“…they can be rescued from the dunes by memory, receding, and tucked up in their waking beds again, still tenants of the room.” —Being Dead, Jim Crace
I’m sitting across from my grandfather, holding his hands. I’m taking in the majesty of his face. A thick, full head of hair with streaks of silver in the black. He has it styled with a side-part, I can smell the pomade from the orange tin. High cheekbones that (along with the hair still mostly black at age 80) lead many to suspect that there is Cherokee blood in our family. His tan skin shows a few proud lines of age. He has all of his teeth. He’s shaved. My grandfather has always been meticulous about his looks. I’m just staring at him and trying to imprint the feel of his hands on mine into memory. I’m desperate to memorize it all. Quickly, while I can.
“You’re dead,” I say, “You aren’t here anymore.”
I’m hoping that he’ll argue with me, that he’ll give me some hope. But he doesn’t say anything. We both know the truth.
I squeeze his hands harder and concentrate. His fingers are long, but wide. The hands of an artist and a carpenter. The hands of an office manager and a fisherman. The pads of his fingers are smooth, but not soft. Remember that.
My grandpa doesn’t exist anymore. For a year and a half he has been dust. I hadn’t been my sister’s first choice of who to call—that was to be expected. I’m nobody’s first choice for emotional support. She had dialed my number after everyone else had failed to answer the phone. I was driving from Seattle to Portland for a business trip when she told me he had died. I tried to navigate turns while my sister’s sobs filled my car over speakerphone. There was no way I was going to find my hotel if I didn’t hang up. After around 15 minutes I paused the navigation system and pulled over to the side of the road. I felt claustrophobic in this rental car surrounded by so much emotion. I was on the verge of a panic attack when my mom rescued me, finally returning my sister’s call on the other line.
I called my brother Aham.
“Hey, what’s up?”
“Bob is dead.”
“He was sitting next to Kay and he just closed his eyes and died.”
Aham was silent for a moment. Then he sighed and said, “Good. That’s a good death. He didn’t suffer.”
“I know. It really was.”
“We should be happy.”
“Yes. Yes we should.”
“Love you too.”
I sat in the car on the side of the road a few minutes more. My stomach felt cold and heavy, like I had swallowed a stone. I started up the navigation system again and continued driving. When I got to my hotel, I drank a bottle of mini-bar wine, and went to bed.
“You just missed him!” my mom yelled as we ran into the house. “Santa was here!”
Like many spoiled and ungrateful children, I remember very few of the Christmas presents from my childhood. But that year, 1991, there was a dollhouse. It wasn’t some quaint, wooden dollhouse, either—I’m talking about a bright yellow and white, nearly life-size, plastic monstrosity that could have only come out in the ‘90s. It was almost as tall as I was.
It was “a gift from Santa,” but there was no denying whom this gift was really from. My grandpa rushed over to me, proudly saying, “I worked with Santa on this one.”
“Flip that switch,” he said and pointed to a small switch at the back of the house. It lit up with lights in every room
“I’ve wired the whole thing.” He explained. “Look at the chandelier, each one of those is a working light bulb.”
The pads of his fingers are smooth, but not soft. Remember that.
My grandparents had a chandelier in their main entrance. I was in love with every drop of crystal that bounced colours off the walls like magic. This little chandelier looked just like theirs; the twinkle of those lights is still in my eyes.
“That’s real carpet,” he added while pointing to the light gray floor of the Barbie bedroom.
“Look!” he said, almost in a whisper as he pulled a handful of sparkly confetti from his pocket. He tossed it on the carpet with a flourish. Then he reached into one of the dollhouse closets and pulled out a tiny pink vacuum. He beamed as he flipped a little switch on the side and the vacuum made a whirring noise. He squeezed his giant hand, with the little vacuum, into the doll bedroom and started sweeping up the confetti.
“Even the vacuum works!”
It was almost too much to take in. I was so proud of him for making this for me. Nobody else in the world had a grandpa who could do something like this, I was sure of it.
It was around 2 a.m. the day after Christmas 2013 and I sat up with a jolt. Someone’s here, my body said, and before I was even awake, my eyes flashed open. There was Bob, standing in my doorway. His hair was standing straight up in a greasy mass. He was wearing a white Hanes t-shirt and an adult diaper.
“Bob?” I asked, confused.
He stared at me for a second and then quietly said, “I’m in the wrong room aren’t I? Do you know where Kay is? I can’t find her.”
Before I could answer, my grandma rushed over and gently pulled on his arm.
“No, Bob, no. That’s not the right room. I’m right here. Let’s go back to bed.”
I could tell from her voice that she was embarrassed, and so very tired.
