Hi. My name is Kevin, and I’m a gay medium. That’s not typically how I introduce myself, and my business cards aren’t rainbow-colored – which might be a missed branding opportunity, now that I think about it – but I’m drawing attention to my sexuality here for a reason. As with my gayness, I spent years denying my mediumism. I was filled with a steady trickle of fear, shame, disgust, and self-loathing, until at last the levee broke and I looked out over the great flood and thought, simply, “Fuck it.” I no longer deny these fundamental and unchangeable truths about myself: I am gay; I am a medium; I am a gay medium.
Before you ask (because I know you will; people always ask), yes, I have communicated with “celebrity ghosts.” The most famous one (always the second question) was Liberace. They say you should never meet your idols because they’re bound to disappoint you. If that’s the case, it’s a good thing I’ve always been more of an Elton John gay than a Liberace gay. “How dare you wear those in my presence!” he howled upon first laying incorporeal eyes on me, taking extreme offense at my tropical-teal Crocs. Admittedly, I wasn’t dressed my best: the niece of a supposed former lover of his called in a panic in the middle of the night and I rushed over in my PJs and house Crocs.
“H-He cr-crawled out of the b-bathroom mirror and-and started trashing m-my house and screaming awful things at me! I-It was absolutely t-terrifying,” she stammered. “Oh, but he looks just fabulous…Wait ‘til you see him!”
“Oh, I’m sure he does. He was ‘Mister Showmanship,’ after all.”
The furious – and fabulous – specter didn’t explain his appearance in the woman’s mirror, but he didn’t have to: as soon as the unfortunate phrase “jilted lover” tumbled out of her mouth, every glass surface in the house cracked and the fake crystal chandelier hanging over her dining room table dropped and shattered into a hundred pieces.
“Leave! And take those cretinous things with you!” He hadn’t yet appeared to me, but I could just feel Liberace seething; I imagined his face twisted into a scowl, his finger trembling with rage as he pointed it at my diabolical footwear.
“Y-You can’t leave! Not without exorcising him! Please don’t leave!” Liberace’s lover’s niece grabbed at my arm, pulling on the sleeve of my Golden Girls t-shirt and stretching out its neck.
“Great. I just bought this,” I mumbled under my breath. I peered down, past the droopy neck of my now-ruined shirt, and made eye contact with Dorothy. The Girls’ detached heads floated above an enormous “SQUAD GOALS” hashtag. “Well, ma’am…I’m not an exorcist. Exorcists expel spirits, usually malicious ones, whereas I communicate with lost spirits and find out why, exactly, they’re manifesting themselves in particular loca—”
“Whatever it is you do, please just do it! I’m running an open house in the morning and I can’t deal with the House Hunters crowd on no sleep! I…I just can’t.” She dropped her head and started sobbing. I’d sob, too, if I were her. I’ve watched enough HGTV to know how those insufferable couples go on and on about paint color and stainless-steel appliances and cabinet pulls and hardwood floors and space for entertaining as if they entertain every goddamn night of the week.
“Please, try not to get so upset. I think he’s enjoying it. Actually…That might be exactly why he’s here.” At this, my client’s unwanted houseguest burst into hysterical laughter over the faint, otherworldly tickling of piano keys. “Bingo. But this is a petty, vindictive, show-business homosexual we’re dealing with here.” Visions of a bedazzled man with a huge pompadour and blinding veneers playing a crystal piano shimmered through my mind. “Someone like that won’t just go away without a fuss.”
Indeed, he didn’t. Liberace struck back with ferocity at my every attempt to initiate contact. I ran my fingers over the cracks in the bathroom mirror and its splintered frame; he coaxed a column of water out of the toilet bowl, like a cobra from a snake charmer’s basket, and struck me in the side of the head. “Enjoy that waterlogged ear, kid!” he howled from the Beyond.
“Son of a bitch!” I smacked my ear with the heel of my hand in an attempt to dislodge the water. It didn’t work; that never works. I’d spend the rest of the morning intermittently slapping my head, as if I’d be able to sneak up on the water and scare it away.
