Nice Things to Write After He's Dead
“If you died, I would make you a Facebook status.”
My sister’s mouth stayed in a solid line as her pointer finger aggressively double tapped the phone screen. It was a week before I left for school. We were about to go to bed, and it was dark. The blue light pooled onto her face and shifted as she continued to scroll. It made it look like her flesh was moving. I told her that once. She rolled her eyes and said that I looked worse when I was on my phone.
She felt me staring at her and glanced up.
“No, for real. I would.”
I was still looking at her.
“What? That’s a big deal for me, especially because I never post on my timeline. Like would you prefer Instagram or something?”
I shrugged and started scrolling on my phone just to have something to do.
“Hey, do you already know what you’d write?” I asked her a few minutes later. “Like what photo you’d post and everything?”
“Yeah. Kind of.”
I stopped scrolling, and put my phone down on the table. “Wait. Really?”
After several taps, she brought her screen up to my face. It was a photo of us from when we were kids. We were in matching pink and green sundresses, clutching identical racially-ambiguous American Girl dolls clad in the same pink and green outfits. I remember my mom bribing my sister with a trip to the toy store if she would just close her mouth, stop crying, and smile. We only got three decent photos out of the shoot, and it cost $65.00. So now I knew how my sister wanted our relationship to be remembered: with a $65.00 photo, matching tacky vacation dresses, and closed, quivering smiles.
“It’ll get a lot of likes. People are suckers for baby pictures.” She smirked. It was meant as a joke.
I said nothing and handed the phone back to her. I picked my phone back up and refreshed my email to keep my hands moving. I didn’t feel like asking her what she’d write. “Do you already know what you’re going to post for Gon Gon when he dies?”
In the corner of my eye, I saw my sister grimace into her phone screen. The tips of her teeth turned blue. “I do. Is that bad?”
I shrugged and clicked my phone off. “It might be. But I know too.”
We both looked up at each other. My phone lit with a text notification from our mother asking us if we were getting along and if we had made each other cry yet. It was meant as a joke.
My sister nodded towards my screen. The wallpaper on my phone was a photo of my grandfather giving me a piggyback ride when I was five. I had a bowl cut and bangs and was just figuring out how to smile for photos.
“Is Gon Gon going to be on your phone forever? What happens if you get a boyfriend and you want to change it to the two of you? Or if mom dies or if dad dies or if I die? Are we all just going to be on rotation or something?”
“Yeah, you’ll get every other Thursday or something.”
“Glad that everyone looking at your phone will know that you used to care about me.”
When I went back to college sophomore year, I was 231 miles from home. For the first month of school I didn’t respond to any of my mom’s text messages and barely picked up the phone. Sometimes she’d just send the word shit. Other days, she’d write detailed reports on what her mother had heard from a nurse who had asked a resident who checked out Dr. Rosenthal's chart on my grandfather. There were lots of numbers that she didn’t understand, but she sent them all anyway––precise to the nearest hundredth. My mom only knows how to text with her ring finger on her right hand and isn’t the best at switching from letter to number keyboards on her phone. At the end of every day, she’d always text me: hope ur doing well. too much to worry about. take care of urself. -all my love always, momma.
When we were little, my mom always made my sister and I sign off all my love always on every card we sent to a friend or family member. She was the one who wrote the messages though. Even on our own birthdays, our mom would buy cards for my sister and me to give each other, messages already written in her handwriting, personalized to fit our voices. After age six, my sister stopped doing this. She threw her pen across the room after my mom told her to write all my love always to Gon Gon for his 80th Birthday. She told my mom to stop making her write things she didn’t mean. We hadn’t seen him in a while, and she barely remembered him. After an hour of yelling and another promise of a trip to the toy store, the two came to a compromise. My sister would draw a heart next to her name from now on. It was close enough.
