See You In Hell
My most vivid memory of my paternal grandfather is from a summer day siting in his back yard. I estimate that I was six years old, and I told him I wanted to be just like my dad when I grew up. My grandfather was an imposing figure, but he had a calm and gentle demeanor. So I was shocked when that seemingly innocent declaration drew an angry response.
The only words I committed to memory (and perhaps I have edited the memory over time, as we're prone to do) are, "Boy, don't you ever say that." It was as if he entered a trance. His face became somber. His pitch dropped and continued in monotone. It was as though I was hearing a different person speak altogether. In the fear and confusion, I wasn't processing the words themselves, just the emotion. I ran inside, crying.
He died about ten years later, and my family moved in to my grandmother's house. I was probably the only one to see her break down in her initial grief. We ate breakfast together on my first morning there, which would become a short-lived habit. As she was telling stories about him, she suddenly began to cry, saying "I miss him so much." She composed herself only a few seconds later. "OK, I'm done crying now," she said, before going out to sit in the yard.
As she continued telling stories at the kitchen table over the following weeks, the reasons for that episode in the yard with my grandfather emerged. In short, my great-grandfather was a short-tempered drunk, gambler, and abuser. Lying on his death bed, he called my grandfather, his eleven year old son, a bastard. My grandfather knew that some of his father's despicable qualities, or at least the capacity for them, were within him (and in my father, and me).
As the grief of loss waned and the newness of living with my grandmother faded into status quo, I made less of an effort to spend time with her. She became a fixture I'd pass in the living room. I was a self-centered teenager going about my business as she was silently, invisibly, succumbing to dementia.
Either after her death or during one of her many bedridden years, the guilt of turning away from her manifested in a dream of my grandfather. We were alone in a dark room, and he told me, "You're going down, boy," motioning downward with his thumb. In the next sequence I was riding my bike over a bridge when I spotted a boy wearing a shirt emblazoned with the word HELL. He warned, "It's going to hit you before you know it." I bunny-hopped off of the curb to avoid him, and flew into the path of a speeding car.
I was introduced to Neil Gaiman by my friend, Alan, who lent me his copy of Fragile Things: Short Fictions and Wonders. The story Other People from that collection describes a vision of hell with two stages of agony. The first subjects us sequentially to two-hundred-eleven implements of physical torture. The second subjects us to the even more excruciating emotional pain that our misdeeds inflicted upon others, over and over for thousands of years, until every detail has been perfectly revealed.
I met Alan and his wife through mutual friends, and we began to click after discovering a shared appreciation for author William J. Kennedy, who I first encountered through the film adaptation of his novel Ironweed. Its protagonist is a hobo in self-exile from his family because of the unbearable guilt of a tragic mistake he made years before.
A few years later, Alan and his wife separated. Simultaneously, he was diagnosed with liver cancer and eventually underwent a successful transplant operation. I visited Alan once in the hospital and once more when he returned home, but then our communication trailed off. He moved to South Carolina and remarried, but I learned this well after the fact when his ex-wife informed me that cancer had returned and spread aggressively.
Alan's death prompted another of the few truly terrorizing nightmares of my adult life. I was in a torch-lit, subterranean corridor. Up ahead, a figure quickly crossed the path. I walked forward and turned the corner, and there to meet me was faceless man in white robes. Alan was given no funeral or obituary, and the withholding of these rites of passage troubled me.
In deciding to volunteer at a local veterans home, I was partly seeking redemption. For a while I thought I had achieved it. I made several friends there, many of whom were lucky to see a family member once a month. At the urging of another resident, I became especially close with a fellow nicknamed Goldy, who very rarely had visitors.
I helped Goldy mark his bingo cards on Tuesday nights. I stopped in to say hello on Sundays between shifts of escorting residents to and from church services. I brought lunch to share with him on Thursdays. He gave me a wooden brain teaser puzzle he made in his workshop years before. It still sits on my desk.
When I took a new job, the change to my schedule made my commitments to Goldy and the other residents more difficult to keep; difficult, but not impossible. As the frequency of my visits decreased, I began apologizing. It was always waved off; you're busy, you have a job, a family. They understood, they forgave, they didn't judge me.
Goldy died ten days shy of his eighty-fourth birthday. I learned this when I showed up a few days afterward with a card. His obituary, essentially just a receipt, is as follows:
Harold Goldberg was born on December 14, 1935 and passed away on December 4, 2019 and is under the care of Cremation Society of Pennsylvania, Inc. at King of Prussia.
I had judged Goldy's daughter harshly for seemingly abandoning him, but in the end I had done no better. I don't know the reasons for her absence. I have absolutely no reason to believe so, but maybe he was abusive to her in some way. I simply don't know, and it's not my business to know or to cast judgement.
Some of us hold ourselves accountable for our mistakes, and perhaps Neil Gaiman's hell isn't for us. I envision another dimension of hell in which we sequentially live the entire lives of everyone we have ever judged. We can at least recognize and imagine the pain we've caused others, but the pain they endure from other sources (other people, circumstances, themselves) is a black box.
When we're ultimately forgotten, so is the pain we've inflicted upon others, and so is the pain others inflict upon themselves through the guilt of the harm they caused us. Maybe that's not such a bad thing.