Tuesday, May 1, 2018

A Decent Box and A Piece of Ground. (The Funeral)

What do normal people have?
It’s January 6, 2018 and a year ago today, my Grandfather died. His name was Carmine DeVita. He was hospitalized numerous times in the months before he died. His lungs weren’t working, so he was on oxygen for most of that time. He had less energy than normal and he couldn’t work down in the basement. Poppi, as we called him on account of him being Italian, loved to build things. He helped build sets for my brother’s films, fixed broken tools in his basement workshop; he even expanded my house into a two-story building when I was a baby.

But the thing he built I remember most fondly was a simple swing set. It was just a single plank of wood tied to a tree. And yet, for me, it was enough. Every summer when I went to his and my Nonna’s (grandmother’s) house, I’d play in their garden, making up stories about runaway children and the cruel private schools they fled from. These were flights of fancy, certainly (the cruelty of the private schools, for example, was that they were killing the children who failed to be good martial arts assassins as opposed to the hazing and the other mundane horrors of private school that I never experienced), but they were what I did in that back yard. I would come up with those stories on the swing set my Poppi built and act them out in my own private stage.

He was a kind man, but one who didn’t want to show his weakness. Even before his lungs went horribly, there were moments where, when he thought no one was looking, he sagged. It was a sad sag, one of someone who has lived for a long time and just wants some rest. I understood it in the moment and felt a hollowness within me, one that hasn’t left since he died.

The night he died, my brother and I went to see Princess Mononoke. He didn’t want everyone to see him die, just his wife and children. The last thing I said to him was “Be seeing you.” It was a reference only I would get, but my family liked the sentiment that it implied. This isn’t the end, there’s more after this. The last thing he heard me say was “GAH!!!” as I accidentally head butted my Aunt while trying to rest my head on hers. It was a funny experience, and I tried to say something else to my Poppi while my brother dragged me out of the hospital. At a red light on the road to the movies, my brother broke down into tears.

Later that night, after midnight, my mom came home. I could hear the garage open and close from my room. I knew what it meant. I rushed downstairs to meet her. She sagged like there was a hole in her. She was at the verge of tears. “It’s over, isn’t it?” I said making another reference with implications only I would get. She responded in the affirmative, and walked up to the family room. She broke down and cried. I wanted to cry as well, but my tear ducts just wouldn’t budge. They only flew when I watched a movie about sad things or in the privacy of the desert in between being asleep and being awake. We talked about what happened, we even addressed it directly. I forget what we exactly said to one another, but what mattered was that my mom needed a shoulder to cry on. A couple minutes later, my brother, who tried to deny what had happened, finally came up. He was bawling in the way most people would call over the top when it happens in a movie. How I envied their ability to cry. They sympathized with my inability, my numbness, though I keep feeling like they only did so because I’m blood. My brother tried to lighten the mood by saying “Now I know what it’s like to be a Hillary supporter on Election Day.” I exploded at him. He tried to defend himself by saying that he was trying to make a tasteless joke to change the mood (I should note that he isn’t a complete monster, just a Jill Stein supporter). I explained that humor of that kind tends to work better when it doesn’t invoke controversial subjects. To prove this point, I made a crass sex joke before heading back to my room, which was met with a much warmer response.

He was buried a few days later. I was one of the pallbearers. While we were attending the funeral, I saw my Nonna cry for the first time. It was weird and wrong. I didn’t know how to feel. There’s was a hole in me left by Poppi’s passing, one that I felt could never be filled. I didn’t want to be around people. I didn’t want to be alone. I just wanted him to come back.

A few weeks later, Mikey Neumann released a video on Princess Mononoke. I’d gotten into him shortly before Poppi died, Sam Keeper was raving about how amazing The Dark Knight video he made was, and they were right. I even watched his video on The Grand Budapest Hotel on one of the nights I was at the hospital, and given that video’s subject matter, it hit me hard. So when I saw the Princess Mononoke come up on my subscription outline, I was hesitant to watch it. But nonetheless, I did. I didn’t burst into tears or collapse. But I did feel a twinge of sadness and the message Neumann got out of the film did surmise a lot of what I believed in. But it wasn’t an answer to the pang in my heart that the hole created. I don’t know if there is one.

Why am I talking about my Poppi right now? Two reasons. The first one is because he’s part of the reason I began this project in the first place. I’ve always had an interest in Spider-Man and whatnot. I think I’ve talked about my failed attempts at making a project around him at some point or another. This was supposed to be the side project I’d work on so I could get an angle on a “Choose Your Own Adventure” Twine game about Avengers VS X-Men. In the end, this became the main project and the Twine fell by the wayside. I think part of that was because I wanted to grapple with the subject of death after Poppi died. I tried other ways: poetry (Here’s a link), listening to music (Seeming’s Doomsayer, for example, broke my heart in particular the line I know what it’s like when your family cries/I know how it feels) watching movies (Make Way for Tomorrow hurt a lot, though that might have been due to watching it preceding a trip to Florida to visit Nonna for a few weeks before I took her home for the first Christmas without Poppi), among other things. None of them did the trick, and I thought maybe this would…

