Excerpts from a Journal—An Adolescent’s First Loss By Lee Schwartz
High School Short Story Honorable Mention Winner, Bethesda-Chevy Chase High School
Last night my grandmother died peacefully in her sleep. Just minutes ago my Dad called to tell me the news.
When I read books with death in them, they describe that moment of blindness, when everything stills, where voices fade away and you’re left absent in your own mind.
That’s what’s supposed to happen.
Maybe it’s because she’s been dead, in a way, for almost a year. We knew cancer had slowly been taking her over. Or maybe everything in books is just more dramatic. Or maybe it hasn’t hit me yet.
I lay sprawled on my bed reading. It was overly sunny that day. I remember being comfortable; watching lazy leaves drift in front of my window. I remember feeling annoyed when my brother came into my room with the phone, telling me Dad needed to speak to me. Nothing unusual, even my brother seemed normal. Of course looking back I reanalyze how the whole scene unfolded even if I didn’t spare a single thought at the time. I hardly worry when Dad needs to talk to me.
That’s when he told me my grandmother had died.
My brother stood, half turned away near my dresser. I stared, abstractedly, at my ceiling. Seeing him out of the corner of my eye. I’m ashamed, but I felt a smile tug its way onto my lips. I was smiling, rolling over a bit so my brother couldn’t see. I was almost laughing.
This was not what was supposed to happen.
It was a short conversation, and Dad proceeded to talk about how we had a date set up to aerate the lawn next week. I still knew, I still knew what had just been dropped on me, but I then became aware suddenly that life still went on.
I finished talking with him and my brother left quietly on his own.
I proceeded to stare at myself in the mirror a few minutes later, willing myself to cry, willing myself to fall apart just as I had when my dog was hit by a car when I was 12, the only other death I’ve ever suffered.
Since then I’ve been mentally preparing myself for another death, for one closer to my heart. But now that it’s happened I’m somehow still moving; still watching my legs move under me as I’m stumbling up the stairs, going to sit on the roof and watch my brother weed the lawn.
And maybe as I’m writing I’m falling apart more and more, and maybe at night when I’m lying in bed maybe I’ll fall apart, just a little more.
But life is not still.
I can see leaves bowing and ducking, swaying in the summer afternoon. It is not unbearably hot, I sit in a patch of shade and I look at the patterns of sunlight on my roof. I can smell. That one distinctive smell, like overwatered grass, like Slip ’N Slides and heat and lazy suburban neighborhoods.
I’m still going to soccer practice in a few hours and I still have to do my summer homework and I still have to start school in seven days.
It is not like the books.
There is no blood stilling in your veins, there are no unfocused eyes, the drowning out of voices as your body battles reality. There are no weak knees and trembling lips, there is no firm hand guiding you into a chair as you stare off into the distance. Not even tears. Not a single tear has rolled down the side of my face.
Life does not still for death.
I crawl back inside through the window and start a brisk walk around the house, organizing and re-organizing my things and greeting my father. A too-cheery, “Hi, Dad!”
Though his mother just died, he is somehow collected. He asks me about my day, I examine his face. He has tired eyes, but he smiles.
Is this how it is supposed to be?
If I wanted to I could skip soccer, not do my homework, burst into tears and become completely immobile. But there are just some feelings you can’t counterfeit.
After my grandmother died, everything seemed so normal. I spent four of my last seven days seeing friends and smiling. They had no idea, I hadn’t told them about my grandmother. Somehow, I had forgotten to. But every lull in conversation, every TV commercial, at every pause where my brain caught up to my body, I would remember.
I was really close to my grandmother. We were pen pals.
I was surprised when I didn’t shed a tear as I learned of her death. And I resumed daily life.
Five days after her death, my mother suddenly claimed, “We’re going to Cape May!” I was a bit reluctant at first. I mean school would start in mere hours as soon as we got back and I hadn’t been to Cape May for almost six years. But I went, just my mother and I.
Maybe she was worried I was coping with death unhealthily.
Two-and-a-half-hours later we pulled to a stop. I had crossed into an entirely new reality, severed from Bethesda, Maryland. Like a dream, two days felt like two weeks, soft and lulling. Something about the tall shifting grasses and warm swathes of sunlight had put me in a hazy trance.
The house we stayed in was small and delicate, smelling of a warm family. Not like old people, but just people. Like how every family has a particular smell to them. This one was warmish like blankets and beach air trapped inside the house.