As the niece struggled in vain to sleep, her head sandwiched between two pillows, her tossing and turning and grunts of rage no doubt delighting her tormentor, I made my way through the rooms of the bedeviled Brownstone. I understood exactly the frustration Harry and Marv must have felt in Home Alone. Liberace was my Kevin McCallister: he tripped me with an invisible wire and sent me tumbling down the stairs; he lobbed encyclopedias and old issues of Better Homes and Gardens at me, with startling quickness and thankfully terrible aim; he slammed doors in my face and drawers against the back of my head, all in an attempt to send me and my Crocs fleeing in terror. It didn’t work. It was a showy, hollow display of theatrics. It was, quite frankly, a disappointment, given the perpetrator’s earthly claim to fame as a master of showmanship. “Judy would’ve been much more convincing,” I mumbled after the umpteenth jump scare.
“W-What was that?” Liberace said, in an unexpectedly small voice. I was in the dining room, nudging pieces of fake crystal with the toe of my Croc. “Did you mention Judy? The Judy?”
“Oh, um…Y-Yes. Yes, I mentioned Judy.” I was exasperated after three hours of booby traps, flying furniture, and stereotypical ghost noises; I found myself emboldened by exhaustion. Crossing my arms, I continued, “I just think Judy would do a much better job of scaring me. She’d be fully committed to this role.”
Liberace responded not with a taunting cackle or a heaved periodical, but rather with a whimper: “That’s not fair! You can’t compare me with Judy Garland! Her haunting would win a goddamn Oscar, for Christ’s sake!”
“Finally, we’re on to something,” I thought. I should have known that comparing one gay icon unfavorably to another would have jump-started this conversation and spared me hours of frustration. “Well, I’m sorry, but…I’m only being honest with you. Maybe this just isn’t your thing.”
“Ha…‘My thing?’” Liberace materialized in the space over the dining room table. He sat cross-legged on an invisible chair, probably some exquisite chaise lounge stuffed with phoenix down. He wore a resplendent emerald jacket with gold embroidered accents; a cravat tufted out from beneath the collar and nestled against his pronounced chin. He fidgeted with the cufflinks of his jacket as he stared down at me. His expression was free of the malice he’d been affecting for the past few hours; instead, he seemed tired, resigned, defeated. “Of course this isn’t ‘my thing.’”
“Well…Then what is?” I asked, uncrossing my arms and dampening my own affectation. “I mean, everyone knows what your thing was, but…What are you doing here, of all places, and why now?”
“Don’t you dare think I’ll be regaling you with the salacious details of a sordid love affair!” The wrath with which he earlier ravaged my sense of fashion flared up in an instant, but died down just as quickly. He turned his back to me and then, resting his great chin upon his shoulder, glanced back coyly. “You won’t be hearing such things, I’m afraid. So sorry to disappoint you.”
“Liberace, uh…sir. I promise I won’t be disappointed. You can tell me the truth.” I took a half-step forward, careful not to crunch the shards of plastic underfoot. I didn’t want to offend this prima donna and send his suddenly pleasant disposition careening to the opposite end of the spectrum. “You don’t have to worry about entertaining me.”
“I don’t exist for your entertainment! But then…That’s all I’ve ever known.”
“So, you’re feeling lost?” I asked, straining against the fatigue to sound sympathetic.
“Of course I’m feeling lost. What am I, if not an entertainer? And I can’t exactly entertain anyone in this state. No, they call it ‘haunting.’”
“You know, there are people who enjoy a good haunting. To them, this would be entertaining. A sort of…paranormal entertainment, I guess. I’m just not so sure this particular lady is enjoying herself.”
“Oh, of course she’s not. I’m not here to entertain her.” Liberace chuckled as he swiveled to face me, and a devilish grin unfurled across his transparent face. “I’m here to torment her.”
“Torment her? Why would you do that? Someone of your caliber—”
“Save it. My boy, caliber doesn’t mean a thing when you’re dead. But what else am I supposed to do? In my aimless, endless wandering, I happened upon the relative of a former…fan, let’s call him. So I popped in for a bit of fun.”
“Things didn’t end well?”
