I sat on the beach listening for the ocean’s peaceful lull to lurch me out of my head and throw me back to myself. The sun had just reached that point when it dipped parallel with the horizon illuminating everything cotton-candy pink: one last sha-bang before sleeping for the night. I didn’t remember driving here. I didn’t know how I ended up here. Somehow, I just always came back to the beach.
Hours earlier, I whipped into the rehab center my pappy lived in. I began the long walk through the double glass doors, down the beige hallway, and through the common area. My keys swung in my hand—a foreign feeling that my fingers had not quite gotten used to yet. The man in the wheelchair stared at me as I walked in. His beard dangled past his chest and his eyes continued to follow me as I walked past. I went straight through the common area and into my Pappy’s room.
“Mr. Choo!” His caretaker yelled. “The second daughter is here!”
In case you are wondering, that is I. I am the second daughter, the nameless girl that visits him almost everyday on her way home from school. And today, like most days, Pappy was refusing to eat.
I got up close to his bed, shaking him awake. His eyes splintered open, fighting through the thick crust that formed around his eyes. At this time, the routine begins.
“Oh, you lovely, lovely girl,” he says. He tells me how much he loves me. He tells me how proud he is of me. He tells me how smart I am and how beautiful I have become. I remind him that I am leaving for China in three days. He grows solemn— both of us do.
I plopped grapes into his mouth as he tried to talk—poking them in through his chapped lips, ignoring his screams. No, it was not nearly as violent as you think it was. I was not torturing him— I was saving him. Pappy is almost 92 years old and he weighs less than his age. Each day he eats fewer and fewer grapes, slowly disintegrating into dust.
I watched as his eyelids began to droop back down, caving in towards his wrinkles. He gripped my hand as he slept. Sometimes, I think Pappy is afraid to be alone. His fingers trembled as he squeezed my arm. The skeleton of his once firm hand clattered as it fluttered against my wrist. I waited there a while, watching him sleep. The internal clock in my head kept ticking louder and louder, and I knew if I didn’t leave soon, I probably never would.
I escaped back through the common room. The wheelchair man gawked at me as I tiptoed through the commotion of mealtime. His eyes expressed something deeper than interest. Curiosity, maybe? Afterall, I have been coming here for months, and I have never seen another child in there. Maybe it was my backpack? Was he was reminiscing about his days at school? I flashed him a polite soft smile and continued walking, embarrassed by the attention I attracted.
I needed to get out of there. In a way I cannot quite express to you, I needed to leave. That deep feeling of “I do not belong here” sunk in, and I bolted. I drove over the bridge, past the river, and somehow ended up on the beach. I sat in my car that night waiting for the sun to set, but it never did. The sky hovered in an orange haze for eternity but never quite landed. I drove home.
* * * * * *
Two days later, I sat on the beach, again. The sky was a purple fuzz that soaked deep into the darkness of the ocean. Each drop of color plunged farther and farther down until only scrapes of light remained crawling across the sky. I drove here through the light mist of my own crystalled eyes. I listened to the sound of my gasping for air and calmed knowing I could still breathe.
Hours earlier, I sat in the chair of my pappy’s room. I shook him, but the haze around his eyes won. He talked to me quietly. Nothing short of the routine. It was all “I love you” and “I’m proud of you.” He fought his eyelids as he tried to speak. No grapes today.
“I’ll see you tomorrow,” he said.
“No, Pappy. I am leaving for China tomorrow.”
Everything inside of him collapsed. He knew. I had told him everyday for months that I would be leaving. I think a part of him did not register that I would actually go. He wanted me to stay there with him, feeding him grapes, forever.
“Pappy,” I said. “You have to promise me you’ll eat while I am gone.”
“I promise,” he said.
“I need you to be here when I come back,” I said.
“I will be right here waiting for you,” he said.
“I know,” I replied.
Both of us were lying. Neither one of us wanted to be the one to admit that we would most likely never see each other again. Both of us too selfish for our own good: my leaving and his refusing to stay. A constant battle between self interest and love. The thing about goodbyes is you never know it is your last one until it is too late. The problem with this goodbye was that I knew it was my last, and I chose to leave anyway.
