I'm in Dallas.
I don't want to admit why, but I suppose it doesn't help if I don't divulge. I escorted my brother out here. He wanted to go to some comic book convention, apparently the biggest one in the Midwest. (Is Texas in the Midwest? I know there are mixed feelings on the subject, with the whole Mason-Dixon line thing and all.) But my brother can't travel by himself. Twenty-seven years old and he can't travel worth a damn. If I didn't go with him, he'd probably call me up from somewhere like Boulder, Colorado, going, "Okay, where to next?" in his blissfully non-clued-in way. So you see, I had to go with him, sort of like his travel escort.
We just got in late yesterday afternoon. We booked this trip three months ago, never thinking that Grandpa would end up in the hospital. But he did. Last week. And it seemed so simple, so non-threatening last week. My almost-88-year-old Grandpa ate breakfast at Cracker Barrel with my Mom and Grandma last Thursday morning, then he went to the doctor's office in the afternoon, complaining of a nasty stomachache. His MD called an ambulance to take him to the emergency room at St. Francis Hospital in Hartford. He said that Grandpa looked too good to be taken seriously in the ER if he just showed up off the street. So he went to the hospital in the ambulance, got admitted and got a room. The next morning, Grandpa had several CAT scans. He was poked and squeezed, pierced and radiographed. Final diagnosis: a broken, bleeding tumor in his stomach. Cancer.
Grandpa has a long history of heart disease and has been taking the prescription blood thinner Coumadin for the last twenty years, give or take. The Coumadin made his tumor bleed even worse, throwing his body into congestive heart failure. His medical "team," the phrase they like to use at St. Francis to lull you into a false sense of security, made the decision to take him off the Coumadin cold turkey. Just stopped it. And then, six hours later, he stroked out and his brain bled.
I wanted to cancel this trip to Dallas, I really did. I'm close to Grandpa and I knew that I would feel incredibly, irrevocably guilty if he were to pass away while I'm in another time zone, even if it's only an hour difference, for a fucking comic book convention. I called Bradley International (a joke; they only had one true international flight, to Amsterdam, and that got discontinued less than a year after its introduction) Airport, I called the airline itself, but it was 10:30 at night and no one would answer, no matter how long I waited with the phone to my ear. When I started to cry in the hospital room, next to my poor Grandpa, deep into his coma, with the tubes in his mouth and nose and the track marks down his arms where the hospital staff poked him better than a half-dozen times, that's when Grandma made the decision for me. She insisted that we go to Dallas. "There's nothing you can do here anyway," she assured me in a creepy-calm voice that spoke volumes about Grandpa's impending doom.
So, after a night of no sleep and two hell-on-wheels layovers, we're here in Dallas. We crashed in our hotel room on two full-sized mattresses that may well have been made out of brick, thoroughly exhausted in every sense of the word. It's emotional whiplash to sit by a comatose Grandpa for hours on end, choking on the hot tears you're holding in and willing like hell not to drain out. It's one thing to be an emotional train wreck and miss one night of sleep. Not two. Especially not after two layovers.
Now it's the morning and my brother is dressed and ready to go, and it's not even eight a.m. He's wearing his jean shorts, because it's already over a hundred degrees in Dallas, with a white T-shirt that has a silk-screened comic book character on it, and a matching baseball cap. I crack open one eye to look at him as I lift my head from the pillow. My back hurts.
"I'm going to the convention early." He's eager, excited and most likely amped up on some of the Starbucks instant coffee that the hotel has so thoughtfully provided us with. I hate Starbucks coffee. It's bitter as hell and has so much caffeine that I feel like I've got an invisible train running through my arms and legs and my heart is running a marathon every time I drink it. So now I don't.
"Fine," I croak to him in the most apathetic voice I can conjure up. I drop my head back to my pancake-flat excuse of a pillow and close my eyes, willing the sleep to return. It doesn't.
"What are you gonna do while I'm at the convention?"
Laying on my back, I pop my eyes open to stare at the stuccoed ceiling. Is it possible to count the individual little pieces? I wonder, has anybody ever tried? Has anybody ever been in hell like I am right now and tried counting how many little stucco pieces are jutting out of the ceiling, just to avoid getting out of bed? "Um, I think I'm gonna go to the gym. Then get breakfast. From there, probably NorthPark Mall, but we'll see."
