Eventually, the sky set in a systematic deadening of color, in blues and purples, and the sand cooled around my feet and I was alone. My friends went home long prior and losing the buzz of the sun made me, there with half-buried buckets and grit-scratched trucks, feel even more solitary. I liked the quiet at these times because it felt like the time of day when there should be quiet, when the world packed up and relaxed its shoulders. Intermediately, the stillness would be cut with growls of landing planes and then the quiet would once again come and at some point I would start a countdown from ten, zero being my marker to go back inside where my grandmother waited. We’d have dinner and play poker, the prize a handful of multicolored toothpicks. I’d create a narrative with Matchbox cars, we’d watch The Love Boat, I’d eat caramels. One time, my grandma continued to call me in but the roundness and draw of dusk’s quiet and color overwhelmed me and I didn’t listen. My countdowns rolled, zero going back to ten and I had no interest in obeying. After some time, my grandma stopped calling to me and I was stuck in a too-dark playground with a hollow stubbornness and no real plan. With no other choice, I shuffled back inside.
“Keep your coat on,” she told me.
“Why?” I said.
“If you’re not going to listen to me, I’m taking you back to your mother. She can deal with you.”
“But they’re not home,” I said. I panicked. My dad’s band was playing that night and it was far away somewhere and my parents would be out till near morning.
“Well,” she said, “You can wait for them by the door.”
And that’s what crooked my unbending determination, the swagger that had persuaded me to keep my own time. I started crying in heaves and begged to stay, for her to unpack my little suitcase, which she had clasped, and put by the door. After a bit she squeezed my shoulder and moved my bag back to her room, told me to wash for dinner. We played cards and watched shows and listened to WGN on a small Sears radio next to her side of the bed, the thin scent of moth balls in her air. She read to me, we talked about Saturday dinner and how I was to stir the spaghetti gravy and punch air out of the rising bread dough. We didn’t talk about my defiance anymore that night though laughed about it later. I still wonder if my clothes were indeed in the suitcase that waited by the door. I think I know the answer.
I can’t remember anything we said, my Grandma and I; I actually think we stayed quiet. It was like we ran out of language. We decided to get up early that last morning, earlier than the rest of the family, and walk into a sunrise we’d be flying away from five hours later. This was our first big, collective family trip and we were in Hawaii. There was something special I recognized, then 12, in the compartmentalizing of our family into one spell of time and address. It was the place, Hawaii itself, that haunted me early, the harmony of earthed smells, the way the ocean can sound like its clearing its throat. And I felt melancholy because I knew my sensory memory would fail me—I can’t remember scents until I smell them again, the sounds in my head would just be choppy facsimiles, everything misremembered and reassembled into its own new thing. Really, it was being away from everything else, a biopsy from the usual that when reflected on revealed authenticity on a simple level, a core well-being, an elemental joy. My grandmother and I walked along the beach and, despite our spread in age, reflected quietly on similar happiness in the week and similar sadness in leaving them. We recognized allowances everyone gave themselves and the patience in which they experienced those allowances. In that way, it wasn’t the place that drew pathos so much but the tunefulness, the fellowship, the way the right notes and words make up the right song.
My grandma said something to me about the possibility of her never coming back and I didn’t know what to say so I left her words in the air homeless. Maybe it wasn’t so much the idea of having another vacation as it was returning to the moment. That that time was its own without possibility of reanimation, like trying to revisit the senses. Anything in the future would be just choppy facsimiles. We might not have been able to verbalize it to each other, but there we were, fifty years separate, reflecting on that same truth.
“For Oncology Use Only,” the bottle told me this, which was a good thing to know, cause all we needed it for was the cancer. The words were comforting in a way, the notion that what we had was the proper gun, the right map. I drove it to my grandma’s house and she met me at the door in a too-big sweatshirt and hugging her was like squeezing a wrongly-wrapped tool. I could feel the reshaping of her body, her breakdown tactile.
“Here’s the thing,” I said to her, handing her the bag, not saying the word of what it was and we talked about it in almost secret, like the room might be bugged, like I should have scanned the plants for wires, checked the legitimacy of pens. It felt like we we’re using sign language—us unable to hear, unable to speak.
“Well, if this doesn’t work, sayonara,” she said and we laughed. She pressed the pill through the foil barrier and held it in her fist and looked at her hand. It was right there that she left me if even for just a moment. I was removed, not part of the story and that was the hard part, feeling pushed away by circumstance. I imagined that she considered the amount of fight that was left in her. I sat on her couch while she took the single pill with my elbows on my knees, my chin resting on my fists like a donkey-eared Pinocchio sitting on the curb of a lonely street, knees hinged and hanging, a worn-out boy unaware of much in the world. I was thinking of those things that are sometimes difficult to conceptualize, difficult to conclude, wondering what can be changed, what can be moved, and how much say we have anyhow.
It’s been 10 years since she died—the way her hands were oranged with mercurochrome and iodine, her sharp-edged laugh, the way she crossed her arms and cupped her own elbows. Those moth balls. These are choppy facsimiles of what once was. A patchwork movie of 400 million memories spliced together. The dying sky. The exhaling surf. The path a pill takes when it travels past your tongue, your throat, your heart. In these, among my strongest memories of my grandma, I see her already starting to take her leave. I hope and will my senses to take me back. I will them to make those times present. To be haunted by then. To reassemble. To travel.