This is what I remember.
Him, sitting across me in his navy blue polo shirt, contemplating the growing pile of oyster shells on his plate. The hint of food on his beard, which I always thought of as regal; my mother, unruly. Right arm leaning on his cane, Doce Pares (12 Pairs), his silver not-Rolex watch gleaming in the sunlight bouncing off the glass. The clink of silverware on plates, the laughter of other people, and the unspoken disdain with which he regarded them. He was a king in spirit, if not in stature, one of the dwarven lords of legend. He was my Odysseus, my general, my hero.
When I finished kindergarten, he gave me this beautiful illustrated copy of Homer’s Odyssey. Naturally, I was too young to understand the rigors of the journey home. Nonetheless, the colored images drove home the image of the difficulties Odysseus endured: the terrifying cyclops Polyphemus, the twin dangers of Scylla and Charibdis, the loss of Odysseus’ ships and men, the long wait for home, and the bloody vengeance exacted upon the suitors in Ithaca. I remember reading to myself out loud, making sounds of words with no meaning, when he looked up from his newspaper and told me that silent reading was a thing. Since then, I have read—or attempted to read—as many books as I could get my hands on. As a child, I never wanted for something to read. He would spoil me in all things written and printed, from the Big Red Book of Fairy Tales to the 16 volumes of the Britannica Children’s Encyclopedia.
Other times showed him to be a master strategist. Even now, I remember him pausing at every new level of Battle City, mumbling to himself for a few minutes while I waited for his plan. Finally, he would announce: “Go here and keep firing,” or “Stay here back-to-back.” His plans, to my young mind, were perfect and foolproof, and even today, I find myself recalling familiar formations when I see that game.
He never talked down to me, although I inevitably lost every game of chess we played
Chess was another thing we shared. He bought me this small, beautiful chess set made of chico wood, the one I will always refer to in my mind as “the good set.” He never talked down to me, although I inevitably lost every game we played, teaching me how I could improve with each loss, and one of my greatest regrets is that we were never able to play a full game with my current knowledge.
As I grew older, we drifted further apart. It became customary for him to ask “Have you eaten yet?”—shorthand for “How was your day, I’m here, I am thinking of you.” Sometimes it would get on my nerves. He could be very callous and cold sometimes, saying one thing but doing another. His cigarettes became more than a nuisance. He was cooped up in his own study, away from the world except for mealtimes, during which time he expected to be waited on hand and knee. But in a sense, his constancy was a comfort. If he was smoking in the library and playing baseball on Nintendo, it meant that everything was relatively normal. The loud, lumbering steps as he climbed the stairs signaled the end of yet another day. His constant swearing at the TV and his sometimes cantankerous reactions to being injected with insulin were their own comforts, as they could only happen in a world where everything was probably perfectly alright.
I suppose it must be some mischief of fate that two people who were so different in so many fundamental ways could be related by blood. He was loud, outspoken, the center of attention. I was mousy, reserved, and comfortable in the shadows. Yet somehow, there was a mutual, unspoken respect between us in all things. My emotions are very transparent, and he would always do what he could, in his own caring, clumsy way. I remember him telling a stupid story at the dining table, after a particularly bad day, of how his mother would do things just to spite him, of the wooden cake, of the Indian man with two left hands and feet who gyrated them in an attempt to dance. True stories, too—the time he was suspended from school for burning down a shed while trying to catch a rat, of stealing a skull and narrowly escaping death by lightning bolt, of scuffles and brawls among schoolboys and family rivals. Stories that became part of the family’s collective consciousness. Stories that became my zeitgeist. Stories that I always meant to record but always put off, reasoning that, just as before, there would be another tomorrow, sure as the sun would rise.
He told stories, too—stories that I always meant to record but always put off, reasoning that, just as before, there would be another tomorrow
He died on a beautiful sunny Sunday when we were all in the hospital room. It was an expected death; he had begun smoking at 14, and by the time he was diagnosed with stage 4 inoperable lung cancer, he was up to two packs a day. Even when the doctor reported no pulse and called for the body bag, it evoked no strong reaction. Audacity and humor, wit and bravado—these were the skills he imparted to us, each joke hiding the pain, each laugh genuine in its joy and anguish. And so we did as we thought he would—throwing jabs at his expense, telling him he looked like a wrapped rabbit in the body bag, saying that he had finally passed because we threatened to go home, or that we would play the music he hated. Japes that fell on ears that would not hear, no retort from the mouth that would never again speak.
I will not recount the hospital visits, the slow crawl to helplessness, the small indignities heaped upon those who near the crossing. I will instead honor him in my mind and in my heart through my words. I am writing this now because I know he is with me, because I want to honor his wish that somehow, his legacy would be preserved. These are simple words on a text document, written by me on a cellphone night after night before I retire.
It is said that time heals all wounds, but the passing of a loved one leaves no clean cuts. Grief hurts us in ways we can’t imagine. The mundane becomes painful; every stimulus carries the hidden threat of triggering a memory of thought, taste, smell, or sensation, awakening the qualia of that very moment, with you realizing that things can never go back to the way they were. All that we have are the memories that we create, sparks of light that we defiantly fling into the grayness of death. Mortality is an inescapable fact of life, but it is for these moments—good, bad—that we live. Our lives will come and go, but the sun will keep shining, day after day. And we will carry on.
So shall I remember him, through these memories burned into the tapestry of his life and mine.
A shirt of navy blue, a majestic beard, and a mountain of dead oysters.