Normally I do something silly and fun for 1 April every year, a longstanding tradition here, but this year, I can’t bring myself to do it. Nothing seems particularly funny any more, and even the most deliciously sardonic satire seems to warp into something lumpy and ugly. Instead, I would like to tell you a story, but it is a true story, and it is not particularly funny.
On the morning my maternal grandfather died, I sat at the table reading a New Yorker article about watches. I remember thinking this is such a quintessentially New Yorker article, and wondering if he’d had time to read it. I felt vaguely guilty that I’d turned down the pomegranate tea my step-grandmother offered me.
‘It was his favourite,’ she said, holding out the tin, but I was already standing awkwardly, holding a bag of lemon-ginger tea, feeling hulking and monstrous next to her.
I remember thinking she’s already referring to him in the past tense.
She started slicing a banana before I could tell her I couldn’t eat them, and I had to say so, softly, feeling strangely burdensome. I washed strawberries in their enamel sink and stared at the tulips in bloom outside the window, the flush of light along the horizon, sliced the fruit into chunks and scattered them like rubies in our bowls.
‘They’re good, for this early in the year,’ she said, unfurling the pages of the Chronicle, and I remember thinking the Chronicle seems narrower than it used to be. ‘Federer won, we should be sure to tell him that,’ she said.
I picked at my bowl of strawberries and the kitchen slowly filled with light around us and she sipped her coffee, strangely self-contained, running down the list of things she needed to do that day in her head. The house was hushed but for the whispering of the heat curling up from the baseboards.
‘You didn’t vote for Mr. Trump, did you?’ she said, suddenly, and I thought these people know nothing about me, but ‘no,’ I said, and she glanced back at the paper again and ‘good,’ she said.
‘Bay Area businesses bid on wall despite risk,’ the headline said.
‘We should go,’ I said.
On the ride to the hospital, we talked about how it was going to be a bad allergy season, about her sister, about nothing in particular. We rode up to the second floor in the slowest elevator imaginable, the kind of elevator that I imagine carries you into purgatory. Her face was strained.
Perhaps I should go back for a moment.
My desk was a sprawl of paperwork and a snarl of cables when I got the call, the windows open and the warm air of early spring drifting in. I half listened and was already gathering things, throwing a change of shirt in a bag, moving automatically.
‘Just come,’ my aunt said, her voice breaking when I asked her if she needed anything, and I did, prancing with impatience while I waited at the head of a line of cars stopped along the Navarro as a steamroller painstakingly rolled back and forth, back and forth. I was listening to the latest episode of Sawbones and the car behind me loomed in the rear view, edging up closer and closer before the flagger let us go and I wound around an accumulation of construction equipment and back onto the open road.
The traffic in Santa Rosa was frightful, like it always is.
‘If he wakes, tell him I’m coming,’ I told her, and I did, but he didn’t.
My aunt was waiting at the elevator, looking exactly like I remembered her, and I held her hand as we walked down the hall. Hospitals, I said later, always feel like such strangely timeless places when you’re gathering around, waiting for someone to die. There was a peculiar sense of sameness in the corridors, all taupe and dull, until we reached the room, crowded with people to bursting, a little card stuck on the doorframe, a figure reaching for the stars.
‘Like The Little Prince,‘ my grandmother said later.
I recognised those people vaguely in the dim, quiet space of the room, which strangely didn’t carry a familiar sickbed stench, and one of my uncles uncurled himself from a chair and spoke to me in a low voice as I sat next to the dying man. His hand was swollen with edema but I clasped it anyway, his wedding ring warm against my fingers.
‘Hello,’ I said, as my aunt somewhere in the distance reminded me that hearing is the last thing go go, and I nodded.
We sat there through the afternoon and eventually my aunt and I went to pick up dinner and we kept setting, perched around the bed, eating. One of my uncles told the story of a childhood cat that stole a neighbour’s Thanksgiving turkey. My grandmother, their mother, ever thrifty, stuck the carcass in the freezer and made soup. She never did ask, he said, to find out which of the neighbours lost a turkey that year.
Cousins arrived later, looking curiously at the interloper in their midst. I had not seen these people in over a decade, and some of them were younger than that, knowing only of me, never having seen me. I wondered what they’d been told. Some of them stumbled over my name, and clearly struggled as they tried to figure out how to gender me.
Later, over the body, an uncle’s wife asked ‘have you seen anyone die before?’ with a sort of avid curiousity. ‘Yes,’ I said, somewhat shortly. ‘Was it drugs?’ she asked, and I wondered what they thought I’d been doing all these years. ‘Sometimes people just die,’ I said, and she asked again ‘was it drugs,’ and I thought of Anya in ‘The Body’ and her erratic, strange, wrenching monologue. ‘Sometimes people just die,’ I said, and then the doctor came in.
But I am getting ahead of myself. That night we were all crammed into the room, and one of the nurses brought us forks for our desserts, and then people drifted away one by one, leaving an aunt, an uncle, my grandmother, and me. They asked me where I was staying and I shrugged, not having thought it out that far, and so it was that I ended up in a house I hadn’t seen in over a decade, a house I thought I would never see again, in a guest room full of curios. The sheets were very soft, and one of the neighbours hadn’t bothered to secure their wifi network.
They moved him into a bigger room in the morning, for all the family, but no one had arrived yet when our interminable session in the elevator was over and we’d made our way through the endless halls. The only person there was an uncle, the one who stayed overnight with my aunt, sitting at the bedside. He had just rung the call bell — his father’s colour had changed and his breathing had slowed.
‘I’m here,’ said my grandmother. Last night, he turned his head when he heard her voice. Now, he does not.
I sat, holding my grandfather’s hand while my uncle told my grandmother the story of the night. My grandfather was so thin, just skin and bones, rib cage protruding. The nurses had bathed him and put him in a fresh gown, and his hair was slightly mussed. My grandmother smoothed it as she talked, almost automatically. Later, she will hold up the brush she brought to the hospital with him when he was admitted with a sort of helpless expression.
‘I bought it for me, but my hair is too thick,’ she said. ‘I suppose I should throw it out.’
His breath rasped in his throat then and we fell silent, all of us frozen in a strange tableau.
‘The tulips are all in bloom at the house,’ I said, finally, breaking the spell. ‘There was a beautiful sunrise, all pinks and oranges and those little clouds, you know? The ones that just kind of skim the horizon?’ I gestured emptily with my free hand, even though of course, he couldn’t see.
And then, he died.