He creeps back into my life more often than I’d like, but I guess that’s how memories work. We don’t get to choose how they’re triggered. A dream here. A dream there. Always the same. Always giving me advice. I relied on my grandfather for many things, but what I sought the most was his guidance. When that was taken away from me, I began to recycle old memories and ask for his help in my dreams. Some people pray. I don’t. I gave that up a long time ago when I didn’t have to sit in a room behind the pews anymore with a kind old man in a black gown and white collar who asked me what I had done wrong. He’d send me on my way after prompting me to say “I lied to my parents” or “I was mean to my brother” to kneel on a hard bench and say a few lines to be absolved. Now I see my grandfather in my dreams, or I close my eyes and hear his voice and ask him what I should do when I don’t know the answer. It’s something I need to do, because I wasn’t prepared for someone so consequential in my life to disappear into the earth.
The hardest part about losing him is that it happened so quickly. He didn’t tell us he had cancer. I didn’t find out until he was hospitalized for a fall. I would visit him at home on weekends, and he would complain of pain telling me it was because he was getting too old. Sometimes he’d forget what he was saying, and his girlfriend would tell me it was the pain medicine that made him forget. No one knew except the two of them. He didn’t want his family to know. When he ended up in the hospital, we all showed up. The small family he made. I sat in a chair near the foot of his bed clueless to what was happening. The cancer had spread from his lung to his brain. All I remember from first seeing him in that hospital bed was him holding onto my grandmother—they had been divorced for years at this point—and then his eyes growing as large as the moon and the color leaving his face as he asked my grandmother, looking at me, “Who is that? He’s going to hurt me.” Like he had seen Cerberus watching over him for prioritizing nicotine over his life. Like I was going to punish him with icy rain, but the iciness was just the air-conditioned hospital room that chilled us all to the bone. She told him that it was me and I waved and smiled, but he clung to her wrist. I left the room and took the stairs to the parking lot. The humid summer swallowed me whole and spat me out into the inferno that was my car. My tears evaporated as I blinked them out. He was gone.
It’s that face I see in my dreams. Absolute fear. I see it often if I’m not careful. If I’m stressed. If I’ve been awake too long and drift off into a nightmare. It’s that face that haunts me. And yet I call upon him for help when I need it the most despite that one moment of terror that I caused for him while he laid in a hospital dying of cancer. It wasn’t me, it was the cancer, I tried to reassure myself. And despite my own fears of causing my grandfather unnecessary trauma, I visited him diligently until I couldn’t visit him any longer.
I will admit it took me a few days before I had the courage to see him again. After my graduate classes, before seeing the guy I was newly dating, I would stop by the hospital to sit with my grandfather. Weary as always, I would stop by the front desk and ask security how he was doing. The head of security was an old childhood neighbor who would let me know my grandfather’s state of mind that day. “He asked me for a cigarette today,” he once told me. We shared a sad smile. At least he wasn’t giving up. I would take the elevator to his room and he’d usually be propped up in bed watching something on the television. “Hi, Papa. It’s me.” I would say, entering his room.
“Ryan! I could smell you down the hallway. You’re always wearing that hippie shit.” Hippie shit is what he called patchouli. An earthy smell I enjoy, but he’s always hated it. Sometimes my visits were long. Sometimes they were short. He liked to know what I was doing in school, so I would tell him about different therapeutic techniques I learned, or bore him with my study on research utilization, which was coming to a close. Other times he’d fall asleep and I’d stay a little longer and watch him. Not all days were good. He didn’t always know who I was, and on those days, he would tell me he just wanted to sleep.
Then the news came. My grandfather had died one afternoon. I don’t remember much about that day. I remember I had just gotten out of work, my grandmother told me, I went to her house, and called my boss and lost myself on the phone with her. She told me about bereavement days. I hung up and cried on the patio behind an overgrown evergreen hedge. What I do remember is the last thing my grandfather said to me. He wanted to hold my hand, which I found odd coming from such an unaffectionate man. He looked into my eyes and said, “Be good.”
Be good. In what way? For my grandfather, the most important thing was being academically perfect. I pushed myself for so many years to get to the point where I was in my life at that time. If I got an A– it was not good enough for him. That meant I slipped up somewhere. It was A’s or admonishment. He wasn’t a man to coddle. I had to earn every compliment I ever received from him. Perhaps that is why I still look to him for advice. He instilled in me a sense of needing to do better. Admittedly, this eventually sent me into intensive therapy for panic attacks over a fear of not getting perfect scores in graduate school, but that occurred months after his death with other precipitating events. But I did rely on him and when I close my eyes, I can hear his voice telling me what choices to make. He haunts my days and nights. He lives in me. Be good.
After his death, I reached out to the guy I had recently started dating. I needed someone. I wanted affection. I didn’t want to be alone. But he told me it was best that I have space to deal with this loss. It was not what I was asking for, and it was not what I needed. What was I supposed to do? It is clear to me now that he was uncomfortable in such a new relationship dealing with someone who experienced such a tremendous loss. All I wanted was affection and closeness, and he was not willing to give that to me. I had to make a choice for myself. Be good.
