My grandfather passed away what was a few weeks ago now. It isn’t like me to write about this, about him. The wound is too fresh. I feel far too vulnerable. It is much more my style to get tangled up, as a cat caught in yarn spins awkwardly around itself, in the panic and hypochondria that typically set in right about now.
If I have learned one thing, it’s that fear is my go-to emotion; it is also, very often, my entry. Fear is the swaying bridge suspended high over the rough waters that I must first cross, before I can feel anything else. But the air is thick, and gray with fog, and I have forgotten how to walk. So I will write.
My grandfather, Robert Lee Smith, was my grandmother’s second husband, and not my mother’s biological father. There was no shared blood between us, and yet this fact couldn’t have been more irrelevant. I knew him as my grandfather from the moment I was born, and our connection was buoyed by our sheer familiarity and affection for one another. I called him Bob.
Bob grew up in Missouri and he grew up fatherless. His father had been the state governor, and his mother, at the age of sixteen, had been his father’s one-time mistress. Above all else, what I remember about Bob’s childhood—a trinket I picked up as a child myself and have never put down—is that he developed an infection when he was very young that led to complications with his eardrum. To prevent him from going deaf, he underwent an experimental procedure in which the breast of a hummingbird was placed inside his ear, and there it stayed for the rest of his life. As a child, I pictured that hummingbird’s breast tucked inside Bob’s ear dozens of times; in my mind, it was—and still is—covered with the softest blue feathers.
One time, roughly eighteen years ago, Bob and I—had it been on a dare?—jumped into a swimming pool, fully clothed, holding hands. That was the kind of grandfather he was, game for just about anything. He was also the grandfather who rode shotgun while my grandmother negotiated the sharp curves of Benedict Canyon, a concerto on the radio, the entire car smelling of my grandmother’s sugarless bubblegum. The two of them were inseparable. In his eyes, she was a masterpiece. He regarded her with the same reverence and appreciation one might a sacred work of art. The only time I remember Bob scolding me was when, in a prickly mood, I’d been rude to her, a line for him that could not be crossed.
Bob was a talker, the kind of person who could strike up a conversation with anyone and walk away with a dinner invitation, or an emphatic reminder to call if he was ever in a bind; he was the grandfather who drank coffee after lunch, which he brewed with a cone-shaped filter placed over a mug; the grandfather who got stabbed in the hand during the 1965 Watts Riots.
Bob was the grandfather who told stories. Much of what he shared with me, with any of us, about himself, what he had done in his life before he met my grandmother, was so jaw-dropping, so fantastic, that if I had taken the time to think about it, I might have raised an eyebrow, and yet I never once did.
Bob possessed an unwavering sense of loyalty. He would go to great lengths, regardless of the inconvenience, to take care of those who mattered to him. I cannot count the number of times Bob dropped a project mid-task after I’d called to say I needed something—moving boxes, help painting the condo, someone to assemble that dresser from Ikea.
And here is where I come to a gaping hole, a disconnection. It feels wrong to be writing about my grandfather in the past tense. Already, I have had to go back and edit my words several times, because I have written about Bob as if he were here, as if he were capable, even, of reading what I have written about him. Everything remains so fresh, so palpable. His laugh, for instance, is clear sound. I see him standing at the kitchen counter, brewing his mug of coffee, telling a joke. I hear his low, raspy voice saying to me “sweetheart,” calling up the stairs to my grandmother, sound echoing off the cold walls. I feel with absolute certainty that if I were to return to the house in California where I grew up, there he would be, sitting in a corner chair with his legs crossed, reading a Robert Ludlum novel.
The memories—should I even call them memories? There isn’t a trace of haziness to them—exist in full color; they hold with the vibrancy of wet paint. Bob coming through the front door in a white sweatshirt with the words “Carpe Diem” printed across the front. Bob bending backwards under a broomstick while Chubby Checker’s Limbo Rock plays on the stereo. Bob at the sink, drying dishes with a cloth. The warm-hearted Bob, my grandfather, the man with the feathery hummingbird’s breast in his ear.
As I sit here now, the sun is shining over my favorite pond, shattering its surface into hundreds of glass beads, lights that flash and pop with increasing intensity at each gust of wind. The longer I stare at it, the faster the light seems to move, until it stops moving altogether, having become an unbroken reservoir of white. A dull ache settles through me. It creeps down my throat, penetrates the tender hollows of my stomach. I walk slowly forward.