‘—grow up,’ he said. ‘Once you grow up, you’ll get to do all sorts of amazing things.’
‘Wow,’ I said. ‘I can’t wait to grow up! When I grow up, I’ll be the one to carry you, Grampa!’
Even now, I can still see the glow of the sun behind him. It was blinding and yet, I squinted up at him anyway, a little girl daring her guardian to disagree.
The orange light caught in his white hair made his hairline recede even further, further into the light, while the shadows made by his wrinkles sharpened, contrasting cleanly against his almost ephemeral form, my kind Grampa turned godly by a simple sunset.
That same sunset blinds me even now, but for a different, more mundane reason.
With my hand up against the light, I reach for the white flowers laying on the passenger seat. Gripping the newspaper it’s wrapped in, I hold it gingerly with one hand. With the other, I push open the door before stepping out onto a field of slightly-overgrown grass.
Unable to take a step forward however, I purse my cracked lips together. How long has it been since I’ve visited my Grampa? Would it be alright to visit him now, after all those years of silence? Or would it seem like I’m just using him, the way my co-workers, bosses, and relatives suddenly seem to become my ‘friend’ whenever they need something from me?
But then, the wind blows gently. It ruffles my loosely-tied hair, even carrying a few strands forward, as if pushing me to take that step I’m suddenly starting to dread.
I look down on the flowers in my hand, the ones I’ve chosen, chrysanthemums and roses, sitting side-by-side. Whereas the chrysanthemums bloom outward, expanding in a horizontal direction, unreservedly taking up space, the roses don’t. Instead, they bloom in a concentric fashion, constrained within a small area yet tightly-knitted with one another.
The words of the young florist who recommended them to me echoes in my ears. ‘For remembering loved ones, these white mums would be a good choice.’
‘Mums?’ I asked.
‘Yes, mums. Short for chrysanthemums. Typically, these are regarded as a cheerful way to honor someone who lived a full life, a life without any regrets.’ The young florist then smiled at me, her face bright—from the setting sun or from her cheerfulness, I still don’t know.
She continued, a bunch of white chrysanthemums already in her hand, ‘From the way you talked about your Grampa, I think adding some red carnations and white roses would be enough to fill the bouquet without putting a strain on your wallet.’ With her other hand, she pointed at the flowers in question. ‘Red carnations represent admiration while white roses express reverence.’
‘I’ll just take the white roses, please. Red is a bit too much for me.’
‘Alrighty then,’ the florist said.
Gripping the bouquet tighter in my hand, the newspaper crumpling, I sigh. “From that cheerful florist to my kind Grampa, everything about this seems to mock me.”
The wind, once blowing gently, suddenly picks up its pace. The hair it was using to subtly push me onward turns sideways before slapping me on the face, as if reprimanding me.
I spit out the hair caught in my mouth and use my free hand to remove the ones stuck in-between the cracks of my lips. Then I say, “So much for encouragement.” With that said, I take my step forward, letting the capricious wind carry my doubts far, far away.
Walking towards a dead tree with its branches splayed out, I look around the rather deserted place. After all, it is the middle of summer and everyone would rather be at the beach than at some countryside cemetery. Yet, here I am, dressed in my work uniform—a pair of slacks, some worn-out flats, and a company-provided, bright yellow, collared shirt.
“If I had any other… presentable shirt, I would be wearing that instead of this shirt-personification of a smiley face.” Grumbling to myself, I tug on the hem of my shirt, adjusting it. Then, my gaze lands on a mud-splotched gravestone, my Grampa’s.
With my feet glued to the ground, I glance around. Only then do I realize that, had it not been for the dead tree right above his gravestone, I likely wouldn’t be able to differentiate it among the many other mud-splotched ones. One of them even had a crack running straight through its center, breaking the stone in half, making some words unreadable.
A shiver runs through my body, and I instinctively place a hand on my arm, rubbing it for warmth. “Whoever this gravestone belongs to,” I mumble, “I hope at least their family still remembers them.” Then, my gaze returns to Grampa’s own gravestone.
Kneeling down, I place the bouquet on the grass. Then, I begin peeling and scratching away at the dried mud, buying myself time to think of what to say.
Slowly, the words carved and inked on the stone reveal themselves: Janico O’Malley— although to me, he was always, only Grampa—born on January 2, 1944, and died on March 28, 2019. Apparently, he had entered and exited this world in times of turbulence and great uncertainty. Still, he persevered, and even shone brightly, brighter than anyone I ever knew.
Then, with only the wind, the sun, and the clouds as my sole and silent audience, I recite the rest of the words in a steady voice, “A generous man, a patient father, and a kind grandfather, who lived without any regrets and died with a smile on his face.” While saying this, I caress the greyish-white stone. The gravestone is warm and rough on my hands, with little patches of mud around the edges of the black ink, stubbornly refusing to let go.
Still unable to find the words I want to say, I reach for the bouquet on the grass, the grass tickling my skin. Then, I place the flowers underneath his name.