There’s this jar of hair that my mom has kept on her desk in our living room for the past year––since she started visiting Gon Gon at the hospital. It’s not just hair though. She puts colorful cloths on top of it to hide dyed black strands at the bottom. My mom thinks nobody knows what’s really inside of it, but I do. My sister accidentally knocked it over once when she was playing on her phone. She barely glanced at the ground and said she had to run out. Meet her friends to hang at the mall or something. The cloth, all bright pinks and yellows and blues, vomited out of the glass jar. A tiny passport photo the size of my thumb fell out too. It’s one of when Gon Gon was probably my age. It’s black and white and blurry and it’s been folded over so many times that the ink is starting to crack. It could be almost anyone, but I’m pretty sure it’s him. I like to think it’s him anyway. I look down and scattered across the carpet were pieces of hair that were so short and sharp that they looked like splinters. I couldn’t put them all back and was afraid to touch them so I took my own hair and cut the tips off with the kitchen scissors and watched them slowly fall inside the glass. I never told my mom about that and don’t plan to.
The jar disappeared one day when my mom went to visit Gon Gon at the hospital again. When she came back, the jar was filled with new cloths. This time orange. I imagined her hovering over the side of his bed. Taking a small pair of scissors to the very tips of his hair that are still dyed and black and watching them fall into her glass jar like tiny ashes. I wonder if he felt her fingers. I wonder if he heard the slight hiss of the blades. It made me feel kind of happy that the splintery ends of my hair and the splintery ends of his hair were somewhere at the bottom of the jar.
After moving me into my dorm this year, my parents insisted that I get a vacuum cleaner. It’s loud and red. I’m not a neat person, but an hour after they left I decided to try it out. My single is only 85 square feet, but I went across the floor ten times––collecting all the lint and dust and mud that had already crept into my room. After I was done, I stared into the vacuum cleaner’s compartment, filled with all of the shit I had just picked up. It was mostly the soft, fluffy pink sheddings from the carpet that used to be in our living room. But snaking throughout it were strands of black hair. The long ones were mine. One of them had wrapped around a piece of carpet six times. The dark brown ones were my mom’s. A lot of hers were at the bottom. Angular and flat like dead spider’s legs. She dyed her hair brown when it should’ve been white. The medium sized ones were my sister’s. They were curly. They looked like the pretty ribbon that you put on presents after you run through it a couple times with a knife or something sharp. The short ones were my dad’s. They were the hardest to find. I pulled out a couple strands of my hair and watched them fall to the floor. I moved the vacuum cleaner over the spot and watched the black swirl into the glass container.
A month into sophomore year, I was out with a friend getting late night burgers at Tasty. I left my phone, screen up, on the table. I was gone to use the bathroom downstairs. When I came back, my friend was refreshing his email––making himself busy to avoid looking up at me. I took my seat and my phone buzzed with a notification. There were many short texts on my home screen––cutting my face and my grandfather’s off at funny angles. I quickly scrolled through them all:
12:51 am Fuck
12:51 am Shit
12: 51 am Not doing well
12:52 am Be worried. Just think you should know.
12: 52 am Damn
1:00 am Nui nui, I hate this
1:05 am Hope ur doing well. Too much to worry about. Take care of urself
1:05 am All my love always,
My friend slurped loudly on his large sprite. He nervously glanced up at me. “It’s getting kind of late. I have class at nine tomorrow. Want to head back to the yard soon?”
“Yeah, just give me a second.” I unlocked my phone. My fingers hovered above the keyboard. I tried to think of something to type. I stared at the screen for a minute. My friend slurped on his drink again.
“Hey, so how’s your mom doing?”
I tapped my finger, sent a heart emoji, and turned my screen off.
“Fine. How’s yours doing?”
“She’s doing okay.”
As we were walking back to campus, my friend kept staring at me. Even in the dark, I knew he was looking at me.
“Sorry for bringing it up. Didn’t mean to make you feel weird.”
“You’re the one acting weird right now.”
