It is beautiful.
It’s the height of fall. Bright yellow leaves drifting towards the ground. A small breeze that comes and goes. A lingering warmth. The grass is still vivid green. The sky a pristine blue. Everything is happening slowly.
I am walking towards the open doors of a church. People are singing inside. I can’t understand the words. Can’t try to. Don’t recognize the singers, don’t know what the expression on their faces means. There’s stained glass inside. Not pictures of people or places or stories. Just colors. The sun is so bright today. I am walking forward, and I am carrying my grandfather’s casket. There are six of us and we are all listening to the song.
It is beautiful.
The journey starts with a turkey sandwich in the back of my parents’ car. I’m a little kid so turkey sandwiches are nifty, especially when they come in plastic bags that my father gives us from the front seat. We’re driving away from the sunset and I don’t know the name of any of the roads we’re traveling. All I know is that the road rises upward, towards the sky, and now it is descending towards a tunnel that will pass underwater. (Or so my parents tell me.)
The tunnel’s interior is a shade of yellow I have never seen before. I stare at the tiles and lights flashing past; I have never thought before about how fast it really means, driving in a car. My father tells my sister and me to wave at the cameras mounted in the ceiling, and we do. I picture men sitting in a darkened room, their fingers resting on incomprehensible controls. They are smart, because it takes smarts to see problems before they develop, to be able to re-route and adapt, to see tiny hands waving to them from behind the windshield of a Dodge Duster.
And then we’re through.
Time turns fuzzy as we pass through Delaware and go up the New Jersey Turnpike — but I don’t understand geography. All I know is that I’m somewhere else. Somewhere far away. It’s night, so there are no landmarks to note through the passenger window, no way to measure time and distance until we reach Somerville and ascend a road that circles up and around a steep hill: Chimney Rock, my father explains. He says it’s named for the rock at its top, but it’s too dark to see anything but the trees that cover the hill. No chance to see at all.
We enter through the garage — the smell of gas-powered lawnmowers and sleeping automobiles — and my grandparents are waiting for us in their kitchen. Things become blurry again in my mind. Saying hello. Bringing our belongings inside. It’s so warm inside.
But I remember my grandfather fixing me a vanilla milkshake from scratch: Scoops of ice cream and milk in a blender. We talk, just the two of us. He doesn’t talk to me the way my other relatives do. There’s none of that weird awkwardness people have when they are choosing their words carefully, when they are talking without expecting you to understand.
When I finish the milkshake, it’s time to sleep, time to dream.
Their house is full of magical things. They even get TV shows we don’t: “Fraggle Rock,” which is like the “Sesame Street” shows I watch nearly every day, but instead of teaching you about the alphabet, there are Muppets with weird names who have to think carefully about every step they take in the real world, because everyone there wants to eat them.
They even have a computer — the first I’ve ever seen in my life. A Texas Instruments 99/4A. It has a keyboard that’s so sensitive you have to jab at the keys to prevent words from coooomiingg ooouuuut lllliiikkke aaa meeesssage frooommm thhhe deeeadd. There are lots of cartridges with games on them, but the most complicated ones are on cassette, which only my grandpa knows how to set up.
He shows me a cassette game where you pretend to fly a plane. But the computer wasn’t fast enough to even draw a wireframe of a horizon — you have to read the airspeed gauge and look at the artificial horizon and imagine what you’d see out the windshield.
For some reason, this fascinates me even though I can barely rise 200 feet from the ground before crashing. (It tells you “YOU CRASHED” without any sound, without any simulated sensation at all.)
This would all be throwaway memory, the kind of thing you remember only when you can’t sleep, if it weren’t for one small thing. Every time you turn on a TI-99/4A, it offers you two choices. The first is to play whatever game you’ve loaded into the machine. The second is called “TI BASIC.”
There is no explanation of what that means. If you choose it, you get a short message that tells you nothing, and a prompt. It just waits for you to type something. When you hit enter, it says, “INCORRECT STATEMENT” and asks you to type something else.
I find a manual stuffed in with all the other books in my grandfather’s office that explains how to use this BASIC. Because once you understand how to do it, you can make the machine do what you want. The manual is full of examples of how to calculate interest on an investment — but I know what I want to learn. I want to make my own games to play. I want to make games that let me fly.
I don’t know that computer programming is meant to be done by grown-ups, not 8-year-olds. And now that I’m a grown-up who earns his keep on this earth by doing weird things with computers — well, I’m glad nobody told me otherwise.