With the summer sun bearing down on me, I pull on the collar of my shirt, the inside of which is stained a yellowish-white. A drop of sweat trickles down my chest, while another rides the wave of my grumbling stomach, before stopping at the waistband of my slacks.
Right when the words settle on my tongue, about why I never visited him after his funeral or why I tasked a stranger to look after his beloved garden, a little black-and-red patch on one of the white roses catches my attention. It, in a wriggling manner, exits the maze of rose petals. Then, with two dainty, microscopic wings, it flies off the rose entirely.
Mesmerized, I watch as it flies up before landing on the space inside the O of “O’Malley”. There, it proceeds to dance in a little circle, with its wings still pulled up high, as if celebrating its little achievement. Finally, it flies off again and disappears.
Once the ladybug merges with the vast and open sky, I turn my gaze to the gravestone and, in a small, small voice, I say, “Grampa… I’m sorry.”
Just then, the wind blows about the grass. It grazes the skin on my ankles and draws lines there with an invisible marker. Perhaps… My Grampa is talking to me. Perhaps… He can hear me from where he is. Or perhaps… He’s already moved on.
“Grampa, I’m sorry.” Memories of my childhood flood my mind, while tears pool in the corners of my eyes. A second later, my vision is all blurry. So, I blink a few times, before wiping away the flowing tears with the back of my hands. “Grampa, I’m really, really sorry! I tried to come back and visit you so many times, but there was just always something else! Something that needed to be done! Something that demanded my attention, and I—I was—”
Kneeling in front of his gravestone, I pour out my heart, the heart I’ve kept locked up all these years, in garbled words, sobbing, as if I were a little girl again, “I wunted to bake you proud. I wunted to cub back wid an award or a key to by own car, but I—I good never do it!”
Pulling a handkerchief from my pocket, I blow my surely-red nose to try and talk clearer, but it only invites a small but high-pitched ringing noise in my ears. “I went to parties to try and socialize, like they said, ‘To make connections! To climb higher!’ But it always ended with be alone in by dingy apartbent!” I blow my nose again. “Accompanied only by this stupid noise!”
With my handkerchief spent, I shove it back in my pocket and look up, an effort to clear my nose and my head. High above, the sky, an expansive canvas of blue, white, red, and orange, remains unchanging, unperturbed by the events of my life.
On one hand, puffy white clouds drift lazily by, pushed—or pulled—by capricious winds. On the other hand, a red-orange sun burns itself up to give others life, and yet, nobody, not anyone who benefits from it, looks down on it. Instead, they all look up, in awe or wonder, or maybe even fear, knowing that one day, it will explode, taking everyone with it.
“Grampa, are you proud of me?” I ask as I stare at the blinding sun, but then I’m forced to look away not a moment later with red-and-black spots invading my sight.
With my shoulders shaking as they rise up and down, I try to take deep breaths to calm myself down. All around me, the wind stops blowing for a moment. The rustling of the grass stops, making the sounds of my breathing seem louder than they really are.
Then, a different sort of rustling resounds from way behind me. At first, the sound is too small for me to make anything out of it, but then, it continues in a steady pattern.
“Oh? Isn’t this—Could it be—Nicayla?”
I turn around, still kneeling, and look up at an old woman with a dusty pink shawl around her hunched shoulders, a walker in her hands. “Yes…? And who might you be?”
The old woman smiles, the wrinkles in her face stretching to accompany the motion. “You look so much like your grandfather, my dear.” As she walks forward, the silver-grey walker in her hands either parts or crushes the grass, resulting in that strange rustling sound.
Standing up, I take a few steps forward to help her, but she waves my dirty, outstretched hands aside. “I’m really sorry that I don’t remember, but how do you know my—”
“Why, my husband used to play with your grandfather! Nico was still a kid then, and my husband, a twenty-something!” The woman finally reaches the spot where I stand, her eyes twinkling despite their somewhat-milky, clouded state. “He kept telling me stories of when they used to run around this very cemetery, you know! Even on his last days, he wouldn’t stop talking about how grateful he was for your grandfather’s silly antics! If not for him, then…”
I wait for her to continue. Then, when it seems she’s drifted off, carried by her memories, or whatever it is that’s occupying her mind, I ask again. “Excuse me, but who are you?”
“How silly of me!” she exclaims, wrapping the embroidered shawl tighter around her shoulders. “The name’s Georgia, my dear. But you can just call me Gia.” She places a wrinkled hand on my shoulder. “My husband’s name is Frederick, but he goes by Rickie.”
“Oh! Grampa Rickie!” I nod, suddenly enlightened. “Oh, but isn’t he…” My words trail off, my eyebrows scrunching together. “Gramma Gia, I’m so, so sorry for your loss.”
“It’s alright, my dear. It’s alright.” She gives me a small smile. “They’re probably running around again as we speak.” Then she laughs quietly, a tear sliding down her cheek.