“Tch.” Whether it was heartbreak or a headache – or a venereal disease; I didn’t think it was appropriate to ask – Liberace’s lips were sealed, and I couldn’t divine the answer on my own.
“Oh, uh, well…The details of that relationship aren’t important. What is important, however, is that this lady – I don’t even know her name; she’s his niece, I guess? – she has nothing to do with that relationship. Haunting her over something from someone else’s past is just…cruel. It’s beneath you.”
“Well…You make a fine point, actually. I’m too good for this, aren’t I?” he asked, in a tone which suggested he already knew the answer but needed just a bit of external validation. I nodded my head, happy to oblige. “I’ve been holding on for so long that I…Well, I guess I was terrified to let go. But I can’t hold on forever. I’m…tired.”
“That’s understandable. You’ve been wandering for quite a long time now. But, if you’re ready to move on, I think I’d be able to help. If you’re willing to accept it, of course.”
“Go ahead,” he gestured, wordlessly, and adjusted the collar of his jacket as if he were preparing to glide onstage.
“One moment, please. You’ll be on the right side in no time.”
I looked for a fracture in the Divide – that’s the partition between the realm of the living and that of the departed – which I could pry open for Liberace to take his long-overdue leave. I didn’t have to search for very long: I found one in the living room, suspended in the air above the coffee table. “How convenient.” I took a deep breath, readying myself for what would ensue, and grabbed at the seam with both hands. “Here’s your exit!” I shouted, and I ripped the fabric of space and time. (The fabric of space and time, to use a familiar, tangible point of reference, rips about as easily as single-ply toilet paper you’d find in the bathroom of a gas station. The barrier between “the other side” and this one is about as flimsy as one could imagine.)
The house’s frame swelled as the Divide opened and unseen energies filled its disheveled rooms. The air became thick and hot in an instant. The floorboards groaned under the immense strain of two planes existing in one space. I heard the creaking of the exposed ceiling beams overhead, the rattling of the plastic shards strewn across the dining room floor. My breath quickened and the skin on my arms broke out in goosebumps. “Please, go,” I gasped, as the heaviness wrapped around my throat and pressed down on my shoulders like a lead apron. The pressure was unbearable; my eyeballs felt like they could burst just as easily as grapes.
“Thank you, my boy.” Liberace patted my shoulder as he floated past, his touch like a cool breeze through my stretched-out t-shirt. “Give the girl my warmest regards.” In a second he was gone, and the Divide slammed shut like a car trunk with broken struts.
“Oof.” I collapsed on the sofa, jostling the coffee table as I fell. My joints were throbbing with exhaustion by this point; it had filled the space between every bone in my body and seeped down to the marrow. I felt an ache from my scalp to my shoulders to my lower back, stabbing like a hot butter knife up and down my spine. My nostrils, smushed up against an antique couch cushion, were flooded with decades’ worth of must and God knows what else. The funk wasn’t enough to deter me, though; I took a nap right then and there. My nap was short-lived.
“He’s gone, isn’t he?!” the niece screamed, as she practically ripped her bedroom door off its hinges. I followed her footsteps as she raced down the second-floor hallway and stomped down the stairs in the throes of a frantic euphoria. “I can feel it, the change in the air! Oh, thank you, you wonderful exorcist! Thank you, thank you, thank you!”
“Goddammit.” I flipped over with a huff and looked up at the ecstatic woman: she wore a pink terrycloth bathrobe over what appeared to be a set of Rainbow Brite pajamas; the whites of her eyes were closer in color to the red of her flushed cheeks; wadded-up tissues were stuck in the tumbleweed of hair sprouting from her head. She looked absolutely pathetic. I couldn’t possibly be mad at her, not for the harrowing events of the previous few hours, not for interrupting my much-needed and much-deserved nap, not even for repeatedly getting my profession wrong. “…You’re welcome, ma’am. Glad I could help. And I was able to meet Liberace, which is kinda cool, I guess.”
“Oh, well, um, the thing is…He wasn’t really Liberace. He was a Liberace impersonator named Gene who my uncle had a fling with. But after so many years of doing it, he stopped answering to ‘Gene,’ so…He was kinda Liberace?”
