Level 11: Breakfast Club

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They scheduled the memorial service for three days later. Three days to buy flowers, make slide shows, design programs, send invitations, write speeches, and prepare food. It was a distraction, a way to think about my grandma without thinking about her.

While we were busy with preparations, a mortician removed her organs and filled her veins with chemicals. I wanted to wrap her eyes in a gift box and give them to Dwight for his birthday. My grandma would have gotten a kick out of that.

My lovely sister.

My lovely sister.

“I went for a drive this morning,” Noelle walked into the house looking kind of sad. “I went over Monument Road to clear my head and look at all the beautiful scenery. When I came down the other side I realized that I was in Fruita.” My sister put her hands on the counter top, remembering the scene.  “So I went to grandma and grandpa’s house to see how the old guy was doing. When I walked in the whole family was at the kitchen table eating breakfast.”

“The whole family?” I ate another bite of pineapple.

“Everyone but us,” my sister sighed. “It got really awkward.”

“What did you do?”

“I said hello to grandpa and told him that I’d see him later. Then I left.”

“Cindy is an evil cunt,” I fumed. “Isn’t it enough that she won? Grandma’s dead but she’s still twisting the knife.”

“Yeah,” my sister put the car seat with Baby Hannah on the floor. “I’m sure Bryan had something to do with it too.”

My family disliked my family, which is to say, my mom and I. Cindy had always hated my mom. Over the years the specifics had changed, but the sentiment did not. That summer, she was mad at my mom for keeping her mother alive, for forcing my grandma to suffer instead of letting her die. The Siren Phoenix had gone out of her way to turn her siblings against the Craterhoof Behemoth, and I had played my part. Nathan, the wild, manic, artistic spawn of an invincible beast. Nathan, who uploaded naked photos and obscene stories to the Internet. To my religious family, my actions were symptomatic of demonic influence, and who could be more at fault for this defect than the woman who raised me? So they made breakfast and ate it without us, my sister caught in the crossfire. Guilt by association.

A few days later I put on funeral clothes and grabbed the paper with my essay printed on it. My family was too good to eat with me, but there was time scheduled in the ceremony when anyone could get up and share. That was when I would strike.

This, dear readers, is my mother, the incomparable Diane Dvirnak. Her casting cost requires one pot and one prednisone. Pot represents the holistic path to healing in this story, but you won’t know why for a few books. Prednisone is the symbol of madness, creativity and the Scientific Method used by practitioners of Exalted Medicine. Creativity and the Scientific Method, aren’t those things antithetical? No, they are very similar. I have an art degree and am working towards a second bachelors in engineering and I can assure you that the processes are almost identical. The only difference between art and science is intent. Artists attempt to create something that feels right and scientists are on a quest to make Things That Work. But for both creatures a sense of exploration and play are necessary. This subject will be explored in greater detail in Confessions, I just don’t know when.

My mom.

“Did you book your flight?” My mom bustled into the kitchen.

“No,” I rinsed my dish in the sink.

“You need to get on that,” she opened the fridge, “The price goes up every day.”

The funeral was taking place in North Dakota, on the prairie my grandma called home. It seemed silly, dragging her corpse up north. The earth is full of bones, their exact location is unimportant.

“Seriously, Nathan,” my mother put her credit card on the counter next to me, “you don’t want to miss the funeral.”

North Dakota had been overrun by roughnecks and field hands. Rowdy men from everywhere had converged to feast on natural gas buried deep within the earth. Rental cars, hotel rooms, and plane tickets were all in short supply, but for some reason, I couldn’t purchase the ticket. Something kept getting in the way.

“If you buy the ticket, her death is real,” Gollum leered from the top of the stove. “Maybe she didn’t die,” he reasoned. “You never saw the body. Just another prank, my precious. Just another joke.”

“I’m not taking you to the memorial service until you make that reservation,” my mom pulled her water bottle out of the freezer. Every night she partially filled three bottles with filtered water, then froze the results. Every morning she topped them off and drank the melting contents throughout the day. Work, restaurants, movies, and memorial services, my mother was never without filtered water.

Mechanically, I logged on to the Internet and bought a ticket with my mother’s credit card. My bank account was empty. It had been months since I worked. Soon I would move to Grand Junction and live with my mom, a 32-year-old teenager unable to pay his bills.

The giant beast moved across the horizon, her footsteps shaking the ground like a sentient earthquake.

We drove to Fruita, a quirky satellite community that orbited Grand Junction. The road cut a scar through gnarled desert bushes the color of rotten bread. In the distance, red mesas broke the vegetation, crowned by an impossible sky. To the left, wild boxelders danced beside a muddy river. The mighty Colorado, that shallow mountain tear so impoverished its waters no longer reached the Pacific.

