Prologue: A Death in the Family

“Only love and death will change all things – Khalil Gibran


It was on the first day of spring when Millie came and whispered in my ear that grandma was gone. Her arms wound so tight around me that I barely wheezed out my confusion. We had just been watching TV; our favourite Looney Tune was playing vaguely in the background before she got down on her knees before me and leaned her face in my neck. I should have noticed how her eyes had been glazed over the whole time, her lips barely twitching when the Wild. E Coyote blew up for the hundredth time. “Where??” my seven year old self mumbled, half engulfed in her hug. She took a deep breath, and I felt myself rising with her chest as she inhaled.

“Mam’s gone on a VERY long holiday George,” she paused hesitantly and I stopped struggling. Mom and Dad never let grandma go to the bathroom unaccompanied. “Millie?” I asked when I realised she had stopped speaking. As I turned to face her, her arms went slack and all the strength within her that was channeled into that boa constrictor-like embrace left faster than the Road Runner. “I’m sorry Georgie,” she choked, eyes wet. “She’s not coming back so.. don’t ask if anyone brings it up again. You understand me?” she looked me square in the eyes when she said the last few words. “Especially NOT to grandpa.” She grabbed me by the shoulders and made me promise.

Grandma and grandpa stopped speaking to eachother a year before she passed. It was one of those things I had to figure out by myself as I became the intermediary between the two on one occasion that he visited. Looking back now, the whole ordeal felt like a game of one-way Chinese Whispers with only 3 players.

It took me a full four years to understand what Millie meant but by then, she had already left for university. It wasn’t difficult to put the pieces together and realise that grandma had left this world for good. I think I sensed it more when mom and dad stopped talking about her over dinner and started putting away her things than when they lowered her casket deep into the ground. Through all the kind lies, the many itterations of the event and awkward, pregnant pauses, I eventually found the truth, and with that, the maturity to accept it. My family was trying to protect me, just like how Millie tried to protect Grandpa back when she made me swear not to tell him.

You see, grandma and grandpa were not the closest relatives we ever had. They barely visited. It was only during her last year with us that grandma moved into the spare room downstairs and unknowingly became a permenant resident in our everyday thoughts. Everywhere she went, we followed. Everything she forgot, we remembered for her.

Amidst all this, grandpa was no where to be found. “He’s a vagabond, my Sirius,” she would say to Millie who doted on her; who combed her hair, put on her underthings, brushed her teeth, day in, day out. It was funny that the one thing she said remembered with most clarity in her addled mind and spoke about with the so much reverence was the person she claimed to despise the most. “Never in one place, always travelling. It was his duty, he said, some nonsense about stars…Did you know he was an astronomer? It’s in his name. The dog star, Sirius. I suppose that means he was born with his duty,” she sighed, voice wobbling out her last few words. “50 years is all I could take, heaven forbid. Being second only to the sky. For a man with so much dedication to service and responsibility, that bastard forgot his duty to his wife.”

Despite not knowing grandma albeit for an eventful 18 months, I was surprised to feel an incredible sense of loss. Perhaps, the sadness was also pressured by the guilt of not knowing her more. She was a fascinating woman even when her mind was often living in an alternate reality from ours. Stubborn as nails, charming even when she was being uncompromising and an avid storyteller, I could only imagine what grandpa must have lost having known her since she was still dark-haired and sparkly eyed. Millie thought it was rather romantic. After all, she was the one who, like a rock, sat by the elder woman’s side through it all with her ears peaked in genuine interest. In her letters to me years after grandma’s death, she wrote, “He was never around but I think he lived in her. You could see him in her eyes. Two stars glittering till the day she closed them forever.”

At this point, it would be an anticlimax not to mention the man in question. The mystery of a being, I had only seen shadows of growing up. Grandpa was a bedtime story. My mother’s father. A man who walked on air and according to grandma (in her lighter moods), had the voice of Frank Sinatra.