“‘Kinda Liberace?’ Oh…That’s disappointing.”
“Yeah. I’m sorry. If it makes you feel any better, he was apparently the number-one Liberace impersonator in Atlantic City!”
(Alright, alright, so I didn’t meet the ghost of the real Liberace, but “number-one Liberace impersonator in Atlantic City” is a mouthful…I just shave off a few words for brevity’s sake, honest!)
“Well…I guess he was really convincing.”
“I know, right? But, if I may ask, how did you get rid of him?”
“I just, uh…I asked him to leave.”
That wasn’t the entire truth, but it wasn’t exactly a lie, either. I don’t like explaining the process of disinviting – opening the Divide so lost spirits can cross over to the side on which they belong – to clients, interviewers, forum-dwellers, fans, or Mom. The physics are wonky, my explanations are clumsy, and, more often than not, I’m met with stares of skepticism, confusion, incredulity, or a combination thereof. Instead, I offer some vague explanation and dodge the follow-up questions.
I’ve called it “disinviting” ever since I watched an episode of The Comeback starring Lisa Kudrow, the very best Friend (I don’t care how popular “the Rachel” was), in which her character, Valerie Cherish, yells at a production assistant on the set of her TV show. This assistant, who’d learned in school that actors have dangerously fragile egos and thus cannot be told what to do, “invites” Valerie to set whenever it’s time to film her scenes.
“Stop with the invitations, alright?” Valerie snaps, after what must have been the hundredth invite. “I’m not a child! If you want me to come, just tell me to come!” As far as origin stories go, this one’s weird, I get it. It’s like an inside joke you have with yourself, or that annoying voice you put on whenever you talk to your pets: it makes perfect sense to you, but you’d be mortified if another human being were ever to hear it.
Still, it works for me. The spirits I encounter are often much like Valerie Cherish: petulant, self-absorbed, and given to bouts of histrionics. But they aren’t throwing a hissy fit over a cut line, or an unflattering camera angle, or a dressing room that’s smaller than a co-star’s: they’re stuck in a place they don’t belong, and they’re blissfully unaware that they don’t belong until a loved one screams in their face and flees in terror. Suddenly, they realize they haven’t eaten or slept or peed or pooped or smelled or tasted or felt in days, and maybe that nightmare about dying wasn’t a nightmare, after all. It’s an unenviable situation. I’d be pissed, too. Therefore, when I disinvite them from this plane, I must do so in the politest, most non-threatening way possible – and hope for no Valerie Cherish-style clapback.
I haven’t always possessed the ability to disinvite spirits. Rather, I haven’t always been aware that I possess this ability. The ability to see and communicate with spirits, however, is something I’ve been cognizant of for as long as I can remember. When I was six years old, I spent a rather fateful weekend at Grandma Ollie’s house in Cranford, New Jersey. This wasn’t my first weekend at Ollie’s: every few weeks, Mom would pry the Super Nintendo controllers out of our hands and make Dad drive us over to his mother’s house for a weekend off the grid. (That was the early Nineties’ version of a social media disconnect.)
On this particular weekend, however, my older brother was stuck on the couch with an ankle he’d broken at a Little League game, so I visited Grandma Ollie on my own. As much as it pained me to think of Kyle playing Street Fighter II Turbo by himself – and thus Zangief’s worldwide campaign of terror going unopposed by the much nobler Chun Li – soaking up all of Grandma Ollie’s attention and adoration for two whole days wasn’t such a bad consolation.
No sooner had Dad pulled in front of Grandma Ollie’s house than I sprang out of his pick-up truck and barreled down the sidewalk, careful as any six-year-old can be to avoid tripping over crooked concrete panels. Ollie stood with arms outstretched at the foot of the porch steps, her feet planted shoulder-width apart in preparation for the impact. “Oof,” she grunted, as I tackled her with the full force of my clumsy exuberance.
“Hiya, Sweetheart. Grandma’s gonna have to start wearing football pads whenever you come over.” She smiled down at me, pushing the messy bangs back off my forehead, then pulled me against her in a tight hug. She smelled just like she always did: a mixture of her favorite perfume, Charlie Blue, and her favorite cigarettes, Marlboro Reds. “Hi, Johnny,” she called over my head to Dad.