“I can’t tell you the number of times I begged grandma not to drive on this road,” my mom sped up as we approached the spot where my grandma veered into oncoming traffic. Six and fifty was narrow and fast, a two lane highway divided by dotted paint. Lots of people died on that road. My grandma was one of them.

“Of all the possible deaths, hers was a good one.” I looked at the skid marks that swerved to a sudden halt one mile short of her home. “She raged against the dying of the light.” It made me proud, how hard she fought.

My mom pulled off the highway and onto the main artery that stabbed towards the church. “If only the doctors hadn’t given her that morphine…”

We pulled into the sprawling parking lot of Monument View Bible Church, the congregation where my grandparents had worshiped for more than a decade. “Hey Dwight,” I said as I climbed out of the car.

“Hey Nathan,” he glanced at me.

My uncle Dwight drives fast and eats multiple plates of food at every meal. I used to idolize him and try to do the same. Turns out I have a small stomach and would rather leave early than break the speed limit.

Uncle Dwight.

How was breakfast the other day? I wanted to ask, but held my tongue. His mother was dead. My revenge would come.

Monument View Bible Church was humble and squat. A cross hung next to the entryway. Without it, the building would have looked like a warehouse.

“Hello, Nathan,” an old woman smiled as I walked into the lobby. I didn’t know who she was. “I’m your great aunt Lolly.”

I had never been good at understanding familial relationships. Great aunt was pretty much beyond my reckoning. “Thank you for coming.”

“Hey Nathan,” Gaye wrapped me up in a big hug.

How was breakfast? I hugged her back.

The lobby was functional and unadorned. Old carpet, wood paneling, and cork boards pinned with upcoming events.

“Hey Nina,” I smiled at my youngest cousin. “You ready for this?”

The adopted daughter of my uncle Dwight and Aunt Gaye.

Cousin Nina.

She nodded, holding a purple folder in one hand, protecting her poem from dangerous smudges. “You look sharp,” she smiled.

“You do too.” I should have said she looked cute or sweet, but the moment had passed. “I heard your poem is good.”

“Thanks,” she kicked the ground with one toe.

I was going to crush her. By the time I was done they would all regret not inviting me to breakfast.

“Hi Nathan,” another tiny old lady shuffled up to me. She had the dark skin and hunched back of a Dvirnak, but I didn’t know her name. “Alick always thought he would be the first to die,” she said sadly.

“He’s got ten years on her.”

“Eleven,” she corrected. “How are you doing?”

“I got sick, lost 35 pounds, went insane, lost my job, and had to drop out of school. My cousin died and now my grandma is dead as well,” I glared at her, daring the old lady to feel anything but sorry for me.

“But you’re OK now?”

“Two weeks ago I drank some sake and it triggered my Crohn’s,” I looked over the top of her head. “It got so bad I had to start taking a steroid that turns me into a maniac.”

“You have a cousin who has Crohn’s and she’s only 18,” the old lady tried to relate. “Hello, David!” She turned to shake hands with uncle Bryan.

Bryan is a proud, wealthy man. The summer of this story, his son died of a heroin overdose. He was also diagnosed with Parkinson's disease and his mother got into a brutal car accident. I would love to ask him what he thought about that, about how easily his expensive armor was pierced by tragedy, but we don't get along.

Uncle Bryan.

“Bryan,” he corrected. His broad face and boyish hair seemed especially obnoxious that day. “Morning, Nathan.”

How was breakfast? I turned and skulked away.

An endless stream of awkward hellos ensued. People who hadn’t seen me since I was four and others I had met briefly then forgotten.

Eventually, Pastor Mark called the family into a room next to the stage. It was a small alcove, packed with chairs and props for the Christmas nativity. Some of the chairs had been arranged into an impromptu half circle.  “Our time on earth is short,” Mark began. “But there is a day that we are all longing for, when we will be reunited with the ones we love.” Were we longing for that day? It seemed most people were scared to die, even Christians. Mark droned on in the way that pastors do, saying everything and nothing.

Mark is a nice guy. I'm pretty sure I weirded him out when my grandma was dying, being on prednisone and all.

Pastor Mark.

“I know that no family is perfect,” he smiled, “but it has been an honor getting to know all of you.” Bryan began to cry, his hands trembling as the ghost of his dead son danced around his chair. “I would rather know love, and have pain,” Mark said solemnly, “than have no love and no pain.” He bowed his head and began to pray.

I looked at my grandpa, his eyes rung with dark circles. He had been crying instead of sleeping. Were relationships just another possession, something to be counted, cherished and lost? Was it better to protect yourself, better to be alone? How was breakfast? I wondered as be began to cry again. Did Gaye put your porridge in the proper bowl?

