The death of the god of thunder

By Katie Seaward


In August, Pennsylvania bakes. The sun is relentless on the Susquehanna River valley. Warm, wet air rises off the river, turning the surrounding air into a hot, soupy mess. The humidity climbs and climbs until it finally climaxes in a thunderstorm. The afternoon my grandfather died was no different. The sky opened around two, unleashing a torrential downpour that drummed on the metal roof of my grandparent’s trailer. Lightning cracked, and the wind roared.

We knew that afternoon that my grandfather’s hours were numbered; the Hospice nurse that morning took one look at my grandfather’s legs, mottled and gray, and only shook her head. My grandma, my mom, and I sat down around the bed my grandparents had shared for years, the bed he had been trapped in for weeks. We put on his favorite music, the old country from a bygone era – Johnny Cash and the like. My grandpa’s oxygen machine hummed in the background, an ever present reminder of his failing health. My grandma held one of his skeleton hands, and my mom and I shared the other. We talked about all of our memories we shared of my grandpa, ranging from when my grandma met him in West Germany well before the wall fell, to when he nearly froze to death walking home drunk with his best friend one night when they lived on a military base in Alaska, to the day he discovered my mom smoking for the first time, to my own childhood memories of him. And my grandfather, he laid in bed listening to us babble, struggling to breathe. Every rasping, stuttering breath my grandfather took was a fight against the cancer that had long since taken over his lungs. Toward the end, he would stop breathing for a few moments, and my grandmother, mother, and I would stop talking, share wide eyed, horrified glances, and then he would struggle for air again, and suddenly we would realize that we too had stopped breathing and there would be a collective exhale of relief.

                Thunderstorms, though, had always been my grandfather’s favorite. Growing up on the Great Plains, he used to watch the storms rolling toward him over the great expanse of flatland. I still remember him sitting out on the porch of that little trailer in Pennsylvania, cigarette in hand, watching the sky darken, listening to the thunder roll. This love of storms, coupled with the fact that his last name, Donar, was the Teutonic God of Thunder, made it seem fitting, almost funny to my mother and I in a morbid sort of way, that his last moments occurred during an intense thunderstorm.

                When the storm quieted, my mom and I decided to leave my grandpa’s bedside to get a breath of fresh air. We squeezed his cold, skeleton hand and told him we would be back. He could not respond to us then; he had lost the ability to speak days before.

            That was the only time that day he did not grip tightly onto our hands when we tried to leave.

Outside, the sky was a brooding gray. Steam rose off the street in thin, wispy tendrils. Thunder grumbled ominously in the distance, growing farther and farther away; the occasional fork of lightning still danced across the clouds. My mom called my stepdad, who would be driving down that weekend from New York to be with us. I sat down on the hot, wet driveway. I remember the feeling of the rough stone biting into my bare legs, onto the palms of my hands. My mom sounded so tired on the phone. She looked it too. There were dark bags ringing her hazel eyes like bruises. Her coppery curls of hair, normally well-kept and tame, were in disarray. I turned away. I focused instead on tossing loose stones across the pavement, watching them skip.

It was the first time that summer that, for just a moment, I felt calm. For just a few brief moments, sitting in my grandparent’s driveway, the turbulence that had filled my summer came to a lull. I was able to breathe. The feeling did not last. But still, in that moment, I was okay.

The door to the trailer flew open and slammed against the siding, and the peace of the moment shattered. My grandmother was screaming and crying. “He’s gone!” she was wailing. “He’s gone!” She threw herself down on one of the wicker chairs, put her head in her hands and heaved great sobs.

My mom hung up on my stepdad then. She was crying. “Stay out here with grandma,” she said to me as she ran into the house. I climbed the stairs onto the porch and embraced my grandma. My mind was rushing. I wanted to cry, but no tears would come. I let go of my grandmother and, despite my mom’s orders, went inside.

I remember walking down that narrow hallway leading to my grandparent’s bedroom. The thunder still rumbled quietly in the distance. Time seemed to slow and the hallway stretched on and on before me, the open doorway to the bedroom growing no further as I walked. The walls were closing in on me. I was beginning to panic. I nearly broke into a run toward the end, and when I finally reached the bedroom I found my mom sitting beside her dad, holding his hand and crying. I stood there behind her, looking at my grandpa. He was a tall man, over six feet. For most of my life he had sported a big beer belly and a slight tan from spending his afternoons outside; now, he was nothing but an emaciated skeleton with pallid, gray skin. He looked broken. His mouth was hanging open as if he was still struggling for breath. One bright blue eye was open, one was closed. My stomach heaved. I raced out of the bedroom, back out onto the porch, gulping down the muggy air.

My mom eventually reemerged from the house, still crying. She held my grandma. I did my best to wrap my arms around the both of them. It felt strange, trying to console both my mom and my grandma. It was a role reversal – normally it was the elders comforting the weeping child, not the other way around. It was a role I had assumed multiple times throughout that summer; there were many times during those weeks where I wrapped my arms around my crying family and tried to soothe them. Still, at sixteen, the role of the comforter, of the parent, felt alien to me.