My grandfather keeps a puppet in his closet: A monkey, he tells us, that’s named Cuthbert. He loves saying the name. Just the sound of it. Cuthhh-bert. His voice grows into a near-falsetto as he argues with the puppet — and it’s funny, not scary, the way it happens. It’s because of the way my grandfather talks. The words are gone now — barely remembered even then — but the way he speaks remains in my memory.
Hard to describe now. Hard to capture the way he pronounced words as if he loved them — the very sound of them, I mean. The way his sentences grow uphill, as if he’s climbing a mountain with each word, finding his way through tiny peaks and valleys along the way. He speaks Lithuanian, his first language, the same way but faster.
He tries to teach me some Lithuanian words, while my mind is still young enough to build entirely new paths, but it doesn’t take. The same way he once went around the dinner table asking everyone if they were an in-law or an outlaw. I thought I understood, but when my turn came I just didn’t know anymore.
So I don’t understand anything of what he says when he and my great-aunt Francis suddenly start speaking Lithuanian at a Chinese restaurant. I am many years older now; I’ve just graduated from high school.
They jabber at each other for what seems like a long time, and then they laugh. We ask: what were you talking about?
Just a joke, my grandfather says.
We ask to hear it, and after a little bit of arguing over who can tell it best, my grandfather begins:
A traveler is walking in the woods and comes upon a deep pit. He looks in: there’s another man trapped at the bottom. The traveler asks, “Are you all right?”
The man in the pit replies, “I’m fine!”
And so the traveler says, “Alright then,” and keeps walking.
Here my grandfather stops. And we wait, for an ending or a punchline. But there isn’t one — or rather, we missed it. They explain: There’s a last name in Lithuania that sounds the same as the word they have for “fine,” so really the guy was trying to tell him who he was. But forget all that. It works better when you don’t understand it.
It becomes my favorite joke to tell. A smart man might talk about Andy Kaufman and playing with expectations and the folly of punchlines and maybe even the idea of joke-telling, that you can request something funny — but I just like it. It makes me laugh and it confounds everyone else.
Sometimes we watch slide shows when we visit. He and my grandmother go to Washington State and take photographs of totem poles. They go on a cruise to Alaska and he shoots video of icebergs. The experience is weird, and not just because almost nobody has camcorders yet. I have never been west of Ohio. I’ve never even tried to imagine what it’s like there. Never even thought about that other side of the country.
The night before I graduate from college — the last night I count myself a child — he points the camcorder at me. He asks for us to be alone. He peers through the viewfinder as someone would look through a telescope; his other eye is squeezed tight, and maybe he is smiling. It’s hard to tell.
He asks me about the future. What kind of job I’d like to have. Whether I have a girlfriend. Where I’ll live. I feel awkward — these are the kind of questions relatives always ask but I never have good answers for. They require thinking about what I want instead of possessing a vague hope that doing good work and good deeds will cause good things to happen to me.
He removes a tiny cassette from the camera, slips it into a VHS-sized shell, and gives it to my parents. We watch it a month later, once the buzz of ceremony is over, and for the first time maybe ever, I watch myself carefully. The way I don’t look directly into the camera’s lens. The way I laugh nervously. The way I seem on the verge of saying something real, of saying something I don’t realize is true until the words reach the air. But not quite yet. I haven’t finished growing up yet, and maybe I have a long way to go still.
It is the best graduation present anyone could hope for. One last suggestion for our English major who studies the shape of stories: To maybe look at the shape of his own life, and see how weird and valuable the present is.
The last time I see my grandfather, he looks like death.
We start in the dark, in the rain. Maybe seven o’clock in the morning. We get McDonald’s for breakfast and it leaves my stomach queasy for the rest of the trip. The trip doesn’t feel that long, either. Once you know the names of things, once you understand the way highways grow, time passes faster. There is no tunnel to pass through: it’s easier to head straight north up I-95 now. I stare out the window, watch trees and gray sky fly past.
We meet my grandmother at the public library where she volunteers now. There’s an elementary-school clock over the front desk where she sits. The library still has a card catalog and a stamp for marking due dates. All of these old memories trapped in a tiny building. You could use it as a garage for a fire engine. I don’t know why I think of that in particular.