“Hi, Mom.” Dad leaned over me to kiss Ollie on the cheek. “We stopped and got you some scratch-offs and a pack of cigs.”
“Thanks, Johnny. This one’s the same as always,” she said, patting the top of my head, “But how’s my oldest grandson? That ankle of his getting any better?”
“Yeah, it’s getting there. Just itches him real bad. Doctor Kim said the cast can come off in a few weeks.”
“Aww, poor baby. We’ll have to call him later and say hi, won’t we, Sweetheart?” Ollie said, pinching my chubby cheek between her crooked fingers.
“Uh…Sure.” I’d sooner scream at Kyle for playing Street Fighter without me than I’d say hello. That rousing theme song blared through my head as I imagined him hogging the entire couch and beating up Chun Li out of spite.
Dad chuckled. “Don’t miss your brother too much, Kevin. And don’t give your grandmother any trouble, okay?” He handed Ollie her scratch-offs and Reds and kissed her goodbye, then crouched down so I could give him a hug. “I’ll pick him up sometime on Sunday. Thanks, Mom. Love you."
Ollie and I waved goodbye to Dad as he pulled away from the house and started down Third Street. Once his truck disappeared from view, we turned and made our way up the sagging porch steps, Ollie’s arm wrapped tight around my shoulders. She’d lived in that Victorian for the entirety of her adult life: through a fifty-year marriage to my grandfather, who’d passed away before Kyle and I were born; through motherhood to two sons, one daughter, and the decades of joy and tribulation which followed; and for fifteen years as a widow. I remember Grandma Ollie fondly. She was always quick to laugh, hers a scratchy chuckle from the years of smoking, and always quick to praise, clasping her hands in front of her face and beaming with immense pride at our little grade-school accomplishments.
I remember a sadness in her eyes, too, a longing for her husband and a longing for more time with her grandsons, whose rambunctious energy was hard to match at eighty-six. Still, if she couldn’t exactly keep pace with us as we raced down the block to the park, she could make sure the glass bowl by the front door was always filled with hard candies, and occasionally slip Dad some money to buy us one of those “Super Whatever” video game thingies, and spoil us for an entire weekend before sending us back to Mom all hyped up on sugar.
“I made some cookies for you, Sweetheart. Don’t tell your mother,” Ollie laughed. She pried the lid off the cookie tin and placed it in the center of the kitchen table. I climbed into a chrome chair as she crossed to the counter to pour me a glass of milk.
I noticed then, for the very first time, I think, the state of disrepair Ollie’s house had fallen into. The kitchen table wobbled as I reached for the tin; the tabletop was covered in coffee rings, toast crumbs, and cigarette ashes. The cookies had burnt edges, as if Ollie had forgotten them in the oven and remembered just a minute or two too late; their color matched the rust spots freckling the tin. The paint on the walls had peeled and flaked to the floor like dandruff.
“Does Grandma Ollie notice? Is she unable to do anything about it? Should I say something to Dad on the way home?” I watched her struggle to lift the glass bottle and hold it steady with both hands. Milk splashed all over the counter as she poured my glass. She shuffled back to the table, her slippers scratching like sandpaper on the linoleum floor. “Here you go, Sweetheart. A nice, tall glass of milk.”
I still remember feeling such a sadness in that moment. I looked at my grandmother and all I could see was her age. Her smile trembled as if it were a great strain to hold. Her eyes were dull and black; they’d sunken into her face like chocolate chips in cookie dough. Her laugh lines were familiar to me, but they seemed deeper than I’d remembered, less faint parentheses than brackets in bold type. “I love you, Grandma Ollie,” I blurted out, seized by a sudden feeling of urgency.
“And I love you, Sweetheart,” she said. Her eyes brightened and her smile steadied in an instant, and I again saw my grandmother, not her age or her struggling. Our first weekend together flew by with nary a thought of Street Fighter or of Kyle using my controller with his Cheetos-stained hands.
“Have you been having a good time this weekend, Sweetheart?” Ollie asked, after our Saturday-night American Gladiators and ice cream party, as she tucked me into bed.