We’re having dinner—me, my mom, my grandma and my brother.
“We have a surprise for you,” my grandma says. From another room my grandpa walks out. He smiles, but it’s a confused smile. I run up to him and hug him and put my hands on the sides of his face. That face. I stare as I lead him to the table. He sits down quietly and my grandma helps him eat. He looks as confused as I feel.
I turn to my brother and whisper, “If he’s here, then whose ashes are in my closet?”
I bought my first house this summer. It’s a little cinderblock house with a large yard. The first time I saw it, the floor was old and peeling, the kitchen hadn’t been updated since the ‘50s, the master bedroom had shag carpet and a paneled ceiling. I walked around it looking through my grandpa’s eyes.
“Don’t pay attention to that floor,” he would have said. “That can be replaced in a jiffy.”
“No cracks anywhere, no water damage,” he would have noticed.
“Good garage, you can build a workshop for your boys. You can use some of my tools,” he would have offered.
He would walk through every room carefully and he would have said, “This is a good solid house kiddo. A good solid house. You can do a lot with this.”
And so I bought it.
I hired a contractor to remodel the interior of the house. I don’t know how many times I said, “I wish Bob was here,” during the whole process but I know I said it a lot. If only I had bought a house earlier. But that wouldn’t have mattered. He wouldn’t have understood what was happening. He wouldn’t have remembered he was an architect. Sometimes I try to do the math; how far back would I have to go to get to the time where he would have been proud of me, where his eyes would have lit up with ideas of things we could do to turn this little house into a palace? When I was 10, I made him promise that when I grew up he’d design a house for me. I’m glad I didn’t know then how impossible that would be.
The house has been renovated and we are all moved in, but I’m constantly noticing the things that Bob would have done. He would have built a new porch. He would have fixed up the garage. He would have put better shelving in the boys’ closet. He would have made the bathroom bigger. I don’t want to do these things without him.
“I keep dreaming about him,” I told my mom as we sat in my living room drinking wine, “Almost every night, for months now.”
My mom’s eyes got wide with excitement. “I haven’t dreamt about him but I feel his presence, all the time. I know he’s here. I know he’s with me.”
I was immediately filled with regret. I should have known better than to say anything to her. She didn’t understand. He’s not really here.
A few days later, it was family bowling night. I sat at a table and ate nachos while cheering the family on from a friendly distance. My mom was already tipsy from half of a Long Island iced tea. “There’s a very fine line between alcohol and my personality,” she explained.
My brother took a break to eat some nachos with me.
“I’ve been dreaming about Bob,” I whispered, without making eye contact. “Like, every day. It’s hella weird.”
I looked up at Aham. He quickly shrugged and said, “Yeah, that happens.” He got up to join the rest of the family.
Once again, I was filled with regret. What had I expected? Nothing I was saying made any sense.
I walk into the room and he’s sitting in a plain metal folding chair. He’s staring out the window. I have more time. I rush over to him and kneel on the linoleum floor in front of him.
“Bob Bob. Bob Bob,” I say while I kiss his hands, “Bob, I’ve missed you so much. Tell me a story. Tell me about that time Daddy Bud tried to chop down that tree.”
He looks down at me. His eyes are huge. He opens his mouth to say something but nothing comes out. His teeth are rotting, a few are missing. He hasn’t shaved in weeks.
I look around desperately and call out, “Why is he so scared? He’s terrified. Somebody—this isn’t right.”
Tears fill my eyes. “You aren’t supposed to be here,” I plead.
I was sitting in Bob’s office. The Count Basie orchestra was playing on the stereo. He had an old computer and a giant drafting table. I was working on the mini-drafting table right next to him, he made it just for me. Even though I was only 12, Bob hadn’t made a “kids” drafting table. Everything was what a real architect would have. All the tools were real. The paper was vellum. He taught me the proper calligraphy and naming conventions.
“Tell me kiddo, you been watching the news?” he asks.
“Yes! Do you know about Gorbachev?” I asked, and immediately started recounting all that I know about the fall of the Soviet Union. Bob listened intently for a minute or two but then got up and walked to the closet. He turned the music up and then silently pulled out two leather-bound books.
Nobody else in the world had a grandpa who could do something like this, I was sure of it.
“Let me show you something,” he said. He opened the books and motioned me over.
“Your dad wrote these.”
My eyes were wide as I hesitantly reached out to touch one of the books. There was his name, Sam Oluo. I had never seen it in print before.
“Your dad was a really smart guy. I think he shocked a lot of people, nobody expected this guy with a weird accent in funny clothes to speak so well. We had drinks together once. I really enjoyed it.”
