You know this scene from Up. Unless you were living under a rock back in 2009, you found yourself blindsided when you settled into the movie theater expecting some animated shenanigans, only to have your heart ripped, still beating, from your ribcage, stomped on, wrung out, and rubbed in wasabi for good measure before being unceremoniously deposited in your lap to absorb all your tears. All in the first five minutes.
I’m sure there were one or two people out there who didn’t sob like a wee babe, and to you, I say- are you made of stone? How is this possible? Well, no matter. I think those of us who were reduced to sniveling messes were because, in some way or another, we all have known a Carl in our lives. A crusty old man who, underneath that slightly misanthropic salty exterior, houses a heart that beat ceaselessly for his Ellie. Together, yin and yang, they faced the world and all its thrills and disappointments as a team, sharing joys as well as sorrows, him drawing strength from her unwavering love and support.
And what is one without the other? What’s left when the person on whom you have depended over an entire lifetime of triumphs and defeats is no longer there in the morning when you open your eyes and look over for the face that has greeted you for decades, only to find air and emptiness?
It is, I imagine, awful. And then you become the Carl we meet in Up, a veneer of anger over a core of sadness. And because Up was a Pixar movie, he finds redemption in a Boy Scout, a Golden Retriever, and a promise made good to have an adventure. But real life isn’t always so neat, is it.
I knew a Carl as well. His name was John, at least, that is what it became when he arrived on Ellis Island with his wife and two young children, fleeing the decimation of Eastern Europe after World War II. They had only a few possessions, though the intangible baggage was enough to fill a ship’s cargo hold.
He was never able to entirely shed this baggage, which settled on him like a cement hat. Its only physical manifestation was the stoop in his shoulders, and the small numerical tattoo on his wrist that marked his time in a concentration camp. Before that, he was an engineer, highly educated, trilingual. It was his ability to translate, in fact, that made him a useful prisoner and saved his life. What he had to say, who he had to talk to and what he saw during those years, I never learned. All I know is that this was the type of hell that chews your soul up and spits you out on the other side a profoundly changed being.
When he emerged, broken and scarred, he found that despite all he had lost, his wife, his Ellie, was still alive. Mary had survived bone wearying work in a labor camp, and now she had to convince her husband that life was still beautiful and worth living for. This was not an easy task. Their lives were scorched earth; in order to start anew they had to cross an ocean and leave all they had, and all they knew, behind.
Mary led by example, starting by carefully decorating the tenement in a Boston suburb where they both worked in a textile mill while learning a new language. Over time they left the factory, taking on better jobs as their skills and English improved. With no family members in the States, they focused on their new friends, their children, and each other. She tended her gardens, raised the children, sewed all her own clothes, kept house, and kept John afloat with her gentle insistence that despite their experiences, people had good hearts.
I’m not sure he was ever entirely convinced of this, but she was persuasive and kind, and while she was there it was easy enough to believe her. He read voraciously, devouring history, tales of the Old West, and Hemingway’s big game stories from Africa. When I was old enough to read, we would sit side by side in the foyer, him with a Michener and me with a Seuss. Mary would press drinks into our hands, approvingly telling me that I would make her proud by getting an education and being strong enough to make my own way in the world.
In Up, Carl realized belatedly that he had one dream never fulfilled: he never made it to Paradise Falls, and intends to remedy this after Ellie’s passing. John had but one goal in life- to give his children and his children’s children opportunity to live and succeed in a safe world. He did that, something for which I will always be grateful. So when Mary died a year ago, he found himself tetherless, facing life without the anchor who had kept him grounded and solid. And he was devastated.
I wish I could say a little scout and a dog bounded in and gave him purpose after his wife’s death, but in truth he never truly recovered from it. When she died, a big part of him did as well, and comfortable in the knowledge that he accomplished what he had wanted out of life, he settled in to wait for his own journey, up and out of the confines of the mortal coil.
Last night, shortly after learning of my grandfather’s death, my restless sleep was punctuated by a strange dream. I was sitting in a darkened train station with one other person, an elderly man. The train pulled up, and he rose slowly and with some effort to walk to the door. From the interior of the rail car, a woman reached out her hand, and helped him carefully inside. The door slid shut behind him, and I walked over to the entryway to watch the train glide soundlessly away as I held my hand up to shield my eyes from the sun. I woke up suffused with that melancholic sadness that punctuates the finale of an epic novel: yes, all great journeys must end, but you’re grateful for the honor of bearing witness to the journey.
I know no other way to honor John than to acknowledge all he went through so that I could be where I am today. If ambition is heritable, it’s him I have to thank. If the desire to stand on the African continent and stare in awe at a lion is genetic, well, I got that from him too, though I didn’t know it until I made the trip and found out Africa was a place to which he, too, had always been drawn.
We were cleaning out our house this week in preparation for putting it on the market, and I found a little Carl figurine I wound up with when I bought the Up set to get a little Dug. It’s odd that I happened upon it today of all days, so I tucked it away to take with me to Africa in June. I think he would appreciate that.