This afternoon I sat at my desk eating a 100-calorie packet of almonds, thinking about how the experience was akin to eating those sad airline peanuts at an altitude of 40,000 feet. I thought about how strange it feels on days when you fly to Florida or California in the dead of winter, how you’ll be on a beach or out to dinner that night and realize you started the day in New York, how you feel as though a week has passed now you’re somewhere new entirely.
“I can’t believe that was this morning,” you inevitably say to someone around you, marveling at the loveless memory of the croissant you ate at the gate or the stale smell of the air on the plane. It all feels like it happened so long ago.
Yesterday morning my mother woke me by bursting through my bedroom door and saying, “I think my dad is dead.” Would you believe me if I said this wasn’t the first time I’ve been woken up this way?
My grandfather—the most complicated man and truest character in my life—was always dying, it seemed. The man notoriously abused his body for years with excess: the drugs, the alcohol, the smoking. The last ten years alone had seen him in and out of so many hospitals and rehab facilities, we lost track of the tally. Every time I went to visit him, I worried it would be my last. Instead, he always picked up where he left off.
The joke was that he would outlive us all. The joke was that he would never die. It was a joke we had made as recently as the evening prior at Easter dinner.
His housekeeper found him and called the paramedics. The paramedics called the cops. My mother and her sisters called each other—tipped off by the housekeeper and concerned when the authorities refused to get on the phone with any of them. I stuck my head under the cold faucet and slid my feet into my Doc Martens. My mother grabbed her car keys. She dialed the doorman at my grandfather’s building—the one he’s lived in for forty years on the Upper East Side.
“I’m Jack’s daughter,” she said into the receiver, sounding as young as I’ve ever heard her sound. When he tried to explain the police were upstairs assessing the situation she said, “It’s okay, you can just tell me.”
He let a few seconds of static silence pass before sighing and saying, “You have my deepest condolences.”
Christmas Eve, 2000. I was 11 years old. We showed up to my grandfather’s apartment, arms filled with wrapped presents, but my grandfather wouldn’t answer the door.
We could hear Christmas music playing from inside and smell the ham cooking from the hallway. Banging on the door ensued. Phone calls. No answer. My parents and aunt and uncle looked at each other to exchange notes using just a look: the consensus was not good.
I am the oldest of eight grandchildren. The eldest cousin. I was expected to keep calm and set a good example as we were all ushered back downstairs. We kept vigil in the lobby, where an elaborate tree display complete with prop presents and fake snow marked Christmas Eve—my favorite night of the year. I was in the process of being robbed of my favorite holiday, and quite possibly all forthcoming Christmas Eves.
I studied the adults. My aunt was crying. My mother spoke with her eyes open so wide I could see the whites of them all the way around her irises. My father and uncle tore through a phone book to look for a locksmith who would come out on Christmas Eve. The two doormen I’d known all my life—the ones who had watched me dance down this lobby every Christmas Eve for a decade—traded grim head nods as they attempt to call up to the apartment yet again. “This isn’t like Jack not to answer,” is what they murmured to each other.
When the locksmith arrived, I rode the elevator back up to the ninth floor, weepy and shaking, thinking what everyone else was: he’s dead, he’s dead, he’s dead.
The ham was burning. When the locksmith opened the door, smoke billowed out down the length of the cool green hallway. My mother instinctively shielded my eyes and yelled, “Don’t look!” But there was nothing to see.
My father and my uncle found my grandfather asleep in the bedroom—pulled beneath the depths of consciousness by pills and alcohol. A cigarette burned to the filter rested between his fingers. “It’s open,” he mumbled when they kicked his bedroom door in.
This was the precise brand of burden my mother and her two sisters spent a lifetime hauling around with them. But to me, it was a Christmas miracle.
All the cousins posed for a festive photograph around the locksmith as he diligently worked to reattach the doorknob. I spent the rest of the evening clinging to my grandfather—taking in the scent of scotch and cigarettes, reveling at how his laughter could shake the fixtures off the wall, thinking: he’s alive, he’s alive, he’s alive.
I think back to that Christmas Eve and it seems predestined now that I would walk down the same stretch of hall and into the same apartment one day fifteen years later to find him dead in his chair. It seems predestined that the same two doormen would give me identical looks of sorrow, and this time for the last time. When my mother opened the door, two cops and both her sisters were already inside. I instinctively shielded my own face behind my sleeve, but my mother said, “It’s okay.”
I waited in the apartment with my grandfather and his three daughters until the people from the funeral home came to execute next steps.
“I can’t believe he’s really dead,” I texted Lucy, who is my best friend and also my 16 year old cousin. “He’s still in the apartment, though. Like, I’m looking at him. He’s sitting up in his chair and they have him covered in a sheet.”