“You already said that.”
I took my phone out of my back pocket and turned it on after he left. The screen automatically opened to the texts with my mother. I was about to put my phone away again when I saw light grey print at the bottom corner of my screen.
Read 1:28 am
I guess sending a heart wasn’t enough this time. I walked back to my room and stared at my phone for ten minutes waiting to see if she’d reply. I got no response. I wondered if he had finally died. It had to happen eventually. Or maybe my mom was just sick of me. That was probably it.
In my room, I sat cross-legged in front of my vacuum cleaner. I hadn’t emptied it yet, and it was months since school had started. I only do this when I’m sad. I bring my ring finger up to the plastic compartment and trace the black strands for as long as I can with my nail. Long wispy strands, short stubby ones. After a while, they all look the same behind the plastic and that makes me happy.
When I felt better, I took my laptop out. I opened up Google Docs and let my hands hover over the keys. I stayed like that for a while. My fingers started to hurt. I wrote out bullet points at the top of the page:
Gon Gon carrying you on his back because you were too tired to walk
Gon Gon letting us sleep in the middle between him and Unna. It was winter and we said it was because we got cold easily but he let us keep coming in even when summer began.
Gon Gon plucking out the seeds from grapes for you as you watched The Sound of Music
*Feel free to add more ideas here*
I clicked the share button at the top of the page and typed in my sister’s email. Before I sent it, I had to title it. I typed out: Nice Things to Write After He’s Dead but quickly deleted that and instead wrote Letter for Gon Gon.
My mom told my sister and I that we’re visiting Gon Gon in a couple hours. He’s going to die tomorrow. We have to go today. I’ve been back home for a week, and my mom has told my sister and me this seven times. It’s winter break, and winter breaks in college are long. A month, sometimes more. I imagine hearing he’s going to die tomorrow twenty three more times.
My mom pops into my room as I’m getting ready and tells me to look pretty.
“You know your grandfather, he likes pretty things.” She takes three large steps to reach my closet and goes through every hanger, the metal letting out loud screeches. She pulls out a brown knee length dress that she bought for me when I was away at college.
“Here, wear this. It’ll make you look nice.”
I take the hanger and start removing the dress. My mom’s made me wear the same dress every time we’ve gone to see Gon Gon. She got a matching one for my sister. For the past week, we have walked into the hospital looking like short disposable brown bags.
“Oh. And don’t forget makeup. Gon Gon likes red lipstick so make sure to put some on. Oh, and no heels. Gon Gon doesn’t like people being taller than him.”
She tells me this every time. But I choose to nod and not speak and it makes her feel better.
My sister and I are in the back of our mom’s station wagon, still parked in our garage. My mom looks back at us from the driver’s seat and hands us two birthday cards and black pens.
“It’s Gon Gon’s birthday today. Just sign your names at the bottom.”
I start to read the card.
“Hurry up! We’re already late. Just sign your name.”
I quickly sign my name like I do for checks or receipts and hand the card to my mom. She puts my card and my sister’s in her purse, turns on the engine, and backs out of the driveway with a screech.
We’re all standing over my grandfather’s hospital bed. Even though I’ve visited him every day this week, I can’t stop staring at his face. It’s translucent. His skin is like saran wrap. I can see all the veins moving and squirming underneath, and it reminds me of looking inside a fishbowl.
My mom pulls out a bottle of hair dye she picked up from Michael’s on the way here. She starts applying it to Gon Gon’s grey roots. He still doesn’t like his hair reminding him that he’s old. As she strokes the black through his hair, Gon Gon moves his head towards my sister and me.
“You both look so pretty today.”
“Thank you,” we say in now practiced unison.
He nods and turns away. My mom starts scrunching his hair. In the silent room, it makes large squelching sounds. A black circle appears on the white pillow where his head used to be. At first, the nurses got pissed at my mom. But she’s been dyeing my grandfather’s hair for the past seven days and isn’t going to stop, so the nurses have learned to keep their anger to themselves. I feel my phone buzz. I look down and see a text notification from my sister.