“In your name, we pray, Amen.” Mark concluded.

“Amen,” the family repeated.

“The order of the ceremony is printed on the program,” Pastor Mark held up a sample for us to see, “so if you’re doing something, just follow along and I’ll call you up to the stage when it’s your time.” I wasn’t on the program. Cindy asked Nina to write a poem, but left me out of the proceedings. That was OK. There was a loophole. I was going to exploit it.

We exited the little room next to the stage and took our places near the front. The sanctuary filled. I was surprised by how many people had known my grandma. She was old, but she had friends.

We passed a box of tissues around, then shared breath mints and sad smiles, saying hello to people we hadn’t seen in a while, and trying to keep from crying. When it seemed like everyone that was going to show up, had shown up, the sound guy hit play on the DVD slide show I’d prepared. The music was schmaltzy, some old lady singing about love. The scene opened with a black and white photograph of my grandma and grandpa standing next to the single wing airplane he’d used to take her on their first date. Beneath the photograph read the words In the beginning there were two.

The next photograph was a shot of the six Dvirnak children standing around their parents and the text But that didn’t last long. Everyone in the audience laughed, the sweet sound of approval. A sick part of me smiled.

The pictures progressed along a narrative of grand children that began with me and tumbled down the line of Ukrainian spawn. Brett was dead, Anya adorable. Craig’s kids were all sun-kissed, and Nina was wonderfully small.

The music swelled into an earnest chorus about storybook endings that never end. As the terrible soundtrack played, I wondered about my generation, covered in tattoos, our minds infected with angry lyrics about sex and violence. What would our funerals look like? Would the slide shows be filled with duck faces and pictures of food? Instead of grandkids would the time line progress from video game system to video game system, ending with images of old men sitting on nursing home couches blasting one another with virtual reality goggles? Would the accompanying music be shake the room with bass?

The next slide showed the Diamond C Ranch, a wild and holy place infused with ancient power, a character with a personality all its own. Images of tractors gave way to pictures of ducklings. There were scenes with giant trout, horses, hay bales, gardens, and an orchard. The land that fed and shaped my family.

I book-ended the sequence with In the beginning there were two and a shot of the entire family including kids, grand kids, and spouses, then finished with The best is yet to come. A comforting reassurance that my grandma was not dead, only ascended into glory.

The music stopped. The screen went dark. Pastor Mark took the stage wearing a wireless pop diva microphone and began his benediction. “Grayce was born in Alberta, Canada on September 16, 1929…”

The world turned. My grandma was Canadian? I looked at my stubby fingers with their bulbous nails. I was Canadian? All my life I believed I was Russian. That summer, I discovered I was actually Ukrainian, and now this.

“Grayce was a gracious host, famed for her cheese pockets and dill pickles…”

If one thing summed up my grandma’s life, it was cheese pockets. Her legendary dumplings were at once comforting and challenging. The three-bite confections were similar to pierogi except my grandma filled them with dry cheese curds instead of potato. And she didn’t fry them with onions. She baked them in cream. The result was a tiny pocket of unleavened dough you could eat with Thanksgiving turkey or top with plum preserves. Sometimes I ate them for dinner and dessert.

Cheese pockets were hard to make. It took all day. My grandma never hugged me or kissed me or held my hand. We didn’t watch movies, or go on walks, and I never saw her play a game. Her love was different. She grew cucumbers and dill, then canned her own pickles. She made cheese pockets, then smiled and watched you eat.

“The LORD is my shepherd, I shall not want…” Pastor Mark opened his Bible to Psalm 23. It was the same passage Cindy read again and again as she begged her mother to die.

The youth pastor came forward and led the congregation in an acoustic rendition of Amazing Grace. It was corny, but also unavoidable. Then my mousy cousin walked up to the pulpit, carrying her purple folder full of organized pages.

“Hello,” she said into the microphone. “I’m Nina and I wrote a poem about my grandma. It’s called Amazing Grayce.

She paused to find her place, then began to read.

“Amazing Grayce, how sweet a lass

‘With whom I was blessed to be.

‘She has closed her eyes and rested her hands

‘And with her savior she now be…”

That sick, hungry part of me laughed. My cousin rhymed be with be! This wasn’t a competition. It was a massacre.

“…Grandma Grayce was saved by grace

A grace available to you and me.”

When she was done, everyone smiled warmly, proud that their beliefs had been reflected by someone so young.

“Does anybody else have anything to share?” Pastor Mark asked.

I could feel my limbs move electric, the thrill of performance, the terror of a race horse waiting at the gate. I stood and walked to the pulpit.

“I’m Nathan,” I said into the microphone. “I’m one of Grayce’s grand kids, and I’ve written a page or so about her. It’s meant to be funny, because this is meant to be a celebration. So if you have a smile or a laugh, feel free to use it. It’s called My Grandma’s First Nap.