I traded “You okay?” texts with my sister like we were playing a terrible game of badminton.
When the men showed up in long coats, they took part of the sheet down to reveal his face for a positive identification. I hid in the kitchen. “We suggest you go into another room while we remove him,” I heard one of the men say.
I peeked my head from behind the wall to catch a glimpse of the back of his head now that the sheet was gone, to make it real. “Don’t look,” my aunt said, pulling me back into the kitchen.
I looked back, just once more before relenting, before they took him away.
This morning, I told myself the hardest thing I’ll have to do all day is swing my legs over the side of the bed. So I did it.
I rode the F train from my apartment in Brooklyn towards my office in Midtown Manhattan. For the length of the el track, it was a more pleasant than average commute. I read an essay on Lenny Letter penned by my favorite non-fiction writer turned favorite non-fiction writing teacher, Chloe Caldwell. I smeared on a fresh layer of Dr. Pepper lip gloss. I smirked at my reflection, made beautiful by the dull glass of the window. I spent the ride congratulating myself: for getting out of bed, for putting makeup on, for packing a healthy snack, and for making it onto the train. It wasn’t a particularly early train, but it was not the latest possible train I could take. I could still saunter into the office without a heft of guilt in step.
When the emergency brake went off, we were somewhere in the tunnel before the East Broadway stop. The force sent me sliding down my seat and into a pole.
A man in a Red Sox cap sat across from me with a small brown dog in his lap. The dog was shaking so much she became a blur. The man kept running his hand down the length of her back in hopes of calming her down, but the fur on her ears continued to dance beneath the anxious thrum of her heartbeat.
I get nervous on the subway, too, I thought, staring at the dog. My anxiety disorder is the least interesting thing about me—the thing I would most like to minimize—and yet it is still the moon that the tide of my body submits to. I felt sad for the dog. I willed us both to calm down.
The train announcements came in a murky set of three. Each time the voice piped in over the speaker, we all strained to hear what it was saying—never gleaning more than one word from the conductor. The word was “emergency.”
“Like, they pulled the emergency brake by accident, or something,” the woman next to the Red Sox fan said, fluent in the language of subway mumble.
How many minutes will go by before I have to dry swallow an Ativan? I ran some quick, arbitrary math in my head as they made the final announcement: “This will be the last stop. Everyone must walk up to the front car and evacuate this train.”
As we filed forward into different compartments of the train, the lights began to flicker and dim. Between cars, the air was cold and quiet and damp and foreboding—a space I was not meant to be in.
What sort of emergency is this? A fire, a gunman, a full blown terrorist attack. There was no atrocity too exotic for my brain to concoct on the long walk from the last subway car to the first.
But I assured myself I was okay. I spent the day prior sitting in a room with a dead body and managed to survive that. I was already drafting a frantic tardiness apology email in my head when I reached the light of the first subway car.
I hopped out onto the platform and plotted my next move. The train was parked two cars into the station with the rest trapped in the tunnel from whence I came. I looked up at the exit signs bearing Chinatown street names and tried to get my bearings when I saw a flock of my fellow commuters pointing at the tracks, imploring each other to look.
I thought they were noting that the emergency brake was indeed deployed and holding the train in place—so I looked down, too. What am I looking at? The emergency brake looked like one of those long red boots that police affix to the wheels of a car to keep it in place. Then the red mass didn’t look like a brace anymore, it looked like a dead deer on the side of the road. It looked like a dead deer pinned beneath the wheels of the train. Then I saw the back of the man’s head.
What am I looking at? I looked away once I knew, then looked back once more because no one told me not to. I looked back once more to make it real.
Don’t look, should have been the only voice that rang in my ears. Don’t look should have been the voice carrying me up the stairs, past the incoming fleet of FDNY, out onto the street faster than my legs have ever carried me.
Yesterday—after babysitting the body and making the arrangements—my aunts, my mother, and I went to the bar across the street from the funeral home and ordered a round in honor of my grandfather.
“I can’t believe that today was today, you know?” my aunt later said from behind her whiskey. “It feels like this morning wasn’t this morning.”
“Like when you go on vacation and can’t fathom that only this morning you were rustling a tiny bag of peanuts on the plane,” I concurred.
I am not much of a fan of airline peanuts, but I like the part when the flight attendants hand out refreshments. I am an anxious flyer. The doling out of passenger peanuts means we have reached our cruising altitude and a certain kind of danger I associate with takeoff is behind us. It means only so many things can go wrong from here. It means we might be safe, for now.
It means we are free to unclench our fists, relax our spines, raise our window shades, and open our eyes: it’s okay to look now.