I nodded as she pulled the handmade quilt off the back of the rocking chair and laid it on top of me. She’d made that quilt just for me: she started as soon as Mom announced that she was pregnant for the second time – well, after they speculated whether I was a boy or a girl based on how Mom’s belly sat and in which direction her butt grew – and she finished three days before I was born. It was the very last thing she was able to make before her fingers became warped with arthritis. It capped off a lifetime of knitting, sewing, and crocheting, and I felt a peculiar honor for having received her final craft. “There! You’ll be nice and warm under your quilt. So, what do you say we make pancakes in the morning? With chocolate chips! Just don’t tell your mother.”
“Thanks, Grandma Ollie.”
“You’re most welcome, Sweetheart. This has been a very special weekend. I love you.”
“I love you, too,” I said. My heavy eyelids and the door to the guest bedroom closed in unison. I remember seeing, in that last full second of wakefulness, Grandma Ollie’s silhouette against the burnt yellow light of the second-floor hallway: her signature old lady perm, puffy as a cloud; her stooped shoulders and rounded back; the sleeves of her favorite oversized sweater, the one whose pockets were always stuffed with tissues for sniffling little noses and Werther’s Originals.
The following morning, we made chocolate chip pancakes just as Grandma Ollie had promised. The smell of pancake batter filled my nose and the greatest hits of Doris Day filled the kitchen, wafting from the stereo Dad had bought for Ollie when her record player quit after four decades of service. “I won’t be able to work this thing, Johnny,” she’d said, eyeing the stereo and stack of cassettes with supreme suspicion. “Don’t worry, Mom. The kids can show you how to operate it.” Looking back, I think Ollie must have been worried that she’d somehow be cheating on my grandpa by trading in his record player for a stereo. Still, despite her hesitation, she learned quickly, and not a single morning passed without the hits of Doris, Peggy, Ella, Frank, or Dean providing the soundtrack for coffee and crossword puzzles.
“Here, Sweetheart,” Ollie said, sliding two pancakes onto my plate to replace the ones I’d scarfed down. “You eat these while I get some flowers from the backyard.”
“Okay” was my response, muffled by a mouthful of pancake.
Ollie pushed open the screen door and stepped out into the warm sunshine of that late-April morning. The door swung shut behind her with a smack as she greeted the birds who’d congregated in her garden, singing them a song as they hopped and chirruped all around her. I recognized that song: “Bye Bye Blackbird,” my grandpa’s favorite song, apparently, and the only one I can remember ever hearing Grandma Ollie sing. She returned after a few minutes with two handfuls of yellow tulips.
“Well, aren’t these pretty!” She retrieved a glass vase from the cabinet over the sink and filled it with water from the tap. “Nothing like a few flowers to liven the place up, don’t you think, Sweetheart?”
“Yeah,” I agreed, and I pushed the plate of pancakes aside so Ollie could center the vase on the kitchen table. I watched as she cheerily arranged the tulips, and I recalled the sadness I’d felt just a couple of days earlier. That Grandma Ollie, with her tired eyes and her trembling smile, was nowhere to be found in this kitchen. She’d been fully revived, it seemed, just as bright and happy as that bouquet of flowers. She was at the sink, washing her hands and humming her husband’s favorite song, when the doorbell rang.
“Oh! Would you get that, Sweetheart?” Ollie called over her shoulder. “It might be your dad.”
“Okay.” My chair scraped the floor as I pushed it out from the table. As I ran down the front hallway, I spotted Dad’s Yankees cap through the stained glass of the front door. “It’s him!” I called back to Ollie. The running water and her humming had both stopped.
“Hey, Kiddo,” Dad greeted me when I unlocked and opened the front door for him. Pulling me in for a hug, he asked, “Did you have fun with your grandmother this weekend?”
“Yep! We watched American Gladiators and ate ice cream and had chocolate chip pancakes for breakfast!”
“Oh, boy…Sounds like someone got spoiled. Let’s not mention any of that to Mom, okay?” Dad grabbed onto my shoulders and I led the way down the hall.
“Hey, um, Dad? Can I play Nintendo when we get home?”
