I don’t remember wearing black to my grandpa’s memorial.
What I do remember about that day is hazy. I recollect picking up the food from the caterer, but not what we ate. That a poem was read and music was played, but not who did the reading or the playing. I don’t know if my step-grandmother was in attendance, but I do remember how she threatened to call the police on me for breaking into her home a few days later. I don’t remember seeing my dad cry, but I know that he did when his mother passed. I do remember being grateful that his father’s body wasn’t put on display as a sick reminder of how age causes us all to disintegrate.
The night before he died, I lay awake on the lumpy old futon in my grandfather’s attic, trying desperately to block out his screams. I crushed my head with my pillow, wondering if they were inspired by fear or agony. I knew that I was afraid, and I imagined he was too.
It was the first time I remember being that close to death. My grandma was gone by then, and I had watched her mind and body fracture throughout the entirety of my childhood, but I hadn’t sat at her deathbed, hadn’t listened to her terror as she kicked and clawed in an attempt to grasp onto the last few fleeting threads of life.
All three of my dad’s parents died of Alzheimer’s. After my grandpa died, we packed up his house in San Francisco and moved his wife to a nursing home in Portland. I didn’t visit her once. I decided, on that last day in the Bay Area, before my mom and I got in the van and drove the ten hours home, that this was goodbye. I didn’t want to watch her fade away any more than I already had.
She lived for another three years, floating around the halls of a nursing home that I never saw. As far as I was concerned, she might as well already have been dead; the ghost of the fierce woman who had fed my book addiction with a fervor.
I think I’ve always harbored a grudge against my body; it’s always felt like the very thing that was supposed to be working with me has chosen to stand in my way.
When I was four, I choked on a cherry pit. Someone performed the Heimlich maneuver, and I turned out to be just fine. Ever since, I haven’t been able to swallow a pill without my entire body screaming in refusal. Even now, it’s a task that takes tremendous concentration to not choke and gag. I would rather endure a pain that pins me to my bed than take an Ibuprofen.
When I was an infant, I stopped breathing entirely for about 30 seconds, sending my mother into an indescribable panic, warranting a trip in an ambulance. When I was a bit older, I got so sick from dehydration that I was hospitalized for a night or two. My memory has reduced that stay to a collage of Disney movies and the excruciating pain of the IV tape ripping out dozens of the tiny hairs littering my arm in quick succession.
In elementary school, it was determined that my body was manifesting as a demonstration of my mind’s unease, but no doctor could determine how to treat me. One of them wanted to do surgery for what they inaccurately deduced to be tethered cord syndrome, and I remember this as being the first time that I realized doctors aren’t all-knowing entities. They’re humans like the rest of us.
My grandpa died the week before spring break of seventh grade. I was supposed to take the bus home that afternoon, so when I saw my mom waiting by my locker at the end of the day, I knew in an instant that something was wrong. She delivered the news so calmly that its gravity didn’t hit me until hours later. “Grandpa’s taken a turn for the worst, so we’re driving to California tonight.” What she meant was, he could die any minute now.
I only cried for him once. Sitting on the floor of my room where I was supposed to be packing for a trip that had no set end date, I let the grief envelop me. It wasn’t a wave, but more like a cold dunk in one of Oregon’s icy rivers, intense and short-lived. Outside the sun was already setting, so I curled up in the dark, not bothering to turn on any lights. My pain didn’t require a spotlight. I preferred to keep it close to my chest where not even the stars could observe its sunken face.
I don’t know when I became this way. When did I decide to only suffer in solitude? When did I learn that it wasn’t appropriate to scream, curse, and shake in front of strangers? When did I start to prioritize other people’s comfort over my own?
Hospitals remind me of decay. Everything about them is so harsh as if the building is attempting to convince me of its vitality. The lights burn my eyes and the sharp smell of antiseptic makes my head ache, but I know that this visage of life is synthesized.
98% of the babies born each year take their first breaths beneath sterile hospital lighting. I, too, was born in a hospital. Some might argue that this is where my life began, where I first opened my eyes and took a peek at the world. So why do I associate them with an exude of mildew?