The second reason, the one that explains why I’m talking about it here, is because I first remember watching The Simpsons at Poppi’s house. The episode was called “Skinner’s Sense of Snow,” and I fittingly watched it on a Christmas night. It might have even been the night it premiered, I don’t recall. I was five at the time and though it wasn’t the first Christmas season I recall (that would be when I was four), it was the first of many I spent at my grandparent’s house. I found the episode pretty funny, though I didn’t get all the references to previous episodes or even all the jokes. In fact, I think I might have started it midway through. But whenever I watch it, be it on my own volition or because it’s a rerun, I always remembered that warm winter night, lying on my stomach by the fire while Nonna was preparing dinner and Poppi was in the background, sitting on his comfy chair. Since that moment, I’ve a lifelong admirer of The Simpsons (even if I don’t always watch the newer episodes [save the Treehouse of Horror ones, which are always a delight]).

I suppose I should finally start talking about The Funeral. It’s not one of the better Simpsons stories, not even one of the better Simpsons shorts. The jokes are a bit stale to the point where some of them aren’t even jokes. Some of them don’t even work (the setup for the last skit, for example, doesn’t work because we don’t see Lisa and Maggie misbehave at the funeral). The writers don’t use the short length of the skit to their advantage. The voice actors haven’t found their voice for the characters yet. And yes, the animation is terrible (of note, the skit involving actually seeing the body keeps us at a distance for too long, making the punch line not work to its fullest potential). In short, this is probably the second worst piece of fiction this project’s going to cover.

And yet, there’s a charm to it. Maybe it’s just my nostalgia for The Simpsons or how I can see the good version of it in there (it needs a whole lot of polish, to be sure), but for some reason I can’t hate this short. It’s not good, but it’s not terrible either. It’s just mediocre, a stepping-stone before getting to bigger and better things. Humble beginnings and juvenilia are never the best work, but they can show the way to that better work. You can see hints Homer’s aggressive relationship and Bart’s rebellious streak, but you can’t see the family’s kindness or much characterization on Lisa, Maggie, or even Marge’s parts beyond their relationship to Homer and Bart.

But when I watched it for the preparation for the blog, I knew I had to talk about it. I knew what I was going to talk about when I talked about it and why I was going to talk about it. But, as with all the other posts in this project, I only had a vague idea as to how I was going to talk about it. I’ve always felt my worst in the winter, even as a kid. It’s even worse now that Poppi’s dead. I’m not that talkative, I didn’t have as close a relationship to him as my brother did (I was honestly closer to Nonna though my memories with Poppi are deeper, if that makes any sense), but he deserved a longer life than he got and I miss him dearly. I felt like he was an anchor in my life, I thought he was going to live forever. But in the end, everything ends.

In April, when the icy rivers melted and my Nonna came back from Florida and with my mom, my uncle, and my aunt held a small service wherein they threw Poppi’s ashes off a bridge he built in my grandparent’s backyard. Most of my stories revolved around crossing that bridge and running around the bamboo forest beyond it. I didn’t attend the service on account of being at college. I didn’t see the ashes until I returned home from spending a week with my brother before his graduation in May. A month later, I began formulating the outline for this project.

On Christmas Eve 2017, I opened a present my brother got me (my dad was feeling too tired to be able to wake up early enough to do open presents on Christmas day). It didn’t matter what we got for one another, what mattered was that we were together and alive and other things not said on Halmark cards. But one of the things he got me was something that I didn’t ask for, but a thing I nonetheless would not reject. It was a copy of the GKIDS release of Princess Mononoke. I haven’t watched it yet and I don’t know when I’ll feel up to it.

(Next Time: Red Kangs Are Best Kangs!)

Postscript (4/28/17):

My brother and I finished watching The Elephant Man about an hour ago. I had never seen the film prior to that night and he had only seen it once or twice back in High School. When we got to the final scene of the film, we both broke down. We thought of Poppi and what he meant to us. We though of how both the titular man and our grandfather were both aware of their limited time on Earth, and opted to end it on their own terms: Joseph Merrick by sleeping like a normal person, Carmine DeVita by cutting off his oxygen while surrounded by his wife and children. They could have lived longer, but they decided they wanted to die on their own terms rather than prolong their suffering and the suffering of those closest to them. But what got to me, what really punched me in the gut, was the film's final lines: "Never, oh! Never, nothing will die; the stream flows, the wind blows, the cloud fleets, the heart beats... Nothing will die." Poppi went back to the river that defined so much of my childhood in the end. His ashes were dropped off the bridge he built. We will remember him. I cannot fully express my memory of him. I want so desperately to remember him more. I wanted him to see me graduate. I wish he could see this stupid, amazing blog I made for him. I wish you knew him as I knew him. His silent melancholy, his boisterous joy, his bullying, his kindness, his solidarity, his neutrality. I miss him, even now. There's a hole in my chest shaped like him. Thinking about it now, I realize how close I was to him. It's funny what you don't notice until it's too late. I love you Poppi. You'll always be with me. When the movie was done, my brother and I embraced with tears in our eyes.

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[Photo: Sandman #72 by Neil Gaiman and Michael Zulli]

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