“Well, that all depends on how good you were this weekend. How did he do, Mom?” Dad came to an abrupt stop in the kitchen doorway, tugging me backward. Grandma Ollie wasn’t there. “Oh…I thought your grandmother was in here. Where is she?” he said, and he turned my head to take a look at my face.
“Uh…Huh?” I was confused. I scanned the kitchen: the tulips were in their vase in the center of the table; the plate of pancakes was there, too, getting cold; the whisks and bowls of batter cluttered the counter next to the sink; the stereo piped the hits of Doris Day from its place on the windowsill; and Grandma Ollie was nowhere to be found. “I, um…I don’t know.”
Grandma Ollie, it turned out, was still in bed. She hadn’t woken up that morning. She hadn’t woken up on Saturday morning, either. She had, according to the Union Township coroner, died in her sleep on Friday night. “He must have imagined everything,” I overheard him telling my dad, in a gravelly voice I can still hear if I listen close enough.
Dad, in his usual steady, unbothered way, had sat me on the living room sofa before joining the coroner in the kitchen. When he returned to me, juice box in hand, I looked up and saw his eyes welling with hurt and confusion. If looking at Grandma Ollie and noticing her age was the first time in my life that I’d felt sadness, looking at Dad and seeing that pain in his eyes was the first time I’d felt devastation.
“This isn’t unusual, John. He must’ve gone to wake her up, found her, and…and went about the weekend as if nothing happened. Kids’ imaginations can be powerful.”
“No.” The word reverberated through the tiny space between my ears, echoing louder and louder and layering itself into a deafening cacophony. “No, no, no!”
I didn’t imagine anything, I just know I didn’t. I didn’t imagine Grandma Ollie scooping peanut butter ice cream into my favorite He-Man and the Masters of the Universe bowl. I didn’t imagine her changing the channel just in time for American Gladiators, or telling me to scooch back a little bit from the TV screen, that it wasn’t good for my eyes to sit so close. I didn’t imagine her popping her favorite cassette into the stereo, or showing me how to whisk the pancake batter until all the lumps were gone, or holding my hand with both of hers as I spooned globs of it onto the griddle. I didn’t imagine her going outside, singing my grandpa’s favorite song as she went, and returning with handfuls of yellow tulips. None of that was imagined! But how could anyone, even Dad, possibly believe me?
“Well, Kiddo…I think it’s about time we got you home. You’ve had a long weekend,” Dad said, softly, when he came back for me after a couple of hours. I nodded my head in agreement; I couldn’t muster the energy to utter a single word.
I’d been on the sofa, sitting perfectly still, staring up at the photographs on the fireplace mantel. Those pictures chronicled a life well-lived and well-loved: Grandma Ollie and my grandfather on their wedding day; Ollie sitting with Dad in front of a tinsel-strewn tree, helping her baby open his Christmas presents; Dad with his brother and sister, standing arm-in-arm and wearing what looked to be their Sunday best; Ollie cradling Kyle in her arms and staring down at her newborn grandson with a joyful sort of awe; me slumped over in Ollie’s lap, both of us fast asleep after Thanksgiving dinner, the wall behind us adorned with hand-shaped paper turkeys. I locked eyes on her, on the Grandma Ollie I knew and adored. My gaze didn’t break once during those two hours, not with the constant up-and-down of heavy feet on the staircase behind me, not with the rattling and clanging of a metal gurney, not with the creaking and shuffling and thudding directly above my head, in Ollie’s bedroom.
The ride home was silent. Occasionally, the sound of Dad tightly gripping the steering wheel would break the quiet. His Yankees cap covered about half his face, preventing me from seeing his eyes. Not that I’d needed to see his eyes to figure out how he was feeling: a sadness permeated the cab of his pick-up truck, a sadness I’d never before felt in my young life, a sadness I didn’t know how to process or address. Instead, I sat in silence. I hoped that that was enough for Dad, that my sitting next to him and being near him was enough. Still, just in case it wasn’t, I laid my hand on top of the center console between us, and it wasn’t long before Dad grabbed onto it and squeezed it tight in his. He held my hand all the way home.