by: T.E. Cowell
“For all he knows he’ll never die. That’s exactly how I felt when I was his age.” A work of fiction that explores the unique ways in which we face our mortality as we age…”
“What was grandpa like?” my five-year-old son asks me before I have a chance to stand up from his bed, say goodnight and turn out the light. I had just finished reading a bedtime story that my wife had brought home from the library and in the story a grandfather makes an appearance.
All sorts of potential responses to my son’s question flicker through my head. Before I became a parent I never weighed my responses to questions so thoroughly. I want to give my son the best answers to all of his questions, not necessarily the truest answers, but the ones that I believe will leave the greatest impressions on his young, absorbent mind.
“He was,” I begin, “a quiet man. He spoke less than anyone I’ve ever known.”
“Even less than you?” my son asks incredulously.
“Even less than me,” I answer and I can’t help but smile a little at my son’s tone of voice along with the question.
“Geez,” he says. “He must’ve been really quiet.”
“He was,” I reply. “He was so quiet that whenever he spoke I listened to whatever he had to say intently. He had a throaty voice that made me think of frogs in a pond croaking all night long.”
My son laughs happily at this and then says, “What else was he like?”
I close my eyes and take a deep breath. Thinking of my dad fills me with sadness more than anything else. I never really knew the man, at least not the way I knew other people. He was gaurded and kept a large part of himself hidden from me. Then when I was in my late twenties he passed away suddenly.
“He was tall,” I say, “and as skinny as a stick.”
“Skinnier than you?”
“Yes,” I say. “And the strange thing was, he ate a lot. He was always snacking on something and for dinner he always helped himself to seconds and often thirds.”
“Geez,” my son says again, and then he becomes quiet and I can sense his mind processing this new information and forming a rough sketch of my dad. “Was he as nice as the grandpa in the story?”
“Yes,” I say automatically. “He was very nice.”
“Was he nicer than you?”
I look at my son to see if he’s trying to be funny and then decide that he’s not, that he’s being entirely serious.
“He was as nice as me,” I say. “I’m pretty nice, right?”
“Yeah,” my son says, and then he opens his mouth and yawns.
“Ready to go to sleep?” I ask.
“Not yet. I want to think about grandpa. What else was he like?”
I take another deep breath and think about my dad some more. What else can I say? How can you talk about someone that you never really knew? Should I just feed my son rampant falsities? Is that wise? Is that moral?
“He was very smart,” I say. “He was always reading, and when he wasn’t reading he was thinking about things. He saw a lot, your grandpa.”
“What do you mean ‘he saw a lot’?” my son asks suspiciously.
“He could understand people,” I say. “He could see what people were like without really knowing them.”
After a moment of silence my son says, “Is that why he didn’t talk much?”
“I think so,” I say even though I’m not entirely sure about this.
Another moment of silence commences, and then my son says, “But he talked to you, right? And to your mom?”
“Yes,” I say. “He talked to us, and he also talked to other people. Just not as much as most people talk.”
“Do you think he would’ve talked to me?”
“Of course,” I say. “He would’ve definitely talked to you.”
Yet another moment of silence, and then my son says something that I hadn’t expected him to say, that catches me off-guard: “I wish he was still alive.”
“Me too,” I say after the emotion that suddenly rises up my chest to my throat in search of an exit is successfully choked back down.
My son is looking at me now with his big blue eyes open wide, and then he says something that surprises me even more than his previous question: “Are you sad that grandpa died?”
“Of course,” I say.
“Are you going to die?” my son asks me next.
“Some day,” I repeat. “But not for a long, long time.”
As I had hoped, this seems to comfort my son. He closes his eyes to sleepy slits again and his lips rise along the corners slightly. My son can’t see the future the way I can, he has no intimate sense of time the way I do. For all he knows he’ll never die. That’s exactly how I felt when I was his age.
“Well,” I say, letting out a sigh, “goodnight, Son.”