However, instead of the groomed man in a black suit I imagined, he sauntered through our gates a day after the funeral clad head to toe in suede. He carried nothing with him except his rucksack and a beard that covered half his face. Somehow, he looked no less sharp. There was a silence when he entered the premise. I remember being in the living room with Millie and mother when he came in and we all simply looked at eachother for a minute before mom threw her arms around him. He stood a head taller than her, but it wasn’t just his height that made mom look like a little girl again. In that moment, he was not the ethreal character in the stories grandma weaved nor the rugged wanderer that just barged into our home. He was a father, being there for his daughter that missed him. Millie and I could only stare at him in awe.

“I need a razor,” was the first thing I heard him say, into mom’s hair. We noted silently then that grandma had quite an imagination. He sounded more like if Frank Sinatra had swallowed sand. “You can borrow Daniel’s. Actually just take it,” mom said, not taking her eyes off his. I think she was looking for something in them. I think she was looking for the sparkle that was missing. So my grandpa smiled slightly, nodded to each of us in silent acknowledgement and disappeared down the corridor, knowing exactly where my (former) dad’s razor was (in the bathroom adjacent to my parents’ bedroom down the corridor next to the kitchen). As he left, our attention immediately turned to our mother and in appropriate response, she took a deep breath. “Before you ask, yes, that is your grandma’s husband,” started mom who figured she had a lot of explaining to do and proceeded to summarize the entirety of her story in the span it took for her father to shave his beard.

Turns out, our house was not always our house. It once belonged to grandma and it was where both my mother’s parents stayed before my grandfather took off traveling. This was shortly after my mother got married to my drunk father (in a time when he presumably was not a drunk yet), and grandma decided to give the house to her only daughter in exchange for her own independence. Mom sensed that grandma felt had to prove herself ever since grandpa left; that she was fine surviving just on her own. But I think we all knew deep down (including grandma herself) that she wanted to miss grandpa by herself, without the bitterness she often used as a shield when others were around. The reason behind Sirius leaving remained unclear, even to mom herself, only that it was part of his job. And like her late mother, I don’t think she ever properly forgave him for that.

I found grandpa hours later sitting on Mam’s chair. The one in the corner of her room, by the window, where she would occasionally gaze at the stars at the night. His eyes, though the colour of a cloudless blue sky, were not looking to the heavens. They were downcast, gazing at moments in time farther than where they appeared to be fixed on his dirty shoes. I found myself tongue-tied over the silliest notion that I did not how to address him. So my mouth took on a mind of it’s own. “Did you love her?” I said instead, much to my horror. It was one of the integral issues Millie and I had both discussed to ask him. I just happened to be the unlucky soul that lost rock paper scissors and winded up being the sacrificial lamb for interogation. Till now, I cannot forget the startled look I illicited on his face (perhaps a mirror image of the similar one that was etched on mine in regards to even asking the question).

You see, before this, grandpa and I had never exchanged an original word to one another. Even during that rare time that he visited, it was simply me verbalising grandma’s thoughts to him while she was in the other room. It irks me to this day that instead of utilizing our private moment to call him grandpa for the first time, I decided to bombard him with a sensitive question that would probably send him on his way again. Nevertheless, the old man responded before I could even politely stop him.

“She always preferred me clean-shaven,” he rasped, eyes catching mine, still devoid of light. “She liked her peppermint tea cold. She said we should name our daughter Andromeda not because of its cosmic significance but because Andy was a lovely nickname and that way, we would both we happy.
She had a horrible habit of reading the ending of stories before starting them and she took joy in making others laugh. She was beautiful when she laughed,” his voice trailed off and a smile spread slowly on his lips, eyes drifting back through time. “and even when she cried.”

I inched closer to his form, now hunched over the chair that was too small for him and gently touched his shoulder. He smelt of old books and shaving cream. Slowly, he lifted his head so it levelled with mine. “I never stopped loving her.”

His words felt like an apology and an ancient truth all at once.

I nodded, a great wave of relief washing over me as I met his foreign eyes once again. “I don’t think she stopped loving you either,” I told him honestly and for the first time, in those stormy eyes of his, I saw it rain.

to be continued..

© 2016 THEWILDTINKER ALL RIGHTS RESERVED

Image credit: SKY2015

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