My most recent hospitalization happened sixteen months ago after my pancreas stopped doing what it was supposed to. “That’s enough,” it decided. “Who needs me, anyway?”
I wish I could tell it, “I do, silly.” I wish I could coax it awake as I would a dog who is all too happy to stay glued to the couch and keep napping all afternoon. But internal organs don’t have ears, and you can’t restore life to someone that has died. Our bodies are not flowers waiting around for spring to return.
My grandpa loved tennis. He spent his winters in Mexico and kept a sports car in his garage. I inherited one of his jackets and a collection of his photographs. We would spend hours watching basketball in his living room, perched on the chairs that always reminded me of ogres that had gone dormant; ginormous and lumpy, but misleadingly comfortable. He smiled easily, hugged me with a death grip, and sounded like a car rumbling to life when he laughed.
These are my memories of him, although now I wonder how many of these are facts and how many my brain has already begun to misshape. Isn’t it funny how quickly we doubt ourselves? It’s only been six years since I was last crushed in his bony arms, but already I can’t be sure how many of my memories are true and how many are figments of my imagination. Memory is as unreliable as a beloved old car that you only drive for nostalgia’s sake, you can never be confident that it won’t break down on you while you’re cruising down the interstate.
When my dad talks about my grandpa, I picture a much more serious man than the one I remember. He, like many men of his time, softened with age. Or perhaps this soft person was a version of him reserved for when I was in the room.
These are the facts. He was a black man, born in the 1930s, and raised during the second World War. He played basketball for the military, and although he was often the shortest player on the court, he proved his worth as a team member time after time. He had a collection of guns that my dad didn’t know about until after he died. He worked to organize unions for the workforce of California. During the height of the Cold War, he was mentioned in the FBI’s records of communist activity in the Bay Area.
This is a version of him that I barely knew existed. Even now, it’s nearly impossible to reconcile the version of him I remember with the person he was for most of his life. Because why was the FBI worried about communist behavior if he owned a sports car and had a timeshare in Mexico?
After my diagnosis, my therapist talked a lot about grief. She suggested that I was grieving the life I had lived before being admitted to the ER, but I argued that chronic illness or no chronic illness, I was always grieving my past selves. Isn’t that what nostalgia is? We are mourning our pasts and all the moments that we will never be able to experience quite the same way ever again.
My grandfather knew that his wife’s mind was declining well before he started his own downward trajectory, and yet she still outlived him. That’s something I’ll never envy. After he died, there would be times when she would ask about him, and I don’t think anyone knew how to respond. I’m not sure if she ever had enough clarity to realize he was gone.
Every Christmas, my mom buys my dad this book of puzzles, one for each day of the year. He’s trying to keep his mind sharp, but I’ve learned from experience that our bodies never do what we want them to, no matter how many walks we go on or how many puzzles we complete. He’s fifty-four now, thirty years younger than his father was when he died, but I don’t think I’ll ever believe in my ability to take care of him the way he took care of his parents. Not in thirty years. Not ever.
Traffic rushed along one of Berkeley’s main thoroughfares as the hazard lights on the shiny black rental car flashed. I sat in the backseat, transfixed by the argument happening outside despite my best efforts to look away. Paralyzed by discomfort, I watched as my step-grandma cursed my dad’s existence and accused him of locking her up, saying that he was a disgrace for no longer caring what happened to her. She banged on the car’s passenger door, trying to pry it open, insisting that we didn’t leave her behind, but my dad was firm.
“Go inside, Ma. I’ll be back to see you tomorrow.”
Finally, she relented, halting her tirade long enough for him to climb into the driver’s seat. Her face was stone cold as she stared at her son, daggers of ice burying themselves in his chest at her next words.
“I knew you never cared about me.”
How can any child do what he did? If I have children, how will they be able to take care of me? Because if I believe in anything, it’s that whatever my father inherited from his parents, I will inherit also. I already have his eyes, his teeth, his allergies, his love for peanut butter, his studious nature, and his paranoia. Wouldn’t it make sense that we decay in the same as well?