What my grandfather taught me best were the stars. Constellations have it all figured out; they just sit up there and watch beauty unfold.
Sitting together, my grandfather and I hold hands, mine cool and blemish free, his large, encompassing, aged; his facing the sky, mine resting gently on the folds of his tweed jacket. His clinking gin and tonic means it is time for the show. Ritualistically, classical music escapes the house through the shingles, lifting the sky to darken, pushing away the shade from the stars.
Glancing up slowly, about to conduct the symphony, he reads the stars like a well-practiced orator. Recounting tales of Galileo, painting pictures of Renaissance men with scrolls, delivering notices on horseback. The seven sisters join together as the night sky begins its welcome. See them each holding close together in their orbit. The earth is indeed round, and my grandfather spreads the word while reading off the textbook paragraphs of Greek mythology he remembers. You and I are like Columbus, but we just know more now, you know? You can’t see it, but it is where you go when you die, above the clouds. The twirling solar system, so expansive, includes explicit diagrams of swirling milky ways and spotty stars. The dark gas encompasses the old stars, sweeping them up, making them disappear into the galaxy.
Darkening our faces and forcing our eyes shut, Orion swings his sword while Cassiopeia glows in her distinct formation. The Gemini twins wave goodnight, Cepheus dozes off in his throne, while the little insignificant figures of people miles below blow out their candles for sleep. The people on earth close their eyes to the stars, as the stars come out to look upon the world.
My eyelids have slipped as my grandfather reaches the part about the winter night sky. When the Greek bull Taurus beats his horns into the neighboring stars, he demands sleep. Smiling, my grandfather pats my kneecap. On his porch, guarded by Achilles and his shining brothers and his sisters, our galaxies are impenetrable.
My grandfather recently leaned over the table at dinner, hands grasped neatly in his lap, facing me. He widened his eyes beneath his bifocals, stretching the wrinkles below the lids. Do you remember that time when we were sitting on the hammock? You were looking up at the sky and I was sitting right beside you. I remember thinking in that moment: nothing can get any better than this. This is as good as it gets. That’s what I thought, you know? This is perfect. This is as good as it gets.
My grandfather refuses to get rid of anything old. He recently brought photos from the 1930’s to visit my grandmother in the hospital. My grandmother counted the days on her fingers as she paged through coupons. As we gathered around her wheelchair, joking about the fashion styles, giggling at longhaired men, and naming dead relatives in every picture, my grandfather held a single photo of a teenage girl. Somber, he gazed into the eyes of the girl in the picture until he nearly cried. This is your grandmother. Look how beautiful she was. Look she used to have dimples in her cheeks. She had freckles too but they faded away with age. Look how young she was and beautiful.
My grandfather must write a personal essay about everything he has accomplished for his fiftieth Harvard University reunion. The prompt is that he is supposed to discuss who he really came to be and where the path of life has led him before death.
He sits in the corner staring at a coffee table book. Holding it at the seams, caressing the pages, he looks up solemn, dark, frustrated, and old. I found it very hard to write this essay. I can never take back my memories because they’re over. I will never get the chance to re-live them. They’re done. All of the good times are behind me. Everything good has already happened.
So it is happening and it is swallowing his brain, eating his organs, constantly sloshing, pulsing veins, bursting blemishes out along his hairline, preventing oxygen from making it to his smile.
It isn’t my job to solve it. It isn’t my job to research the medications that might decorate the white dinner table or lie and say everything is okay. It isn’t my job to deal with his incurable darkened viewpoint or pat him on the back every time he cries at a sad movie. I can’t tell him it is all going to be okay, because he is going to die, his good memories have passed, he isn’t young, and it is nearing an end.
This is what ruins me. What happens when you get to a point in your life when you know it is over? When you know, that physically, mentally, and emotionally, the best is done? Is it the fear of death or this realization that drives you utterly stir crazy? Do you really want to live to forever when you realize that all you ever knew was the earth, and that alone seemed so complex? Karma was wrong, good guys die too, life loses purpose, and you fall into a dark hole.
I want him to understand that I get that. I know that nostalgia can’t cure the soul. I get that he wants to plant himself in an era and sit in perfection as all else moves around him.
Dark cold and breaking a sweat, my grandfather checks the clock, closes his eyes and getting down to kneel by his bed, he prays that his wife will get out of the hospital, that the apple tree out back holds up through the hurricane, and that his grandchildren will always keep kosher. He gulps down his anti-depressants and takes a quick glance at the stars just to make sure they’re still there.
Allison Korbey, Age 17, Grade 12, Berkeley Carroll School, Gold Key