I called someone else. I needed to be coddled with a numbed mind, and damn it, I had to call the guy I turned down for the one who just threw me to the wolves. It didn’t feel right. It wasn’t right for either of them, but that’s what I did that night. I wanted to get high. I wanted to be coddled. I needed the affection of a man. And yet I felt guilty. But isn’t that exactly what I wanted? To feel something in whatever alternate state straddling reality. He played the part perfectly. I found him sitting in the crotch of a tree in a field right outside of my apartment. He spritely pounced me as if I were some prey and he was going to pull me to the boughs where I’d become enveloped in the bark. He was only a wood nymph after all. I called him this night wanting to be lured by hypnotic herbs, the smooth, lithe carvings of his body reminiscent of an active lifestyle, and brown tendrils he often tossed out of his face without giving it a second thought. Be good.
The wood nymph hugged me and asked me how I was doing. I told him I was sad, but that it was to be expected. He smiled at me and told me he brought me something special. Something to make me smile. He reached into his pocket and pulled out a glass pipe and showed me that it had a glass frog sitting on the bowl. “How can’t you smile when you’re high as hell staring into the eyes of a frog.” He nudged my shoulder. It was pretty ridiculous. I will give him that. We sat in his car and packed a bowl. And then we packed another bowl. At this point my brain was tingling but foggy. I could feel every inch of my skin. This is exactly what I wanted. We went back to my apartment to watch a movie and go to bed. I got the affection I so craved and I was, in fact, not good. I turned into a ghost for him. I wonder if he dreams of me. That, I know, I don’t deserve.
And how would my grandfather respond to that behavior? None of it fell under the category of his most revered rule: be a gentleman. Something I found archaic the older I became. Be kind. Be thoughtful. Be courteous. Alternatives to be a gentleman, Ryan. What I did that night was manipulative. I used someone’s emotions to get what I wanted at the moment. I wanted affection and the chance to alter my state of mind. My preferred choice wouldn’t do that for me. I saw an opportunity and took it. Be good.
My grandfather came back stronger than ever. Just when I thought I was moving on his memory invaded. A couple weeks passed by and I reached out to my boyfriend. I told him it was safe for him to see me. I was no longer an emotional mess after losing a man who meant so much to me. Someone I watched fade away from a capable strong human into a puddle of flesh and bones in a hospital bed barely able to recognize his family for more than a few minutes without being reminded who they were. Under the conditions previously set, I was now allowed to see him, because I was emotionally stable enough to be around him. We met at his family’s orchard, which he tended with the help of dozens of workers, and he drove me to dinner. It was a nice but casual dinner. Somewhere we had been before. We sat at a table by the window across from each other and ate something I don’t remember.
Dinner was going well. I was keeping it together. I was acting like my grandfather hadn’t died only three weeks earlier and I had moved on. We talked about our days and what we were going to do after dinner. It had been a while since we had seen one another, and we wanted to spend time together. Perhaps we would watch the sun set over the river from the roof of the main barn and have a glass of cider. I stared into his eyes and thought I’m done for. He was the one for me. I was happy in that moment. And then it happened. Tears began to drip down my face. And then they began to flow more steadily as I sat there silently trying not to bring attention to myself. A song came on the restaurant radio that my grandfather used to dance to with my grandmother when I was a little boy. Of course. At that moment. When I had convinced my boyfriend from the orchard that I was doing better, I was crying in public. He noticed despite my silence. We were only a few feet apart and tears were profusely streaming down my cheeks. He asked me what was wrong and wiped my tears. When I explained it was the song, he grabbed my hands and kissed the brine. He asked for the check and we left to watch the sunset and drink cider on the roof of the barn.
It was clear to me that I had not moved on, and I needed to do something more. One sunny afternoon I drove to the cemetery with a pack of cigarettes. I found my grandfather’s headstone after walking for a while, and I laid on top of his grave. I watered him with my tears. It was strange to think that just feet below the dirt, my grandfather’s body was deteriorating in the box the same way his mind was deteriorating in that hospital bed. I laid on top of the grass and closed my eyes tight against the image of his frightened face in the hospital and lit a cigarette. It was the one thing he wanted so much when he knew he was dying. I smoked it as a tribute to his memory. We came to an agreement that day under the sun. If I needed him, I could still ask for his advice. And I do. In my dreams. When I close my eyes in deep thought. All I had to do was leave a pack of cigarettes for him and be good.
Ryan Norman is a writer from New York living in the Hudson Valley. Inspired by the landscape, he writes what he feels. He enjoys climbing tall things and swimming in mountain lakes. You can find his past work in Elephants Never and Storgy Magazine. Find him on Twitter: @RyanMGNorman, or at: linktr.ee/RyanMGNorman.