Grandpa, I’m sorry I only visited your home in Libya twice before you left and didn’t come back. The days melted away quicker than gifted chocolate on the sticky fingers of my siblings. I’m sorry for my scarcity of memory when it comes to the details—I don’t remember how you took your coffee, what your favorite color was, or even the date of your birthday. But my mind can still form Technicolor still-life images when I hear your name. An ache boils inside of me when, at family dinners, I see an empty chair that would have been yours. That chair holds only a shadow of what should have been.
My skin was dark caramel from afternoons spent frolicking under the sun at Disneyland. I saw your blurred smile while on the spinning tea cups, saw you looking through your small gray camera to capture images of me with my favorite movie characters, and felt your strong hand reach for mine as we wandered from one rollercoaster to another. In a sea of strange faces, yours embodied the moment you see your family waiting for you at the airport. At the end of the day, we navigated our way back to the hotel. The sun sank away for the night; I said goodnight to you, kissed your tan cheek, and fell into bed.
I woke up the next morning to blinding light. The sound of my mother sobbing. An ambulance. The night before, you had tucked me in. The smoky scent of your cologne still lingered in the hotel room. Yet you were no longer there. My dad repeated the words heart failure to me over and over again. That only made me understand the situation less. How could something so sure, so constant suddenly just stop?
I want you to know that mom still cries over you. When we plunged right back into rainy
days from blinding Southern California sun, mom did nothing but clean the house. She covered
her mahogany hair with a gray scarf and scrubbed counters, floors, bedside tables. For months,
my siblings and I were forbidden from entering what used to be your room, so as not to disturb
you if you still may be sleeping in there.
Even at nine years old, I knew you weren’t.
For a long time, you weren’t my ghost. All I knew was that I loved my mom, she loved you, so that meant I had to love you, too. I only see you when March 6, the anniversary of your death, stomps into our house every year. Mom secludes herself in her room, curtains drawn, with only the Quran as her companion.
But one day, I woke up with a ghost sleeping right next to me. Every night for months
straight, he would whisper in my ear that life was not worth living, that the end result was always death. I pictured gory images of seizing while driving to school, of a bloody car crash. Who would find my body? Who would shakily call my parents? Anytime I sensed a minor pain in my neck or in my chest, I saw a fluorescent light and felt the acrid scent of sterility and rubber gloves burn my nose. I imagined myself dying in a hospital bed. What would happen after I closed my eyes for the last time? I washed my hands incessantly and started brushing my teeth for exactly two minutes every morning and night. Sometimes in the afternoon, too. I was convinced that the only logical meaning behind all of this was that the end of my life was coming soon. I just didn’t know when.
I lay awake as the moon rose higher in the sky. Each night felt like a shadow stretched out on the sidewalk during a four p.m. sunset. I heard the shake in my mother’s voice every time I yelled at her that I was having another anxiety attack. I would run down the stairs, drowning, breathless, from my bedroom to her and she would stir me a glass of sugar water, thinking maybe it was just low blood sugar, trying desperately to find a solution. Often the only thing that made my heart beat at a normal pace again was when she would read me verses from the Quran as I fell asleep.
For a long time, I did not realize that this ghost bore a resemblance to you, reminding me of the abrupt way I first learned about Death. I had not stopped thinking about my health for months straight. My mind had circled around the end of my life like a fly to rotting fruit. As the months passed, I talked to therapists and exorcised you from my life. My fate felt lighter, and the dark half-circles under my eyes disappeared.
I thought you were gone. I thought you were gone until I saw you standing in the corner of the room last week when mom announced that grandma has breast cancer. I swear I saw you looking on sadly, arms open.