My grandmother shows my sister tables full of children’s books just waiting to be picked up and opened, to be given life. Nobody ever does, she says. Can you imagine that? None of us are sure what to say.
Before we go to pick up lunch, she warns us that he has changed.
His skin is pale white and his eyes are hidden by glasses tinted nearly black. There’s stubble around his chin and neck, and a loose collared shirt with faint blue stripes hangs around his chest. His hair has grown long but not wild.
He doesn’t eat now. Doesn’t feel hungry, he says, but I put a slice of cheese pizza on his plate anyway. He nibbles at its edges, ends up eating maybe half of it. Iggy, the cat my grandmother got him after he had his heart attack many years ago, doesn’t like sitting in his lap anymore.
His voice is quiet but sure. And his mind is still sharp. We avoid talking about a lot of things, but there’s enough to talk about anyway. My sister talks about the graduate program she’s in. This feels right. What grandchildren should talk about. I try to talk about work, but I can’t think of anything worth telling.
As we eat chocolate popsicles, he pulls out his pills. An entire matrix of them. Each day has four compartments and they are all essential.
He retires for a siesta afterwards, the way he always did when we visited him, and we spend the rest of the afternoon out shopping with my grandmother. We go to a mall near their house. It has stores just like the one at home. It makes it pretending easy.
I learn one last word: saglobbis. I don’t know how to spell it. The words only live as long as I can hear them. But the meaning is clear. It means exactly what it sounds like. It means soggy. The opposite of crunchable.
I will remember this word forever.
The last thing I say to him is a simple goodbye. I don’t shake his hand. I don’t give him a hug. I just give him the kind of farewell you’d give a friend when you expect to see him in a few days.
I don’t want this to be the last time I say goodbye, but I know it is.
I am talking to a girl on the phone when call waiting clicks in. My mother. News. His doctors have conferred. The treatments will end. He will receive hospice care instead.
I know in my brain that this is good — well, that I should not be happy but at least satisfied that all of modern medicine’s inventions and magic and foolishness will be focused on making him comfortable, of making sure that death happens calmly and that he will suffer as little as possible. But. I don’t think anyone could convince themselves of this.
I click back into the other conversation. I want her to tell me now that she does not misunderstand me. I want her to tell me that life is always difficult, always painful, always lovely. I want her to explain that everyone will face this and that everyone will be brave. I want her to talk to me in smooth sentences, to lie and tell the truth in the same breath, to lull me to sleep or sing me a song or just make up a simple rhyme.
She doesn’t do any of these things, and I know I’m a bad person for hating her for it — but I do anyway.
I am wrapping a wedding present a week later when the phone rings again.
There are so many people there that I haven’t seen since I was little. My cousins: Samantha, whom I only saw before as a tiny baby, is now a good student and soccer player with long brown hair. Alexa with children and Carolyn who’s now a yoga instructor. Mark, whom I knew only as a littler tyke back when I was a little tyke, is a college student who plays guitar and has his own CD.
And there are people that I don’t know. A whole wing of my family that lives in New York and has the accents to match; a whole group of people I don’t know but who recognize me. They’re surprised at first by how tall I’ve grown and maybe all of the other things that have happened since they last saw me, all of the things that even I can’t catalogue. Who can say how my face has changed, and why?
My grandfather’s body lies at the fore of the room. At first I approach it carefully, as you might a ticking bomb. Just fear, you know. I am good at facing difficult things, step by step. Solving problems one bit at a time. This is how I’ve learned to live my life. Removing an entry from an address book. Buying a silvery-black tie.
But I have to look at my grandfather’s closed eyes. I have to see.
And then I can look away, and I have all these people to wonder about. That woman with graying hair who might have been from Long Island — what was her name? She told you but you already forgot. How is she related to you? You never were sure about that. Go find your mother. There she is, across the room, talking with Grandma. She knows these things. She’s smart in all the ways you aren’t.
At the end of the day, the end of the adventure, I am saying goodbye to my great-aunt Lee. My grandfather’s older sister. She reaches up to my face and squeezes my cheeks — the way older relatives are meant to, the way it happens in movies — and doesn’t say goodbye. She just says my name: “Christopher.”
Her face has the same roundness her brother’s did. She even has the same smile. And maybe she is smiling for the same reason that I am: I have carried my grandfather today, and I will carry him tomorrow, and the day after that, and all the days afterwards that I am given.
I can hear him laugh. I can see his eyes. He is everywhere.