s first wife, it was the marriage that produced all of us. They separated long ago, but somehow ended up living in the same town, Hastings, Nebraska, because that’s where Aunt Mary lived. Mary was willing to take care of her mom, Grandma June, and she did this for years.
Grandma June’s funeral was the first I had been to since the one I attended as a teenager in Alaska when Aunt Mary’s boyfriend, Chad, killed himself with a pistol. I just sat in the back of that funeral, next to a large potted plant.
“You want to go look in the casket?” my dad asked me.
The funeral for grandma June was in Geneva, an hour drive away. We all piled in two cars and drove there. In the back seat with grandpa I experienced uncomfortable silence. Should I keep reminding grandpa of who I am? Should I leave him in peace to stare out the window? How strange it must be for him to be in a car full of strangers. My dad is transgender and decided not to hide the fact from grandpa. The funeral of my grandma may not have been the best time for coming out to grandpa Bob, but when is a good time? I don’t think grandpa had the mental capacity to understand what the deal was, and if he did understand it for a moment, he soon forgot it. I wasn’t inside his brain, but that was my impression.
The rest of the family had asked Rachel to “tone it down” for the funeral, but she declined, wearing a dress and high heels. Most of my relatives were upset about this, and said they thot it was disrespectful of grandma June. They called Rachel “Bob” and referred to her as “him”. I reckon they hadn’t any previous experience with a transgendered person in the process of transition. When a person discovers their true happy nature and accepts it, going back to the old ways seems like something similar to death. My relatives asked me what I thot about the “new person”, and I said, “It’s her life, she’s happy with it, so I support it.”
Sexuality and gender are so taboo in our culture. If you cross certain lines, even tho you harm no one, you are in big trouble.
As we drove thru Geneva, Grandpa Bob had memories come to him, “That’s the old sale barn, I used to work there.” A sale barn is place where livestock gets sold, “This place is very familiar to me.” he said, and continued to point out landmarks as we drove, “There’s a good place to go if you’re dead.” he said as we pulled up and parked in front of the funeral home. At this moment I am pretty certain that he didn’t remember we were there to bury grandma, the woman he was once married to.
Grandma June had been cremated, in the funeral parlor there was a black urn with silver designs, surrounded by floral bouquets and illuminated with warm lighting. We sat thru a christian ceremony by a pastor, the type of thing where you start wondering if we are burying Jesus or my Grandma? I definitely heard Jesus mentioned as much as June. Well she was christian I guess. Don’t remember any goings to church or crucifixes around. A quiet christian.
They played some country songs during the service. Cool. I had been listening to country on the 9 hour drive to Hastings. Grandma loved music. I kept thinking about my friend Amber who had died. Grandma and Amber. An old woman, a young woman. Women I had seen loving and laughing. I could feel my arms around them, hugging them. I thot to myself, “Damn, I knew this was gonna suck. I shouldn’t have come.”
After the service I dashed outside, only to find that we were going to another church next door to have lunch! I was real Christianed-out at this point, but I got to meet a bunch of relatives who were excited to see “The 3rd”. That was cool, they were very nice folks and also seeming to be very accepting of Rachel being transgender. I was so impressed, there seemed to be no backlash against it. Family is family, I reckon. People from the cities like to talk shit about small town folk, but in my experience, people in big cities are just as loaded with hate and prejudice as small town folk are.
I continued feeling really strange. I was the only one there who knew Amber and so there was no one to talk to about her death. I also had a cold sore on my lip which makes me self conscious as fuck, having this wound there on my face when everyone is talking to me. Grandpa was so radically different from when I saw him last that I didn’t know how to interact with him. Rachel was coming out to various relatives as transgender. And oh yeah, Grandma June was dead. Holy fuck! Too much to process, there was smoke coming out of my ears.
I was happy when lunch was done. I helped move flowers and grabbed the keys and jumped in the driver’s seat. I needed to do something to keep from freaking out.
We drove to the cemetery to put Grandma’s ashes in the ground. June had a shared headstone with her sister, Wilma. We moved the piece of wood covering the hole and decided who would lower the ashes down, Mary would do it, she was closest to June during her last years. Mary started to lower the urn and uncle chuck yells, “Wait! Wait!” and Mary says, “Oh god, he wants to take a picture of this.” So we cleared a path in the circle of people so chuck could get a shot of aunt Mary holding the urn. I was thinking, damn, she’s trying to bury her mother, and you’re yelling at her? As a photographer you either get the shot or you don’t. You cant make life go backwards to get what you want. Sorry chuck, but you know that was rude.
Mary seemed relieved. She had been caring for June for many years in Hastings, living together, it had become a struggle with her. Suddenly caring for a parent who can no longer care for themselves, living your life around them and their needs, a constant nurse. That would be hard. My parents have told me, “If we become senile just put us in a home, don’t listen to what we say. You don’t have to take care of us.” Ha ha. I appreciate that.
We all drove back to Hastings and did some hanging out, ate a simple dinner. Everyone seemed relieved that the funeral was over. I felt a weight lifted off me, I smiled with the rest. I watched Grandpa Bob help clean up the lunch by taking a loaf of bread in a plastic bag and spin it, then tie the end in a knot, all with his incredibly gnarled arthritic hands. I was impressed with the dexterity still available to him.
“Yes!” I thot to myself, “If I make it to 96 my genes should allow for me to continue writing and drawing!”
Grandpa bob seemed to enjoy hanging out with all of us in the living room, tho he didn’t talk at all. When my aunt Jeanne asked if he was tired and wanted to go home, grandpa said with a vigorous smile, “You’re just trying to get my chair!”
Talk turned to politics and I let the old folks do battle in the democrat/republican debate. All us kids went downstairs, me, cousin Alan, and aunt Mary. It was Mary’s apartment down there, and just a messy as her rooms always had been. Alan played an online computer game. Mary moved around doing something. I looked at old photos: Mary as a majorette leader of the high school band, Mary as dancer in a school production, Mary as trophy girl for a sports car race. That one made me laugh. “I had to kiss him.” she told me, “The winner of the race. We didn’t like each other, but then when it came time he grabbed me and went for it. I thot I was such hot shit, being the trophy girl.” the photo is a man holding a trophy, my aunt Mary looking hot in the middle, and the winner of the race on the right. It’s a good picture, it would make a nice album cover.
We had breakfast at a greasy spoon and hit some yard sales the next day. My relatives were gearing up to remodel grandpa bob’s house, the carpets were nasty, smelling of dog urine, and underneath them lay a nice hardwood floor. The walls needed painting. grandpa bob lives on, in his own place, with his dog “Garcan”, a contraction of “Garbage Can” cause he liked getting in them so much. Occasionally an in home support person would come over and help grandpa with some things. Things he couldn’t remember to do.
Two days seems to be my limit for hanging out exclusively with relatives. I had work and play in other places. I got in my car and drove outta town with a stern warning from my mother, “Don’t pick up any hitch hikers!” I could have picked up three or four hitch hikers, and I looked hard to find them. I was ready to pack my car full of joyous travelers thru life. Between Nebraska and Minnesota on that day, there were none.
(For any of my relatives who may stumble upon this: you know I love you and would do anything for you. -love rob)