I unfolded the piece of paper and cleared my throat.

“After the accident uncle David drove over the mountains and brought me to my grandma. When we reached the intensive care unit at Saint Mary’s I found her asleep, hooked up to a bunch of beeping, breathing machines. I hardly recognized her, she looked so peaceful. That’s when I realized this was the first time I’d seen her take a nap.”

The audience laughed. It was a good joke, an innocent line pulled from an honest moment. I’d twisted it, of course. I was using my prowess to feed some broken thing inside. But no one knew that. They thought my motives were pure.

“My grandma never stopped moving,” I continued. “If she wasn’t cooking she was cleaning and if she wasn’t cleaning she was gardening or singing in the choir or talking on the phone with one of her many friends. If the old firecracker managed to find a spare minute, that meant it was time to pull a prank.

My grandma’s pranks were legendary, and usually involved the body parts of some hapless animal. A typical victim might open a nicely wrapped present with a tasteful bow only to find a pig tail beneath the matching tissue paper.

Over the course of her life she managed to surprise a small town’s worth of unsuspecting friends and family with various ears, noses, claws and paws. My favorite story was the time she gave aunt Irene an exquisite velvet case with tasteful antique glasses framing a pair of bulging cow eyes.”

The congregation laughed again, a rollicking peal of mirth that swept over itself. I stopped reading, basking in their love.

“After grandma and grandpa moved to Fruita, the number of opportunities in which she could procure animal parts dropped precipitously. My grandma had to start getting her pranks where she could.

‘Why would anyone butcher chickens?’ I asked my mom one day. ‘They have butchered chickens at the store!’

‘Your grandma likes butchering chickens,’ replied my mom. ‘She cuts off their heads then turns them loose in the back yard to scare the neighborhood kids.’

Behind my grandma’s house was a park where kids chased each other around. I loved to think of her cleaning up after lunch and pausing for a moment to look out her window at a sun-tanned middle schooler charging head first towards his friends with a football. My grandma watched the two teams collide like armies in some unnamed war and in that poignant, fateful moment she thought to herself, ‘I need to buy some chickens.’

She couldn’t have just purchased a water balloon launcher and pelted those kids from the bushes — that would have been frivolous — but if she happened to have some chickens and if those chickens happened to need plucking and if this coincided with the afternoon revelry taking place behind her yard; well that would be alright. This was how my grandma made work fun. This was how she stayed busy for a lifetime.

When they moved her from intensive care to hospice she looked about like you’d expect; but over the course of the next week she put herself back together, getting more beautiful every day. By the time she passed she was as pretty as I remembered. The nap had done her a world of good.

Jesus has gone to prepare a place for us, my grandma has gone to make sure it’s spotless. Pearly gates are fine, but everything could use a little polish now and then, and streets of gold are only as good as their last mopping. On the weekends she joins in the eternal chorus singing, ‘Holy, holy, holy,’ and everyone knows the sunrises in heaven are first rate. I can see her now, paused for a moment during her morning chores to look across that infinite sky…

God knew what he was doing when he made my grandma and when the angels finally caught up with her their mouths were already watering, ‘Hey Grayce, I know you’re busy but uh, we’ve heard about your cheese pockets? And, well, Mother Mary’s a good cook and all, don’t get me wrong, but if you have the time, you think you could whip up a batch for Peter and the boys? I know Gabriel would be grateful.’

She died on Labor Day, it was also her youngest son’s birthday. My grandma was full of poetry— not the kind you write, but the kind you live. Her husband and friends and children and grand children and Great Grand Baby Hannah will be fine without her, she’s already taught them so much, but the heavenly host is mostly bachelors and we all know bachelors can’t cook. Fortunately, grandma Grayce can feed an army without breaking a sweat.

She’s up there now, planting her garden and decorating grandpa’s mansion. There’s lots of work to be done, even in Heaven, and Grayce is just the grandma to do it. Before He took her, God gave Grayce the one thing she’d never had on earth: a nap. And now that she’s rested and found her way home, Heaven will never be the same.”

I put down the pages and returned to my seat.

You’re not allowed to applaud at funerals, but they wanted to. I could feel it. Like an elixir. Like a drug. My family didn’t invite me to breakfast, but these people loved me. Thin gruel compared to the meal I had missed, but most of my life had been spent chasing such things.

After the service everyone milled about, talking, eating and catching up. I sat at a table, accepting compliments and smiling with false humility. It was supposed to be a sad occasion, but inside I was overjoyed. My family hated me, but I had shown strangers my worth, and somehow, in the twisted recesses of my mind, their compliments felt like love.

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