In hot weather I lay on the beach, which was fine. But beaching was never really a favorite pastime of mine. I’ve come to notice I like the extremes. Maybe it helps me feel more if it’s so cold or so hot it shocks me into consciousness and living. I remember the feel of 25-degree weather skiing in Vermont earlier in the year, then seeing 2,000-degree lava only mere feet from me in Hawaii months later.
Maybe only when I pushed myself would I truly grieve my grandmother.
So I swam in the freezing water. Alone. I felt it engulf me as I went under, sealing me into another world each time I submerged. The intense cold felt as if it penetrated my skin, seeping into my bones. At one point I realized if I started crying, I wouldn’t know. The thought left my mind soon after. I swam all the way out to the buoy so I couldn’t hear anyone’s voice anymore and I went under water and spread my legs and arms so I couldn’t feel anything around me but cold water.
The sky was red and my skin golden from the setting sun. I could pick out every droplet on my moving arms as I lifted them to cut through the water.
The sun had set into the ocean. I swam beside it until it sank completely and I could hear my mother calling for me to come back in.
I ate dinner with these people that I wasn’t related to, not really. I felt a sudden rush that I liked them. It was nice to be in a family but not my own. Close to three in the morning, I couldn’t sleep. I tossed on a horribly creaking bed. I stared at the ceiling, I rolled myself up in blankets and lay on my back. But I couldn’t sleep.
Have you ever not been able to sleep and it gets so late you just come to tears, just so frustrated you cannot nod off, thinking about how early you have to wake up and you just can’t sleep?
That’s what I felt like. I began to get nauseous, unable to swallow my saliva, curled in a fetal position, wondering if I would upchuck onto the wood floor.
I crept out of bed, slipping on my sweatshirt. I tiptoed out of the room and crept down the stairs, my bare feet making sticky noises on the wood. I padded through the house, through the kitchen and out the back door.
I snuck out. Something I had never done before in my life. I felt my feet dig into cool grass. I began to walk my bike towards the street. The only noise was the crickets and the clicking of the bike as it wheeled towards the front of the house.
Freedom like this was unknown to me back home. The air was hot and heavy around me. I could hear my breathing. I picked at the chips of rust on the handlebars, but I couldn’t bring myself to bike away. So I sat for a bit, in all darkness. The sky wasn’t midnight black. No, it was brown. Almost purple brown. I could see no stars.
After a while I went back into the house and into bed. I slept.
In the afternoon, I slipped away from the beach and went for a bike ride and didn’t come back for two hours. I biked to the town park and hiked alone. I smiled at the setting sun and the swans and the plants and I sang and spun and I was so happy to be away, to be alone. I could see grasses swaying and wildflowers trembling in the breeze. I looked straight into the sun until it hurt, and I spit into the water to see if it would penetrate the spreading green duckweed that looked like a solid surface. I wished and wished I could just walk out there, on the duckweed into the middle of the lake.
At night, I walked quietly by my aunt’s side. Tonight I could see all the stars. My neck cramped from tilting my gaze skywards, my eyes trained on the stars. My aunt told me about my mother’s mother, Bobbie. My mom and my aunt weren’t as close with their mother as I was with mine.
“She loved us the only way she knew how, and instead of telling us what to do she told us what not to do…” My aunt mused. “But in the end she would walk through fire for her children.”
But something with them wasn’t completely right, and my aunt put her arm around me and she whispered. She told me about my late grandmother and how she was like a mother to my mom. How she was the mother my mom couldn’t have. Mom was crying. She had been for five days. She was walking far ahead of us, out of earshot, shaking.
My eyes stung for the first time in days. I could almost feel the sunbaked street through the soles of my shoes and hear the creaking, rusting metal bike being walked beside me. All of the stars were spread above me, and my aunt was whispering words-supposed-to-be-secrets into my ear and I began to miss my grandmother.
I lay my head on the side of the seat, the wind slapping hard at my face. I had pulled my legs underneath me so I could lean farther out the car window, despite my mother’s protests. I let the wind brush over me, through my hair and pulling at my skin and I knew that I was starting school in 16 hours. I didn’t want to leave.
Somehow the warm breeze, coarse sand and freezing ocean had gently rubbed away my shell. Tears finally slid down my face, tracing a path back to my ears as they were whipped away by the wind.