The wind suddenly picks up and, noticing her fumbling hands as she tries to keep her shawl from flying off, I take a step closer, intending to help her. “Ah! Allow me, Gramma!” Hurriedly, I grab the two ends that have slipped from her grasp and move to tie them.
“Oh, thank you!” Gramma Gia looks at me, her gaze no longer bound to her shawl. “Good Lord! Nicayla!” she suddenly exclaims, before taking something out of her pocket.
“Gramma, please hold still… and there!” After tying the knot safely but not too close to her neck, or else I’d risk her choking on her own shawl, I look up only to find her milky eyes squinting at me. “I’m sorry I did it without thinking, but I was just trying to he—”
With a soft and fragrant handkerchief, she dabs gently at the corners of my eyes before moving to the rest of my face and ending up at my nose, wiping the snot there.
“Gramma! You don’t need to—Your handkerchief!”
“Now, hush! I have plenty more like this one, so just use it!” She lets the handkerchief fall, forcing me to catch it with my hands.
Staring at the pale green handkerchief in my hands, the color reminding me of the little sprouts my ecstatic Grampa used to show me every time he planted something in his garden, the tears fall down my cheeks again. “Gamma Gia…” My words become garbled again.
“There, there.” She wraps her arms around me, pulling me closer. “It’s okay. Nico, your Grampa, was the kindest boy Rickie and I had ever known. So whatever it is that’s—”
“No, you—you don’t understand!” I try to say, pulling away from her embrace.
But she only pulls me back, the smell of flowers and earth wafting up my nostrils. “Whatever it is that you didn’t get to tell him while he was alive, or that you didn’t get to do with him, he won’t hold a grudge or hate you or anything like that.”
“How can you be so sure? When he used to say how wonderful a lady I would become, or that I could do anything if I put my mind to it, I—I—I did none of that!”
“Nicayla…” Gramma Gia strokes my head, gently combing my hair.
“I didn’t even—I never even visited him after his funeral. When I saw him lying there, expressionless in the coffin, he—he—he looked like a completely different person, and I—”
“You couldn’t accept it, his death,” Gramma Gia whispers softly.
I nod, my tears wetting the shawl I tied for her. Around us, the wind keeps blowing.
“Nicayla,” Gramma pushes me away only to look me in the eyes, her own, wet with tears. “When Rickie passed away, I was the same. I couldn’t stand being in the same house we used to live in, so I lived with my kids for a while, but…”
“I couldn’t stand the thought of forgetting him more. So I came back and haven’t left since.” She smiles at me through the tears falling down her cheeks.
“Gramma, it hurts,” I whisper, afraid that admitting it will cause my entire life, my whole world, to crumble before me. But she renews her embrace, tightens it even. Then, she pulls me closer, her own tears wetting my shoulder.
“Nicayla, no matter how much it hurts, we have to remember them. If not us, who else will?” She pauses, then chuckles. “And, when we meet them again, do you want to be scolded for forgetting them like an old lady?”
A tiny smile tugs at my own lips. “You are an old lady, Gramma.”
She pulls back and lightly slaps my shoulder. “You dare mention an old lady’s age!” Her own smile is small and modest, her nose slightly red.
“But Gramma,” I ask, “What do I do now?”
Looking up at the sky, she answers, “You live.”
I follow her gaze and look up at the slowly-darkening sky.
“My husband told me, after he came back from the war, that he asked that question himself many times.” She laughs. “But then your Grampa appeared and kept him too busy to think.”
“What did they do?” I watch as her wistful expression turns mirthful.
“Oh, just the usual.” She points at the forest bordering half of the cemetery. “There? They used to run through that forest and pick wild mushrooms. They even helped the local school identify the things by taste-testing them.” She wipes the tears from her eyes.
“Weren’t they poisoned?”
Gramma shakes her head. Then she points to the hills bordering the other half of the cemetery. “Now, over there, they chased Lora and Brian’s goats for hours!”
I laugh at the picture forming in my mind. “Oh, Grampa. But why didn’t he tell me about these things? Every time I try to remember him, he’s always listening, but never talking much.” My finger scratches the side of my head, pondering but arriving at no conclusion.
Again, Gramma shakes her head. “My dear,it was you who talked his ears off. For me, it was Rickie, whether it was about this new book he was reading or your grandfather. For your grandfather, it was you. Besides…” Her lips curl downwards. “Us old people are just happy you young ones still remember us. So I’m sure he just let you talk as much as you want.”
My eyes widening, I nod slowly.
“So, whatever it is, just tell him, my dear.” She pats me on the shoulder before walking off, heading for another gravestone.
Rubbing the back of my neck, I start with, “Now that I think about it, isn’t it an achievement to last working under such a shitty boss for as long as I did? What do you think, Grampa?” I laugh, feeling light. “Does that count as amazing?”
Culled from blog.reedsy.com by Charlie Nemeris