The Hospice nurse called the funeral home to come and collect the body. My mom, once she was calm enough, called her brothers to give them the news. I sat out on the porch, arms wrapped around my legs, unsure of what to do. Really there was nothing I could do, except wait. Wait for what, I did not know.

First my Uncle Bill came - he lived less than ten minutes down the road. He was doing his best to keep his composure. He was tall, with wild brown hair, a bushy beard, and big glasses straight out of the 90’s, but despite this wild, tough guy look, I could tell he was struggling. He stood outside with me, chain smoking cigarette after cigarette, much quieter than usual. Then my Uncle Mike arrived. I remember being inside at the time, trying again to visit my grandpa to say my final goodbyes. He shuffled down the hallway slowly, the baseball cap that normally adorned his balding head clutched in his hands, his hazel eyes filling with tears. Finally my Uncle Ernie arrived. Normally all smiles and gregarious, he was quiet and somber. With him was his girlfriend Barb, who he had been driving to pick up at the airport when my grandfather passed. She, too, was quiet.

I felt overwhelmed and claustrophobic, even sitting outside on my grandparent’s porch. There was just too much emotion surrounding me. I asked my mom if I could go for a walk. At first, she refused, but eventually she relented. It was sprinkling then, on and off. The drizzle was cool on my warm skin. My grandma was talking to one of the neighbors down the road. He gave me a gentle hug as I passed. Other than that, I met no one as I walked. The neighborhood was quiet, and I found it strangely respectful. The world, in my opinion, should have been mourning the loss of such a great, loving man. If the world was going to show that through granting me peace and quiet on my walk, I would take it.

Eventually I returned to the little trailer. The afternoon dragged on and on. As it grew later, the sun began to peer shyly out from behind the clouds. I was sitting inside, half watching the Olympics play out on the screen. One of my grandparents’ cats, a big fat gray lug named George, lay beside me. My family was talking in hushed tones around me, almost as if they were afraid of waking someone up, as if my grandpa was taking an afternoon nap, like he was prone to doing. The men from the funeral home came when the sun finally burst forth from behind the clouds. They were dressed in black suits and wore big, aviator sunglasses. With a half-hearted laugh I told my mom they reminded me of the CIA. She flashed a sad, tired smile.

They carried my grandfather out on a stretcher, covering his emaciated body with a white sheet. We watched them as they loaded him into the hearse, my grandmother crying, my mom holding her. The funeral director and his companions offered their condolences to my family. We acknowledged them somberly, and they left in the black hearse. I watched it shrink in the distance and disappear around a turn. It occurred to me then that my grandfather was laying cold in the back, covered in nothing but a crisp white sheet. The image of one blue eye open and one blue eye closed flashed in my head, and I suppressed a shudder.

We ate a dinner of leftovers that night, and eventually everyone went home, leaving the quiet trailer to my mom, my grandma, and I. My mom pulled out the bed from the couch while the Olympics still played on the TV.

My grandma came up to me then. She said, German accent as thick as ever, “Katie, if you want, you can sleep with me.”

I looked at her then. Her hazel eyes, normally light and full of life, were dull. Her face was more wrinkled than I ever remembered it being. Her hair seemed then perhaps even a few shades whiter. She looked so lonely then, despite our presence. I knew she desperately did not want to spend the night alone. For a moment, I considered accepting the offer.

And then, the image of my grandfather’s skeleton body lying in bed flashed again before my eyes. I felt sick. I knew I could not sleep in that bed, no matter how hard I tried. “I’m sorry, grandma,” I replied. “I think I’ll sleep out here.”

She smiled ever so slightly. “It’s okay, sunshine,” she said. She kissed my forehead. “I love you.”

“I love you too, grandma.”

We said our goodnights, and my grandmother retreated to her bedroom. My mom and I stayed up together for a little while, but soon my mom turned off the lights and the television and sunk down into the blankets and pillows. I closed my eyes and tried to beckon sleep to come.

As I laid there in the dark, I realized that the house was unsettlingly quiet. I could not, at first, pinpoint what had changed. I pondered it silently for a while, and finally, it came to me:

The oxygen machine was off.

That was the first time that day that my grandpa’s death truly hit me. Even seeing his corpse had not been enough to make it real. Neither had the hearse or the funeral home workers in their suits and cheesy sunglasses. Neither had my weeping, broken family. None of that had made it real. It took the absence of my grandpa’s support, the whirring of the oxygen machine, to make me realize what else was absent now.

And yet, somehow still, I could not cry. I did not cry that night, or the next. I did not cry when I had nightmares of my friends dying from cancer, or when I had dreams of my grandpa talking to me. The tears finally came at his funeral over a week later, when I listened to the sad, lonesome tune of Taps being played on a bright, sunny afternoon.