I’ve wondered for a long time now what it meant to be Joseph Cressy’s grandson. I’ve written a lot about him since he died six years ago. On the night his lungs failed, I found myself in the front yard of my parents’ house on a swing hanging from the branch of a maple tree that was old as the haunted house I lived in. That’s what my father told me the final moment had passed. I knocked on my grandparents’ door to see Joseph because that night his condition had been worsening, and I had a feeling it might be my last chance to say something. My father answered the door with a face that didn’t seem at all afraid. His eyes were as commanding as when I was a little kid, and he told me not to come in. He used to tell me that he enjoyed the stresses of being a doctor, and that dramatic situations forced him into a strange sort of Zen. I don’t think he could help it.
I wonder then, what my father thought of Joseph’s last word? He said, “Mary”. That was his wife’s name. To say it then must have been the hardest thing to do in his life. To take whatever strength was left just to say one thing before it was too late to say anything at all. My father never told me about my grandfather’s last words. It was my mother who told me the story years later, after my father had moved out of the house. It was something she mentioned to me, while reminding me of how much Joseph had loved me. The father in law of the good doctor. I know he had loved my father. Joseph had loved him enough to let him watch over him while he died.
But this shouldn’t be about my father.
This should be about the island where my grandfather and grandmother lived when he was in good health. It’s called Chappaquiddick, and in the summer when me and my little brother were very young, we would visit for a week or two at a time while my mother and father were out of town. I can remember the taste of sunscreen, and the perpetual sea salt air, and the dirt road leading to Avalon: the old house that my grandfather built in the pitch pine woods off Pocha Road. Avalon was what Joseph used to call the house, back when he could still walk. He still practiced law back then. He was still the Edgartown fire chief. He still used to watch an osprey nest out in the marsh behind the house from a telescope on a tall tripod, which I had to stand on a chair to look through. I remember that he and Mary would bicker endlessly, but in a loving sort of way I think. There was something timeless about it. Joseph knew everyone on Chappaquiddick, from the Edgartown ferry drivers, to countless neighbors who lived throughout the sandy woods of the island.
The old house is mapped in me still, just as it is mapped in my younger brother, and in all my cousins who spent their formative years there. I can perfectly picture the front door like in a moving photograph, with its heavy copper seashell shaped knocker. I can see the brick of the path leading past evergreen bushes that my grandmother took immaculate care of. There was a landing through the front door like a castle courtyard, with stairs leading up or down to the first or second floor of the house. By a large ancient silver mirror was a grandfather clock, whose chimes would ring out through the house to announce each changing of the hour like a ship’s bell announcing the changing of the watch. Up the stairs was the kitchen where my grandmother used to make scrambled eggs, which they got from a chicken coop by the barn where several horses were kept. On the fridge, with magnets shaped like boats, my grandparents put crayon drawings made by me and my brother on restaurant placemats.
The living room looked over the marshes of Pocha Pond like a castle keep, and the back-porch deck was the embrasure and the battlements. In my grandfather’s study, I can remember model seaplanes on the bookshelves, and the hull of a small model sailing ship he’d started to build for me but never finished. In the closet of the bedroom were stacks of VHS tapes with movies copied onto them from television. They’d seen several generations of cousins watch them endlessly in the timeless summers on the island. Cooper and I were the last generation of these visitors to Avalon.
The house was only half of my grandparents’ lives. A two masted wooden yawl called “Halcyon” was the other. My parents would drop my brother and I off for a week or two every year, and Joseph and Mary would pack us sandwich lunches to spend the weekends sailing around Vineyard Sound or Buzzard’s Bay. When the wind picked up, the she would heel to one side, and the soft green paint below the waterline would become visible. My oldest cousin Eric told me that Halcyon was quick in the water because she didn’t cut through the waves, but rather she rode above them, and her bow came down between the peaks with a jolt through the hull, before her sails carried her over the next wave. Everything in those days seemed to ride above reality and exists now like a haze of an early morning fog resting above the harbor.
I was well into my teens when Joseph’s health began to decline rapidly. He and Mary had to move off the island, to a small house right next to ours so that in the winter Joseph could be rushed to the hospital when that time came. Originally, they were only supposed to spend the winters with us, but that first winter turned into their first summer, and then he never went back. We didn’t sell the island house until after Joseph had died. In those last months of his life, the dream of Avalon was still alive, even if impossible. It was still there, waiting for him.
Once, in a haze of painkillers, he had jokingly, though with a slight hint of lucid seriousness that never quite left him, suggested that upon his death he be laid down in Halcyon and she be set alight as a Viking lord of old might have been. It was around this time that Joseph’s legs began to rot out from under him, and his skin wept a clear fluid from swollen muscles. He had been an able-bodied seaman once. He was the navigator, with maps encased in plastic, and a sextant. He was Captain Cressy of the last great wooden vessel to ever sail from Edgartown Harbor. When he was gone, my father took over the role of patriarch at Thanksgiving meals with our extended family. He would give toasts in memory of Joseph. My oldest cousin Eric gives those speeches now, but family gatherings are never attended in the same numbers. It’s only those for whom it is convenient now, and of those, only some still come, or bother to give reasons as to why they can’t.
I often think of my grandfather when I see old black and white photographs of him that my grandmother keeps in her new bedroom. She’s still getting on, though she stumbles more now, and is more easily confused than I remember her being. I know Joseph’s mind never went before he died. That was the most noble, and the most terrible part about it. He knew what was happening to him, right up until the end. Only with hospice-supplied painkillers did he start to seem no longer lucid. “My boy”, he once said to me from a wheelchair in his bedroom that he hadn’t left in weeks. He always used to call me “my boy”, when I was young. He rattled a pill bottle filled with opioids he’d been taking with increasing regularity. “We’ll take these and pedal them on the street”, he said to me with an almost childish mischievous glint in his eye. His legs were bandaged in gauze, which bloomed yellow and brown where the I knew the skin was liquifying underneath. I don’t think he was on any drugs at the very end of his life in those last hours. He had had enough sense in him to acknowledge the one important person in the room. “Mary”. And my father was there too. I don’t think my mother was in the room. I think she’d gone out to fetch something for her father in his final minutes, and when she came back, Joseph was dead. The only two people who’d been there to see him off were his faithful wife, and the good doctor, his son in law.
But this shouldn’t be about the son in law. It should never have had anything to do with it. Yet it did, and memory of my father persists in every scene and every age I can remember. At one time or another, my memory rode above his reality like Halcyon cresting waves and white tops. My memory has been brought low, just as the court of Arthur was before the old kind retreated to Avalon to rest. Yet amongst the gossip and the bickering that splintered family gatherings, there is a figure missing, and from where he should be comes a strange color blooming out over freshly changed bandages. I know his eyes are the same, his brow furrows in the same way. We are young together in photographs. I pace the front yard at midnight trying to clear my head, but I know the moment is coming, and when it happens, it feels like my legs have begun to dissolve, and he is the only one standing in the room.