Do you know how long we’re going to be here?
I shake my head. She rolls her eyes. My mom gets up to grab her phone. She circles around the room and takes fifty “candid” photos of us with Gon Gon.
“Just ignore me!” she says, as she stares transfixed into her phone screen. Her body goes into lunges. She arches her back and her finger hovers over the camera button, waiting a couple seconds. The loud clicks of the camera make a weird harmony with the beeps of the machine. My mom has taken these kinds of photos of us for the past seven visits. My sister is posing in most of them. She has one hand caressing Gon Gon’s arm. Sometimes it’s his hair or his shoulder––she likes to mix it up. I’m usually a blurry spot of brown. Moving away from Gon Gon, moving towards Gon Gon. Sometimes Mom accidentally gets her nail or finger in front of the lens or she’ll sneeze or cough and you’ll see a piece of Gon Gon and then just her shoe. There’s a lot of photos of us looking at our phones and Gon Gon looking straight ahead at the wall. I wish my mom knew not to take those. When we’re alone and back in the car, she says that the photos would be great to blow up for Gon Gon’s funeral––a nice set of memories.
When she’s finally done taking photos, Mom puts down her phone and grabs her purse. “Dad, look. The girls wrote these cards for you.” Gon Gon slowly opens the cards. He gives himself a paper cut and Mom runs into the hallway, yelling and flagging down a nurse. They wrap a Loony Tunes band aid around his pointer finger, and the nurse opens the cards for him. She holds the card stock in front of his face. It’s full of blue glitter and some of it sprinkles onto him. He cranes his neck upward until half of his head is hovering above the pillow. The blue and green veins in his head twitch, but there’s glitter on them now so I guess that makes them pretty. The dye that Mom got is on the runny side, and some of it starts falling down the side of his temple––little black rivers. As he reads, it’s silent except for his loud breathing and the dull beeping of the machines.
“How nice. Very sweet.”
“Of course. It’s your birthday, Dad. You shouldn’t expect anything else. Here, I have to grab some water so I can rinse your hair out. I’ll just be a couple of minutes.” As my mom pulls the door open, she looks at us and mouths talk to him. My sister walks closer to his bed and bends down to hug his shoulders.
“Happy Birthday, Gon Gon.”
“Thank you very much.”
I slowly walk over to his bedside too. “Yeah, Happy Birthday, Gon Gon.”
He stares at me and there’s glitter and dye all over his saran wrap face. I take the sleeve of my dress and try to wipe some of it away.
“What are you doing?”
“Just cleaning you up, Gon Gon.”
“Stop it. I don’t like it. I’m already clean.”
“No, you’re not.” I show him the edge of my sleeve that’s now black and full of blue glitter.
“Very not pretty. Call your mother. She can fix this.”
“But let me just––”
“Just stand over there and keep Gon Gon company. You don’t need to do anything. You don’t need to touch anything. It’s very easy.”
I back away from the bed and start counting my steps. I take small ones so the numbers are bigger and come out faster but it doesn’t look like I’m moving away too fast. My sister quickly comes over and taps my shoulder, “Hey, can you take a photo of us.” She hands me her phone, and I gladly take another step back to get the shot.
“Wait, take a couple more, just in case.” I snap five more. I hand my sister back her phone and she quickly swipes through the photos.
“Hold on, the lighting isn’t great from there. Try moving to the right a little.”
She takes back her phone again. “Great, thanks. Aw, don’t we look so cute.”
I look at Gon Gon and pull out my phone. You’re in a hospital with your grandfather and he has dye running down his scalp.
She checks her phone and tells me, “But still, I think it’s sweet.”
“You think the weirdest things are sweet.”
“We all need to find comfort in something.” She uploads the photo to Instagram and puts the screen right up to my face.