just plain hard

She asked me what my weekend would hold. I told her my Grandma had passed away and that the memorial/burial service is on Saturday. I will never forget her response. "At least you're used to facing a lot of death in Africa, so that makes this easier to deal with."

Let me tell you what I didn't tell her: Nothing makes this easier.

The fact that I live in a country with an astronomical death rate, where I often know people who pass away, makes nothing easier. One in four South Africans have AIDS, but those numbers, the ones and the fours, aren't just numbers. They are people. They are you; they are me; they are our families.

Consistently facing sickness and death makes neither easier to deal with. Maybe it makes my approach different than someone else's, maybe it even makes me want to be numb to it all, but it certainly doesn't make it easier.

Although I wanted to say all that, I simply smiled a flat, unconvincing smile. She changed the subject and moved on, for which I was grateful.

We are on our way to the cemetery this morning. Nothing makes this easier.

Today is just plain hard.

the ski-man

While decorating their house for Christmas one year, Grandpa curiously eyed a little ski-man figurine. It didn’t match any of the other decorations and we have no idea where it came from. Grandpa walked around the living room, trying to find the best spot for this interesting little piece. He wandered into the kitchen, absently flipping the ski-man over in his hand. His eyes scoured the room and finally settled on the perfect spot.

He pulled a chair out from under the table and moved it over to the door. Climbing up on the chair, Grandpa reached up and placed the ski-man on the edge of the door frame. Quite pleased with himself, he showed Grandma his shining moment of holiday decorating.

After Christmas came and went and the New Year was adequately rung in with Dick Clark, the decorations got boxed up and stored away---well, everything but the ski-man. He stayed right where he was, perched high in the kitchen---where everything happens in an Italian home.

From his high and lofty seat, the ski-man saw my dad and uncle grow up, watched my brothers and I make forts, peered down on a sad family when Grandpa passed away. He saw my dad move back in when my parents separated, witnessed the unceasing prayers of my Grandma, and looked down on loud family gatherings around an overly-full table.

Saturated with the history of our family, the ski-man moved with Grandma down to Florida fifteen years ago. He found himself atop a new door, in a new place, but he remained a constant in our ever-changing lives.

When Gram moved in with my uncle five years ago, the ski-man moved with her but didn’t get elevated to his usual position. Maybe no one offered to climb up and do it; maybe she didn’t want to ask someone for help. Maybe she felt he’d lived a long and full life and didn’t need to be burdened with the job of “family overseer” anymore. I don’t know the reason, but the ski-man was never seen again.

Moments after my Gram passed away, my Dad got Niel on the phone. I walked back into Gram’s bedroom to talk to him. As I talked and cried, I paced around her room, looking at pictures and familiar mementos. I dug through the little bowls and boxes on her dresser, finding treasures and buttons and rosaries. In a small, open basket made of popsicle sticks lay the ski-man. I gasped and scooped him up.

I flipped him around in my hand the whole time I talked on the phone, finding a strange sense of comfort in his presence.

My family came into Gram’s bedroom to check on me. As I got off the phone, I opened my hand and showed them my discovery. Every eye filled with tears as we passed the ski-man around. We decided my older brother should have him. So he flew back to New York with us.

I’m sure you can guess where he put him.