My brother nods enthusiastically. He caught me doing research on malls the week before we left for Dallas, before everything went to hell for Grandpa, trying to figure out where I can shop. See, I like to shop. What woman doesn't, right? But no, I like shopping as a vacation destination. Forget sandy beaches, centuries-old history, and breathtaking views. I am not one with nature, and I truly believe that the importance of that 20th-century marvel we call indoor plumbing can never be over-emphasized. Give me Vegas any day, with its three miles of shows, shopping and restaurants. And people sipping hard-core drinks at ten in the morning.
"Oh, planning on making a pilgrimage to mecca?" Smartass.
"Yeah." I yawn. "When am I gonna see you again?"
He looks up, trying to think. "Um...I don't know. I'll call you."
"Fine. Get going. And have a good time."
"Thanks. Later," he replies smoothly, turning and closing the hotel door behind him.
The hotel gym is very nice. I wish I had a gym like this back home. It's fully stocked with equipment that actually functions and nobody's in here, which I suppose would help account for Dallas' climbing obesity rate. I do a thirty-minute run on the treadmill, round it out with some yoga, and then I'm back in the hotel room for a shower and shave.
I'm stepping out of the shower and toweling myself dry when the cell phone rings. It's my Dad. When I hear his voice, I immediately know something bad has happened, and I know it's about Grandpa. So I dispel with the pleasantries. "What happened to Grandpa?"
"Your grandfather passed away this morning." He pauses. "Don't tell your brother."
"Oh, fuck." My mouth opens wide, forms a perfect "O" with instantaneous, crushingly overwhelming grief. I look down at my toenails to distract myself. It hurts less. "Oh, fuck. Fuck, fuck, fuck."
"Anything to say, other than the F-bomb?"
"Yeah. Why does everything have to suck so much?"
A sigh. "That's the ultimate question. Take it up with your Maker."
"So, you're going to NorthPark?" the cab driver asks me as he picks me up in front of the hotel.
"Yeah." I'm not much in the mood for talking. I desperately need retail therapy, it's the only thing keeping me going right now. "My Grandpa died this morning. I need to do something to take my mind off him."
"Oh, I'm sorry to hear that." The cabbie pauses, looking both ways before pulling out into traffic. "I lost my mother a couple of years ago, so I understand."
I must be in shock. I haven't cried yet, but I know I will eventually. Is it bad if the first emotion I felt was relief? Relief that he didn't suffer, relief that he went so quickly and his condition didn't deteriorate over weeks or months? Relief that my family and I didn't have to watch him suffer? I must be going to hell. I loved him and I didn't want him to die, but I'm relieved that he did. He wouldn't have wanted to live like that, and I know I couldn't have watched him like that.
After a short trip that costs me fifteen bucks plus tip, the cabbie unceremoniously dumps me out in front of NorthPark. This mall is huge. There are a bunch of different restaurants along with the food court. There's a movie theater. There's a lot of shopping to be done here, all of which is merciful. It means I can pass a lot of time without hurting, without thinking about how Grandpa is gone. I hope I have enough money in my wallet.
The first thing I see when I enter the mall is the Maggiano's restaurant. I'm not really a fan of Italian restaurants because no one can cook the food quite like Mom or Grandma can, but they have wine. I know for a fact they have wine. Red wine. I want a glass. Is it too early? I check the time on my cell phone. 10:42 a.m. Yes, it's too early.
But it's not too early to shop.
I wander around the mall first to get my bearings, to see what kind of stores they have in this place. I pass a women's clothing shop and realize I don't own any funeral clothes. I'll need something to wear to Grandpa's wake and funeral. Fuck, I didn't think about that until just this moment.
I walk into the store and approach a saleswoman. She merely blinks at me, unbelieving. Obviously she's not used to seeing a thirty-year-old in here; she caters to women with at least twenty more years on them. So I give her my most pathetic look, which is probably pretty damn pathetic, and say, "I need some help. My grandfather died this morning. In Connecticut. I have nothing to wear to his wake or funeral, and his wake is probably going to be within moments of me stepping off the plane."
The saleswoman's face softens. "Oh, Honey, I'm so sorry to hear that," she coos sympathetically, clucking her tongue. I resist the urge to roll my eyes. "Here, let's get you to a dressing room. Would you like a dress or a pantsuit? Black or grey?"
"I was thinking pants for the wake, a black dress for the funeral," I stammer off the top of my head as she ushers me into a dressing room. I was? I wasn't even aware that I was thinking. I was just going through the motions.
The saleswoman nods. Her eyes are dancing around in her head as she thinks about the commission she'll be racking up on me. "I'll find what you need. Don't worry." As I close the dressing room door behind me, she knocks again. "I just wanted to tell you," she offers hesitantly, "that my father died last year. So I understand. I promise I'll do my best."
