54: A Matter of Life and Death

54: A Matter of Life and Death

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: Teens Talk Getting In...To College

A Matter of Life and Death

To give vent now and then to his feelings, whether of pleasure or discontent, is a great ease to a man’s heart.

~Francesco Guicciardini

I found out that my grandfather died the morning I received the news that I’d gotten into my first-choice college. It happened on a balmy December morning in Nairobi. Just minutes after I received my long-awaited early acceptance e-mail from William & Mary, my mother told me in a whispered voice that her father, who had been ailing for the past week, had finally passed away, and that she’d be leaving immediately to spend the funeral week with her mother and many sisters.

It was strange—I knew that one event was supposed to fill me with happiness, and the other with grief, but I felt neither. In some strange way the feelings seemed to cancel themselves out, leaving me with the will to feel something... but without the ability to do so.

One thing was certain. I’d wanted to get in to William & Mary, and badly. My sister was already a sophomore there, and when I’d visited her I’d fallen instantly in love with its reassuringly steady brick walls and all of its civilized and sculpted greenery. I imagined it to be everything that my rather solitary high school experience wasn’t, and felt all too ready to leave behind the feeling I had in Nairobi of always being an outsider—the walled-in white girl who didn’t fit in—and the incestuous society of the all-too-small fifty member senior class at my international school.

So I did feel an initial burst of relief when I first heard the news of my acceptance, but that was immediately tempered by the fact that I was supposed to feel something about my grandfather’s death. While I wore a William & Mary T-shirt to school that day — an early and somewhat presumptuous Christmas gift from my sister—I felt that it was almost wrong to publicize my good luck, that the people congratulating me were doing me a disservice. I should be sad.

The thing was, I’d never really known my grandfather except as a shadow of himself. He’d had some sort of nervous breakdown years before I was old enough to know about such things, and had been reduced to a crinkled-up man, older than his years, who was, in my memories, always bound to his La-Z-Boy armchair.

When I tried to summon up loving memories of him, all I could think about was how no one had ever really listened to him. He would start grumbling about how savvy my Aunt Beatty’s cat was, embarking on long and uninteresting vignettes about her various exploits, and he would be utterly ignored by everyone, not even acknowledged with a polite bow of the head. Whenever we were over, I would pretend to listen, if only because it seemed absolutely necessary that someone should do so. And that was it. The fondest thought I could summon about a man whom I’d known all of my life. Was that terrible? Did it make me a bad person? Certainly I hadn’t spent much time with him, but he was flesh and blood, one of my closest relatives.

The truth was, my feelings about my mother’s parents were complicated ones. I didn’t think she’d gotten the love she needed growing up, and it killed me to stand by and watch as year after year she continued to try to win the approval of her blasé parents, only to watch her get shot down time and again. They never understood her, could never understand how willingly she had let my adventurous father take her away from her small town youth, away even from the country, and while they accepted her love in good grace, they never thought to show her affection in return.

Her childhood had been more of the same — I remembered well the story she told about how she was found sitting in the middle of the road when she was a mere two years old. She laughed when she told it, but to me it was the kind of thing that wasn’t even funny in retrospect.

Reflecting on that day, some six years later, I realize that I wasn’t emotionless after all. In fact, it was probably the first day that I really experienced what it is to be an adult; that, though we might want an easy answer, a right and wrong, it doesn’t often exist. You can be happy, sad, angry, and guilty, all of these things at the same time. And sometimes, when you’re not sure how to express yourself, that barrage of conflicting feelings can leave you with the hollow and misleading sensation of emotionlessness.

~Angela R. Polidoro

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