I didn’t say anything. We weren’t supposed to talk about my dad. To do so would result in a rebuke and change of subject from the grownups. Not even my mother dared to say his name around her family. I looked around nervously, half-expecting someone to cut him off, reminding me as they always did, “He was a deadbeat who abandoned his family.”
“You should read these someday,” he said, “They’re about politics—right up your alley.”
I was driving my son home from daycare when my grandpa called. He still wasn’t comfortable with his new cell phone so I was surprised to see him on my caller ID. I answered and he was crying.
“Joma. Joma are you there? Oh god, are you there?”
I moved immediately into panic mode, “Yes, Bob, what’s wrong? Is everything okay?”
He took a jagged breath and tried to calm down, “There was an accident right by your place. A car that looked just like yours. It was a horrible accident. I was so scared. Oh, thank god you’re okay, kiddo.”
Relief flooded me and I chuckled, “Oh Bob Bob, I’m fine, I promise. I love you.”
He laughed a little as well, “I love you too, kiddo. Don’t scare me like that.”
I hung up the phone and turned the corner to my apartment. There was the accident he was talking about. It was a horrible scene, like he said, but the car looked nothing like mine—it wasn’t even the same color. I laughed out loud. Bob was so ridiculous. I was going to have to tell my brother about this later.
I wake up most nights around 4 a.m. and can’t get back to sleep. Sometimes I wake up and I know the ashes are in my closet. When did he die? When did he really die? What was the last conversation we had? What did we talk about? Why can’t I remember? You’re supposed to remember the last conversation, that’s why they always say to never walk away angry. But I can’t remember. I can’t remember the last thing we talked about when he was here and he knew who I was and he combed his hair and had all his teeth. I lay in bed and I think of the ashes and I try to remember.
The funeral was a disaster. It was full of family drama and old grudges, complete with screaming matches in the middle of the graveyard. I was so full of Xanax I could only watch passively, like I was staring through one of those cop mirrors. I didn’t snap to until it was time to scatter some of the ashes. A reverend spoke about Jesus’ love and the peace that Bob now had in God’s kingdom. I couldn’t look at her. Everything she was saying was a lie. My grandma spoke through tears about Bob, how he was in heaven now and she was okay because she knew that he wasn’t afraid anymore, that he was with the angels. My grandpa would have thumbed his nose at the entire thing. “What’s all this nonsense about an old fool for,” he would have said.
I laughed out loud. Bob was so ridiculous. I was going to have to tell my brother about this later.
When his young son had died from leukemia, Bob still couldn’t pretend to believe in the afterlife. I think that’s why he talked about him so much—his namesake, Bobby. Even 60 years later, when he couldn’t remember what day it was or who his other children were he still shared stories of Bobby’s three brief years of life. Not once in the hundreds, probably thousands, of stories did I hear Bob mention God or Heaven.
“He would have hated this whole thing,” I said to my brother after the funeral was over.
Aham paused for a moment and then shrugged. “It doesn’t matter, Ijeoma,” he said, “He’s gone. This isn’t for him. You know it. I know it. Kay just doesn’t want to believe in a world without him in it. They were together for 60 years.”
I hate it when he gets like this. When he gets generous and practical, while I’m angry and selfish. I wish I could feel that he was anywhere, anywhere at all, instead of just a bag of ashes in the trunk of my car.
“When did he really start to go?” I asked my mom.
“I don’t know,” she said. “Five years, maybe?”
“No,” I said, “much further back than that. When Malcolm was a baby, like 12 to 13 years.”
My mom’s eyes grew wide. “Really? That far back, you think?”
“Yes,” I said. “Remember when he put Malcolm’s car seat in that completely random car?”
We had laughed so hard when it happened. It was a funny story I told people at parties. I didn’t know.
“I’m so angry,” I said. “I’m so angry that I didn’t know it was ending.” I feel my throat close up and tears fill my eyes. I want her to go away now. I want to be alone.
The grandpa that haunts me doesn’t tell stories. He doesn’t play pranks. He doesn’t answer with, “Close to perfect” when you ask, “How are you?” He doesn’t remember who I am. This is the only place he exists now, and it’s still not him. He died so long ago, alone. Nobody knows when. And then a year and a half ago his heart stopped, then he gasped, then his eyes closed. The body that held him was burned and turned into dust—indistinguishable from the dirt in the corners of a room that you sweep up and throw away. It’s not him, but it’s all I have.
He’s laying in bed staring at the ceiling. He’s breathing, I can see that. I rush over, I know I don’t have much time.
“I love you Bob,” I say, “I love you so much and I’m going to miss you. I’m going to miss you every single day. You’ve been the best grandpa. Bob … Bob … ”
But he doesn’t look at me. He can’t hear me. I’m still too late.