“We need to go,” my mother said. The urgency in her voice alarmed me and I immediately tried to figure out how alarmed I was supposed to be.
“Who was that?” My sister asked as my mom threw her Nokia cell phone into her purse and started pulling on her own pants, the clothes she was trying on in a pile under the dressing room mirror; a forgotten heap of denim, silk florals, khaki, and cotton stripes.
“It was Dad.” She smashed her syllables too close together and it was making my heart beat faster than normal.
Mom was putting her shoes on and gathering her purse. I stood in the middle of the dressing room still holding on to the pristine, white platform flip-flops that I had been waiting to purchase, the promise of owning them the only thing getting me through the tediousness of watching my mother try on clothes. My best friend came to my house wearing them and the habitual instinct of being jealous of everything she wore and owned and did created a want – a need – in me to have a matching pair.
I looked down at the flip-flops in my hand as Mom sprinted out of the dressing room, hoisting her purse on to her shoulder, her car keys already clutched in her white-knuckled hand.
“Can I still get the flip flops?”
The only answer I got was her running into the women’s section of Mervyn’s with my sisters following her quick steps. I continued to stare at the flip-flops as I felt them fall onto the poorly carpeted floor, the last size seven in the entire store left in that room with the heaps of summer clothes frozen in crumpled piles of desire.
To this day, those flip-flops haunt me. The question that became rhetorical wades around with the loss and grief and anguish that props up the memory of that day. The look on my mother’s face, the way her olive skin transformed into paste and her eyes into dusty pieces of beach glass, the way her voice stopped sounding assuring and confident and turned uncertain and child-like, this is what I think of when I remember how my 15-year-old world suddenly became very adult.
The car ride doesn’t exist anymore; in my memory, we flew on the backs of imaginary birds from the Mervyn’s dressing room straight to the hospital that doesn’t exist anymore, the empty building housing the ghosts of that day. Mom drove up to the emergency room parking lot where a man was standing behind the entrance railing, tears streaming down his face as he choked on his own sobs. He sounded like a little boy and his broken face uncomfortably captivated me. I looked into the eyes of this weeping, dark-faced man and thought how much he looked like me when I cried.
It was a few minutes later when I realized that man, the man with the wet, distorted face, was my father.
“He’s gone.” My father choked out the words in between giant, toddler sobs and I had to look away.
My immediate thought was to one of my grandfathers; which one, I can’t remember, but the oldest people you know are seemingly the ones to die first. Neither one of them was sick, so it must have been some kind of sudden ailment; a stroke, a heart attack, a brain aneurysm.
“Vince. He’s gone.”
Initially, I didn’t know what Vince he was talking about, for he couldn’t be talking about Uncle Vince, the hardly middle-aged man who just had a baby. The man who color-coordinated his closet and bought his one-year-old daughter a dustpan and broom instead of toys. The man who was healthy and active. My dad’s baby brother.
There must have been some kind of miscommunication. Mistaken identity. Morbid joke. False information. But, when we entered the emergency room and I saw Aunt Christina howling like an injured puppy, the walls closed in on me and I understood the gravity of this moment, of this death, and I knew this was real. This was happening. This happened.
When people die, your mind immediately rewinds through the memories you have of that person, going through each moment like a flipbook, one of those souvenir kinds you buy at stores; a series of snapshots made into a tiny book and when you flip through each page in a rapid manner, the pictures appear animated. It only takes a few seconds. This specific flipbook started with a memory of sitting on my uncle’s lap in our living room and ended with a silent car drive where I didn’t say I love you before I got out, for no reason at all except that I didn’t think to. I was sorting through each moment, each individual snapshot, forcing the pictures to stop moving: The time my family stayed in his house in Pasadena and he had no food, so we binged on chocolate covered macadamia nuts – a gift someone brought him from Hawaii and the only remotely edible item in the house, the time we went to Disneyland and he signed my autograph book before any of the characters did, the time he called the house and when I answered with the standard, Hello?, he responded with, Is your refrigerator running?, and continued with the outdated joke that made him laugh more than it made me laugh.
This was the man, who at 14 years old, passed out while in my parents’ wedding from nerves. Don’t lock your knees like your Uncle Vince did, I was told more than once when participating in any kind of occasion where I would have to stand in front of a group of people. The man who dad looked out for after grandma died because he was the baby of all six children. The man who dad golfed with and the man who dad helped move from Southern California to Northern California. The man whose children we would all later help raise and then all say goodbye to when they moved out of state.
That Vince. That Vince was gone.
And, now we were here in the waiting room of a sterile smelling room that was decorated in rough, cheap carpet and out-dated wallpaper. I looked around and saw my parents and cousins and aunts and uncles and then I saw Uncle Vince’s 4-month-old son wailing in the car seat on the couch. I looked into his dark eyes, glossy with tears, and saw so much of my uncle in him. Here we were, a decade apart, but both of us possessing the same eyes, brown and misty, brimming with tears that hadn’t quite found their way down either of our cheeks. I was crying just as much for him as I was for myself, knowing he may never cry over his dead father in his life because he was too young to even understand what it meant to lose him. His two-year-old daughter sat next to her baby brother, looking confused. She couldn’t understand why her mommy was so upset, but I don’t think she understood that her daddy wasn’t going to come home later, either. I don’t think either of them could understand that their 6-year-old half brother saw his stepfather fall and hit his head in his front yard and die and that he would never forget it.
Neither of them could understand, but I could, so I kissed Isaiah in his car seat and sat Sophia in my lap, holding on to them as if that made up for the fact that their father just died.
That day is made up of a series of snapshots, bound together in their own flipbook. I can see the front yard of their house through the large window in their living room. I can see the cement walkway that pours into the driveway and I can see the wide patch of grass where he knelt down to garden and where he died. I pretend I can see the small pool of blood on the edge of the planter where his head hit it, where he fell over when his heart stopped, the last thing to leave his body before his body became empty. I can see the taxi pull up to the house and I see Aunt Christina meet her mother as she opens the door of the taxi, my aunt’s back to the window. Her mother stands in front of her and after a few seconds, her face crumples the way that slept-in sheets do and her head shakes and they hug and I stop looking because I start to feel like I’m watching someone’s diary being played out.
I can see my grandfather’s face, damp and pale, and I do not recognize him. The grandpa I know was dark and strong, but this man looked fragile. He walks in to my aunt and uncle’s house surrounded by my dad and his brother and it’s as if he cannot stand on his own and I realize he’s crying.
I remember looking at old photographs my dad’s sister found of my grandpa and grandma’s wedding and making jokes about how they had the “Mexican” faces – stoic and serious. There were no smiles, no hugging, no looking into each other’s eyes. It was like a business transaction. My dad continued to tell me it was just how it was; my grandpa never said “I love you”, and it wasn’t because he didn’t, it was just because that’s not how he showed love. My grandfather instead worked no less than two jobs his whole life, giving my father a world in which he never knew they were poor, even though they were.
This same man was slowly melting in the foyer of my aunt and uncle’s house, crying and saying it should have been him.
I again looked away, the moment too exposed to experience and it was that moment when my eyes scanned the living room of my aunt and uncle’s house when I realized this was now just my aunt’s house and that I could no longer handle the tears and crying and grief that was filling up every corner and crevice of it and that this house would always be where I saw my grandfather cry for the first time.