The rice and chicken are still in the fridge. The mold has sprouted butterfly wings. It has mapped out a continent. The dark underbelly is dotted with white eyes. I caress the soft sponginess and make sure I put back the napkin over the last meal my grandfather sent me. He will never be able to send me another, so I must keep the meat and gristle together and the pilaf coagulated like blood. The plastic casserole bears his fingerprints which are now eternally cool in the fridge, the faint outline of someone’s love.
No death lasts forever. In my mind, in your mind, in our collective minds, we tend to forget. We wake up not remembering they’ve died. We walk down the street and think about dropping by their place. We can feel them vividly here, with us, even more than when they were alive, because absence is a presence in search of itself.
The world isn’t equipped for death. Just like it isn’t equipped for disease. We have no tools for such things and no desire to build tools. Our hospitals and deathbeds are the result of kicking and screaming. We’ve erected these things against our will.
I think about sailing on a lake full of tree stumps.
Grandpa used to take me out on that lake. We did not go there often, but when we did, he held the oars in his lap and guided us gently between the broken tree limbs. The legend says that a woman drowned there because she wanted to stay faithful to her lover. She had been kidnapped by a highwayman who wanted to force himself on her, but the virtuous maiden prayed to God for release, which is why a great storm appeared in the sky and shaved off the mountain’s side, plunging it in the water, trees and roots and maiden and all. I say “which is why,” but the events do not logically cohere. There is death and there is an uprooting, but we weave between them nebulous stories.
I stand in front of the open fridge and think about how we had lunch afterwards near the lake and there was a greasy doughnut stand next to our picnic table and the smell was crisp and charred. Grandpa asked me if I wanted a doughnut, because if I got a doughnut, he could get one too, the rich kind, with the chocolate filling. But I told him it wasn’t good for his health, or mine. I told him we didn’t need dessert. Now I wonder why I didn’t let him have that doughnut, why I talked about things I don’t believe in. I am ashamed because I denied him a pleasure for the sake of a stupid thing we never get to keep. How many other little things did I tell him he couldn’t have?
A lake is still a lake, even if a forest grows out of its eye. In a sense, it becomes more of a lake precisely because the tree stumps stand witness to it. Water has claimed her victory. I should have let him have the doughnut.
There was an old man in his village when he was a child who could find any missing object. You came to his house, sat down at his table and described what you had lost, and sure enough, the old man told you exactly where it would be. Grandpa could remember vividly that the old man had found someone’s bike inside an old, disused tank. No one would have thought to look there. Grandpa decided to lose something on purpose, to test the old man. He buried a whirligig with a skylark on top in the barley field beyond the farmsteads. He made sure to mark the spot. Then he went round to the old man’s place to ask him about it, but the truculent fellow refused to guess. He sent Grandpa away, sensing a trap. Grandpa felt ashamed and disappointed. He ran out to play in that field with his friend who was younger and shorter than him. He told him he’d buried his whirligig in the ground and he could have it if he found it. He didn’t want it anymore. The kid set to digging heartily. Grandpa told him he’d come back after lunch. He knew there was cornmeal and milk waiting for him at home. He ate on the porch, little bowl held between his legs as he watched the sky. He liked looking at it whenever he could.
That’s when he heard the thud in the distance.
UXO, they called it. An unexploded ordnance. It had lain untouched for more than a decade after the war.
Grandpa ran towards the field, milk on his lips.
Grown men kept him back.
They wouldn’t let him see. He had to imagine a tiny body being broken apart.
He never found that whirligig again.
When I told him he’d narrowly avoided death, he said, no, I didn’t avoid it. She was there.
A few years later, he was driving his motorcycle down the mountain pass without a helmet on. He was staring straight ahead at the unspooling of road and sky. His college roommate was driving ahead of him. They were not racing. They waved at each other and signaled for when to make the next stop.
It only took a bit of sunshine. His friend careened off the side of the road, wheels swallowed by foliage and canopy. Grandpa had to drive past him. He watched the breaking of another body in slow motion. When he finally pulled to a stop, death had passed. But she had been there.
He talked to me about death almost every month of the year. He talked about her the way you talk about a lover you’ve never gotten over. He followed her obsessively, trying his damnedest to catch a glimpse of her. He climbed up rooftops and walked close to the edge, ostensibly to hammer down broken tiles. He drove his car too fast, ignoring the rearview mirror when he felt like it. He walked through the cold without an overcoat and he went days without eating. He was stronger than most, almost never ill, resistant to all charms. She was clearly toying with him.
When he was a child, he drank a bottle of peroxide just to get a taste. Not a drop, a bottle. His mother was quick on her feet. She forced milk down his throat until the doctor came and pumped his stomach. He survived, but only just.
It must have been the beginning of a tumultuous affair.
A few days ago, his respiratory system failed. Like a fickle but repentant siren, it seems she has finally decided to return his calls.
Quickly, I must weave the narrative. I must put together the moments that make him tellable. There’s a woman in a lake and we put her there.
A month before his death, we walked through a spa resort we had not visited in years and we stopped by the springs and dipped our fingers in it. We never actually took any cures. We only came for the view. But Grandpa was getting tired. He needed to pee and there was no bathroom around, but plenty of people.
There was an empty observation cabin pitted against a rock. Nestled between rock and cabin was a small flower garden. He climbed up there and relieved himself among the flowers, which were deeply violet. I was supposed to keep watch in case anyone took that path.
We laughed afterwards. It was unscrupulous joy, that little adventure, but it was also an ending. Many of the rocks up there were carved with people’s names on them and the dates of their visit. Some read 1975. Others went as far back as 1945. What were you up to in 1975, I wanted to ask? Do you remember that year? Was it good or bad?
But he just wanted to climb down now.
So we climbed down.
They only use the ventilators for the last stage of the illness because they bruise the lungs more. They’re helping him breathe, but they’re also damaging his ability to do so on his own.
It’s like a mouth opens inside of him and the side of the mountain is torn off and the saplings and roots and grass are plunged into the water. And now there are stumps everywhere.
Time has to pass for the lake to settle.
No one dares sail there yet.
In his final note to Dad, Grandpa shows his sleight of hand.
He writes about setting up an “arrangement.” If there’s life after death, he’ll come down one night and lift up the windshield wipers.
That’s the sign. That’s how we’ll know he’s planted his feet in the sky.
If he doesn’t lift them, it means there’s no life for him beyond us, and there’s no real sky anymore.
We’re still waiting.
We’re on the lookout, every night.