That summer I had a pretty standard routine. Three nights a week, I would get out of my Drawing I class at 7:30 p.m. I would come home to my roommate frying herself a bologna sandwich, and I would smoke a couple of menthols, wondering why the hell she always took forever in the kitchen. On nights I didn’t have class, I would make tacos and watch the Sundance Channel.
That summer, I lost contact with people I considered close friends. I couldn’t find a job, which meant taking out loans and having little to no spending money. All of my relationships were falling apart. I decided it was time to go home.
I was due back in California the week after my classes were finished. I dreaded breaking my sublease, but knew I wasn’t doing well on my own. Home was always a mixed bag. I didn’t have good relationships with my grandmother, aunt, or mother, but my grandfather was my best friend. I felt like a failure for not being able tough out my first summer on my own, but I was excited to see my grandfather for the first time in six months.
I was walking home on a Monday night when I called my grandfather’s cell. With my portfolio and tool box in my hands, I balanced the phone up to my ear with my shoulder. When the call went to voicemail, I realized it was the first time my grandpa hadn't picked up the phone for me. Even if he couldn’t talk, he would always answer to let me know where he was and that he would call me back. As quickly as that had occurred to me, I was already preparing myself for the stench of fried bologna.
On Tuesday, as I browned ground turkey for my tacos, I called my grandfather again. This time it didn’t ring at all. I immediately called my grandparents’ house phone and left a message. Feeling frustrated, I did what any good millennial would do: I Tweeted. “Why won’t my family answer my calls?” A girl I didn’t like too much replied, “Lol I’ll answer your calls.”
By Wednesday, I knew something was wrong. I called my mom and aunt’s cell phones. Usually, I felt relieved when my calls to them went to voicemail, but not this time. I tried my grandparents' house phone one more time. My aunt answered.
“Hey, is everything okay? I’ve been calling everyone, but no one’s been answering.”
On Thursday night, I heard a knock at my bedroom door. It’s a pretty well-known fact that I’m a hermit who hates unannounced company. I waited and pretended not to be home.
The knocking started again. I scrambled to grab a T-shirt and shorts. I opened the door and there was my mom.
“Mom, what are you doing here? I thought you were coming next week.”
“So, this is your room, huh? It’s very...Philly.”
“How did you even get in here?”
“Your roommate let me in.”
“But how did you get into the building?”
“A guy was struggling with a package, so I held the door from him.”
“What are you doing here?”
She wouldn’t answer the question. She started poking around, then sat on the bed.
And then, it clicked.
“Mom, what happened to Grandpa?”
That was all it took.
“Grandpa died,” she said as she started to cry.
We both cried and held onto each other for what seemed like forever. When it seemed like I didn’t have any water left in my face, I packed a bag and my mom drove us to her hotel.
The next day, we made arrangements for movers to pack up my apartment and put everything in storage. At one point, my roommate came out of her room and raised her eyebrows. I had never even told her about my plans to leave. I had too much on my plate.
I emailed the guy I was subletting from for the summer, explaining that I would have to move out. Miraculously, he said that he had been through a similar situation, and let me out of my sublease without penalty. By the end of the week, I was on a plane back to San Diego.
When I was with my family, I took it upon myself to be the comic relief. My grandmother said it was important to her to find a black-owned mortuary to keep my grandfather from looking like a “pasty bobblehead.” It shouldn’t have been funny, but all of us were cracking up, even the funeral director. When my the mortician asked if we were pleased with the body, we all answered in unison, “Comb his hair forward.”
It wasn’t until I saw the obituary that everything sank in. The date of death was June 28, four whole days before anyone bothered to tell me. He had died six days after his 80th birthday, eight days after Father’s Day.
My family has a tradition of celebrating birthdays on the Sunday following your birthday. My grandmother always said that it’s bad luck to celebrate your birthday early because you never know what can happen. Since my grandfather’s birthday was so close to Father’s Day, we always celebrated his birthday the week after. That year, the week after Father’s Day was June 27, which meant he died the day after his birthday celebration. My aunt told me they all had returned his presents because “it’s not like he can use them.”
Since I couldn’t be there for my grandfather’s birthday celebration, I had asked my mom to pick up a box of See’s Candy bridge mix to give to him. According to her, his last words were, “Thank Lauren for the candy.”
My only request was that the box of candy be buried with him. Instead, I found my grandmother eating it. In lieu of flowers, my grandmother had asked for donations to the American Cancer Society. She put the announcement in the paper so late that tons of people had already sent flowers. My grandma didn’t think the collected money was enough to form a substantial donation, so she kept it and got a hair weave.
When I asked about the cause of death, my mom said it was a heart attack caused by a blood clot. He was on medication he never should have been taking. When I suggested suing the doctor for malpractice, my grandmother simply said that would undermine “God’s plan,” and that it had been my grandfather’s time to go.
At that point, I couldn’t take it anymore. Everyone in my family knew that I had been closest to him, and they kept interfering with my attempts to grieve. I finally asked why they didn’t tell me sooner that he had passed. They said they didn’t want me to perform poorly on my finals. I had been taking a drawing class, and didn’t have any exams.
Since I was home for the rest of the summer, I decided to take a class online to keep myself busy. It was a Romantic Poetry course, and literally every poem was about death. When I told my family I was dropping the class, they called me a quitter. I told them I wanted to take time off from school to properly grieve. They said if I took time off, I wouldn’t graduate, and I would be an embarrassment to my grandfather.
When I went back to school in the fall, I performed poorly and had to withdraw from several courses. When I tried to explain that I was grieving and lacked emotional support from my family, administrators would write me back telling me to “take time off so I could heal.”
In tribute to my grandfather, I got a tattoo that says, “Por ti volare,” which means, “for you, I will fly.”
Some time after my grandmother saw the tattoo, she said my grandfather visited her in a dream to tell her how much he hates it. I then realized she was using my grandfather to manipulate me.
Without my grandfather to believe in me, I realized that I didn’t even believe in myself.
Without the support of family, I entered therapy and began taking medication. Four years later, I am stronger and more independent than ever. I am not just flying for him. I am flying for myself.