I nod solemnly. "Thank you." Then I strip off my clothes and look at myself in the mirror. Normally, I'd curse out my flawed body and the fluorescent lighting, but today I just look naked. I look raw and wounded. The loss hurts. I hurt. I don't cry.
The saleswoman returns with a few outfits. A little black dress which fits like a glove. The perfect pair of black pants. A crisp white button-down shirt. A black-and-grey jacket. Black patent-leather sandals with a chunky high heel, perfect because I'll never want to wear any of these items again, and I like the black heels I already own too much to never wear them again. I take the clothes off my body, hang them up on their respective plastic hangers. The damage is over five hundred dollars. Five Benjamins down the toilet on clothes that I will never wear again after Grandpa's body is in the ground. Fuck. I hate retailers.
Carrying two huge, heaving paper shopping bags with plastic handles, I exit the store and head out. Where to next? Is it time for my glass of wine? I check the time on my cell phone again. It's only 11:30. Not quite time for lunch. The wine will have to wait. So I wander around the mall some more, continue to get my bearings. I like this mall. It's bigger than the malls back home in Connecticut, but then, isn't everything bigger in Texas? Connecticut's a tiny state. Everything's bigger in Texas.
The next store I go into is full of purses. I like purses. Again, what woman doesn't? But I'm not in the market for a new bag. I have a beautiful bag, a rich ink-blue-tinted faux-crocodile leather bag that cost me more money than a woman should ever spend on a purse. I promised myself that I wouldn't buy another bag until I met the one that could top the purse I'm already carrying. Which, if I happened to meet it today, would be just fine by me, though I would probably think of Grandpa every time I slung it over my shoulder. I don't.
As I scurry out of that store to avoid the over-eager salesgirls, I notice there's a Tiffany & Co. to my left. I piece together an idea, one that will honor Grandpa for the rest of my life. I know what I have to do. But first, I need lunch. And wine. Especially wine. So I haul my two overstuffed shopping bags over to Maggiano's, where I sit down at the bar and pick up the menu.
The bartender, a crimson-haired female with wrinkles around her eyes, greets me. "Good afternoon, welcome to Maggiano's."
I look up at her from the wine list and shoot her a sorrowful smile as she places my napkin-rolled silverware in front of me. "Thanks."
"Anything I can start you with?"
"I'd like a glass of the Robert Mondavi cabernet, please." It's a good wine. It's not my favorite, but it's by far the best wine on the list. "My grandfather died this morning, in Connecticut, so I need something to take my mind off him."
She wrinkles her eyebrows in sympathy. "Oh, I'm so sorry to hear that," she offers with a comforting lilt in her voice. She turns her back on me to pour the wine. "That's awful." She carefully pours the wine and turns back to me, placing the glass in front of me. "I suppose you need this."
"Yes, I suppose I do." I swallow. For a brief moment, it takes the hurt away. But then the pain comes back. I suppose it will always come back.
I order a salad with salmon and goat cheese for lunch, and then, when I drain my glass empty, ask for more wine. I barely taste the food and drink that pass over my lips, though I certainly begin to feel the effects of the alcohol. It makes my limbs feel heavy and my grief like a physical, tangible heft on my chest. Damn it. Today is just not my day.
With a little bit of tipsiness, I pay my bill in cash and leave a good tip for the flame-haired bartender. She deserves it; she got the food and the wine out fast enough, and was sympathetic to my plight without being overly so. I struggle to pick up my bags and stumble out of the restaurant and back into NorthPark's main drag.
Retracing my footsteps, I find my way back to Tiffany & Co. Now, for the record, I fucking hate Tiffany, I hate those brides-to-be who insist on a Tiffany diamond or else they'll say no, I hate those precocious pre-teens and rich, stuck-up sixteen-year-olds in red BMW convertibles who wear the Tiffany sterling silver charm bracelets around their wrists like they're entitled to them. I really do. But today I need a piece of jewelry to commemorate Grandpa. I need a simple piece of silver jewelry. And I need to buy it from fucking Tiffany because I can't bring myself to purchase a cheap piece of jewelry to celebrate Grandpa's life, and I can't afford the shit they sell in Chanel.
I must look like a real piece of work, in my jeans and T-shirt and flip-flops with my un-pedicured toenails peeking out, slightly drunk and staggering under the weight of two shopping bags filled with clothes for mourning. Yeah, I must be a sight, all right. The salesgirls look at me in alarm. The skinny, superficial, too-made-up young salesgirls. Judging me. But one of them, an older brunette with crow's feet and red lips, must sense my grief and tragedy, because she approaches me tenderly, like a mother. "Can I help you?"
I drop my bags on the floor, finally succumbing to their crushing weight and my lack of upper-arm strength. "Yes. You can. I need a simple piece of silver jewelry. Maybe a necklace. I..." My voice breaks, and I have to pause to collect myself. "My grandfather died this morning. In Connecticut. So I was looking for a piece of jewelry to celebrate his life. Something that will make me think of him when I put it on."
She nods in understanding and gently places her hand on my shoulder. "I'm sorry to hear that. Here, why don't I show you our collection of silver necklaces over at this counter."
My lips thin out into a hard line, aimed at all those bitchy salesgirls who have suddenly changed their views of me and now soften their expressions with sympathy, and I follow her to the counter. She begins showing me some larger pieces, none of which say "Grandpa" to me. I feel like Grandpa's right here next to me, scrutinizing them with me. I'll know when it's the right necklace.
"This is the mini teardrop pendant." She lifts the necklace up for me to see. It's small, a perfect silver teardrop on a dainty silver chain. The sorrow lodges in my throat as I finger the tiny pendant, no bigger than my pinkie fingernail.
"That's it. That's the one."
My face crumples. It finally hits me that he's gone. He's really, really gone. I'll never see him again. He's gone.
The saleswoman places her hand over mine on the glass countertop. She says "I'm sorry" in her soft voice, and I could swear I hear her own sorrow as I grieve. I'm grieving. I'm grieving over the fucking Tiffany counter. The tears roll down my face and plop onto the glass. Great. Now those skinny bitches will have to clean up after me, after my tears and fingerprints. Drunk, crying, staggering. Grieving.
A hot mess.
I hadn't even noticed that the saleswoman left me alone, crying, to wrap up the necklace in that stupid blue box and white ribbon. She comes back with the box and a bill, which I promptly pay her in cash. She walks around the counter to give me the box, now in a bag, and she gives me a quick hug. "Hang in there. I know it hurts, but time has a way of healing these things."
Cliché. But still nice to hear. I wipe my eyes and nod my thanks. I can't speak, the words are stuck in my throat. They can't move beyond the overwhelming lump of sorrow lodged there. Then I turn and move away, out of the store, the eyes of all those salesgirls burning and boring through my body. And most importantly, with my Grandpa necklace, the shape of a perfect teardrop, symbolically recording the exact moment when the loss finally hit me.
I continue wandering through NorthPark. It's like I'm not even here, not present in my body, just going through the motions like I did in the clothing store. I come across the food court, where I sit down at a table and put my bags down. I look around the food court, noticing a Chick-fil-A, which is my brother's favorite fast food joint. They won't put a Chick-fil-A in Connecticut. Chick-fil-A is a religious bunch and my home state is full of heathens and agnostics. I'm not kidding. Some public schools took out the Pledge of Allegiance because of the words "Under God." I call my brother on his cell phone, remembering that I'm not supposed to tell him about Grandpa.
He picks up the phone. "What, did you pass out from shopping yet?"
Smartass. "No. Why, have you passed out yet from all your comic books?"
"Not even close." I can hear the grin in his voice. He's so happy. Of course he would be, he doesn't know about Grandpa yet. Hearing his voice and his happiness makes me feel better. Not a lot, but some.
"So hey, score one for NorthPark: there's a Chick-fil-A in the food court. What would you like me to bring back to the hotel?"
He's in heaven. A comic book convention and a Chick-fil-A in one shot? He loves Dallas. "Could you bring me back some four-piece chicken strips? And some waffle fries? With as much honey mustard as you can carry back."
"Got it. I'll see you back at the hotel at some point, all right?"
"Great. Thanks again. Bye!"
I turn off the phone and bury my face in my hands. How did my life come to this? In Dallas for a comic book convention as my Grandpa dies. Stuck in a mall, albeit a large mall, with a bunch of funeral clothes I'll never wear again and a Tiffany necklace that will make me cry every time I put it on, and now a bag full of chicken strips, french fries and honey mustard. So everything I just bought will smell like fast-food chicken when I wear it.
That about sums up the hell-hole I'm drowning in.
I stand up and drag my bags over to the counter, where I order my brother his food. Within moments, the cashier hands me a paper bag, becoming translucent on the bottom with grease. I place it in the bag with the black-and-grey jacket, because the jacket is wrapped up in protective plastic so it won't get grease on it or, worse, smell while I'm at the wake.
Now carrying the bag of fast food, I plunk down at a table again to call my Mom. She's the one who lost her father today, and I haven't spoken to her yet. She picks up after two rings. I can tell she's been crying. It's not an easy day for her, either.
"Hi, Mom. It's me."
I swallow hard, let the tear spill out of my eye and travel down my cheek. "Mom, I'm so sorry you lost your Daddy."
She sobs. "Thank you, Baby." She takes a moment to regain composure. "You haven't told your brother yet, have you?"
"No. I haven't seen him. I've been at the NorthPark mall all day. I just bought him some Chick-fil-A."
She sniffs. "Oh, Honey, that's so nice. You're such a good big sister. Don't tell him about Grandpa."
"Don't worry, I won't." I pause. "I just bought clothes for the wake and funeral. I know he doesn't have clothes."
"Don't worry about it just yet. I don't know if the wake is the day you guys come back, or the day after. I'll keep you posted."
I exhale heavily. "Mom, I'm sorry. I loved Grandpa so much."
She sighs, a teardop heavy in her breath. It makes me glad I bought the teardrop pendant. "I know, Baby. I know."
By 4:30, I've had enough of NorthPark. I've been here for almost six hours. The last thing I did was watch a movie, some sappy chick flick, all lovey-dovey with a fucking happy ending. I hate movies like that, but it was the only one playing at the time. It almost made me forget about Grandpa, but the scent of the Chick-fil-A in my bag kept wafting up towards my nostrils, reminding me of my brother and how I'm not supposed to tell him, which reminded me of Grandpa all over again.
I haul my bags out to the valet. Yeah, this mall is so big and so exclusive it has a fucking valet. If I want to catch a cab, this is the best place to do it. So I shoot the attendant one of my perfected pathetic looks, one that I've had a lot of time to practice today. "Excuse me, do you think you could call me a cab?"
"Oh, of course." The attendant looks like he's in college. He picks up the phone and hits a button. They must have a deal worked out with some taxi company, the number on speed-dial. He says a few garbled, drawn-out words before shutting off the phone and looking at me.
"Ma'am, there will be a cab here in about ten minutes."
Ma'am? Since when did I become a ma'am? Let's just add some more shit on top of today's pile, why don't we? Trying to wipe the incredulous - or indignant, I don't have a mirror so I can't say which - look off my face, I answer in a simple voice. "Thank you."
"You're welcome, Ma'am." God, being thirty fucking sucks.
I've long since let the shopping bags drop to the ground. I catch a bead of sweat as it rolls down the side of my face, whisk it away like it was never there. Dallas is ridiculously hot. And it's not just the heat, either, it's the oppressive humidity that absorbs the breath from your lungs the way a sponge absorbs water. I stand there for what seems like ages, not talking or even glancing over to either of the valet attendants. Instead I gaze off at the mall entrance, waiting for the first taxi to take me back to the hotel.
When it rolls up in front of me, it's a Jamaican guy who can't be any older than me. The young attendant so thoughtfully helps me and my bags into the back of the taxi, because a ma'am is obviously in no shape to lift her own overstuffed shopping bags herself, and closes the door shut behind me.
I give him the address of the hotel and sink back into the cracked leather seat. It smells musty and rank, like a thousand sweaty bodies have been back here over the course of the day. Which is probably the case. It makes me want to shower again.
"Busy day shopping?" He winks at me in the rearview mirror, all thick lips and white teeth.
"Yeah." I draw a deep breath. "My grandfather died this morning. In Connecticut." I return his wink with a tight smile. "I needed retail therapy. And I had to buy some clothes to wear to his wake and funeral. Oh, and I had to buy my brother some Chick-fil-A, too."
He nods. "I'm sorry."
"I bet he was a good man."
"He was. He was the best."
The sob noiselessly rises in my throat and catches there. My eyes fill with tears, one of which finds its way down my cheek. I think about Grandpa's smiling face and I can hear his voice saying my name in my head. I think about the last time I saw him in the hospital before he had the stroke. I think about how he looked at 10:30 at night before my brother and I left for Dallas. I think about holding this secret from my brother for the next two or three days, and how difficult it's going to be for me to put on a lying face in front of him. I think about the Tiffany necklace and the funeral clothes in my bags. And I think about how everything in this whole fucking world looks different because Grandpa's not in it anymore.
And I grieve again.