I walked out of the rehab center that day. The man in the wheelchair continued to stare. For the first time, however, I realized that that look was not curiosity nor fascination: it was jealousy. Jealous of my youth. Jealous that I would get to walk out of there on my own two legs and not two wheels. Jealous that I could leave.
I drove away in a fury. The sun was setting and the sky pumped bright red across the city like the heartbeat in my chest. I needed to get to the beach. I needed some piece of me to float away.
I did not make it. By the time I flew into the beach parking lot only the dust of purple fogged my vision and the grey of night dangled over me like a loose tooth. That’s the problem with the sun: it doesn’t ask when it is convenient, it just sets.
The Doctor at Boston Medical Center greeted me warmly upon my arrival. “You are the famous grand daughter we have been waiting for,” she said. She was not alone. Everyone was waiting for my return: the hospice woman playing the guitar, the young nurse checking his vitals, the priest coming in to pray, even the woman changing his bed sheets.
Before even going home, I went to the hospital. In that little room, I sat for hours hoping for a response. At this point he had long decayed. The tiredness spewed from his body like the brown guck that seeps out from your feet after stepping into mud. He was no longer the man I left behind. The grapes were gone. Somewhere over the course of that month they had been replaced with an IV. I thought of the irony that the splitting of a needle into his bruising skin somehow provided the nutrients his body craved. I guess not all love is gentle. I guess not all care is love.
The city seemed small. You don’t notice how much bigger the world is until you see it. The skyscrapers of Boston shriveled next to the redwoods of Shanghai. Everything had changed when I got home, or maybe only I had. The skyline was indifferent. The Prudential Building, City Hall—all buildings my pappy helped design—suddenly were not enough for me. After seventy years as an engineer in Boston, he built this entire city, and I was so quick to leave it behind. It was more than the city I left behind.
“He was sick when I left,” I tell myself, “there was nothing I could have done.”
After hours, I finally went home.
They unplugged him.
I learned what everyone was waiting for.
Correction: I learned whohe was waiting for.
The man at the flower shop gave me a rose. He told me I was beautiful—he meant it. He was three times my age; his kids were my senior. And before you judge, he was not perverted. He was just a nice, middle-aged man at a flower shop who was entertained by my youth. Before I left, he asked me if I liked flowers.
“Of course,” I replied.
“What kind?” he said.
He went to the back room and cut me off a yellow rose. The teardrops from the sun melted into my hand, and I paraded around Boston with this shy flower. The most beautiful things in life do not just come to you, they need to be found, and this sheepish flower reeked “come find me.”
I walked into my Pappy’s hospice center. He looked at me with two eyes searching for light in his dark world. The language he used to speak so well got caught on his tongue and even the air he breathed seemed to reject him. Everything about him drooped: his wrinkles, his fingers, his hair. All searching for a healthier body that would nourish them properly. Their current host was too weak to preserve the type of maintenance they required—and by maintenance, I mean food and water.
I entered the solemness of this hospice room, parading my yellow rose. Proud of not only its beauty but also my means of acquiring it. His room harnessed nearly no light and the beige paint job doused the room with cardboard-box vibes. The lone flower became the sun in this dark and miserable tunnel heading towards the train’s last stop.
“Pappy, the man at the flower shop gave me a rose,” I said.
The sound of his muffled breaths responded to me as if to say “I am awake, I can hear you.” He was not lost yet. His body might be crumbling to time but his mind was very much cement.
I tucked the rose in bed with him. One last reminder that there is happiness in this dismal world. One last touch for when I am not there.
* * * * * *
I returned looking for the rose. The mellow flower with roots robbed from her feet only to be found planted on a dying man’s chest. She assumed her responsibility now. Her beauty must be enough for the both of them. There is nothing beautiful about death, but somehow, this rose made dying look like dancing in the wind.
I went to look for a vase. I needed to put the flower in water.
I realized that would not be needed. He will never make it long enough to watch that rose die. Both of them can wilt away together, slowly starving their way back into the ground. Misery loves company, and I found solace knowing they would not be alone. The flower and the man can enter their new world together, two beautiful souls, robbed of more time.
She loses a petal. It drifts onto the pale blanket cocooning my grandfather. A final indication that even the beautiful crumple. Another reminder that even the sun sets.
I found pappy in the funeral home days later. He was lying the same way I left him, this time, however, he seemed at peace. The walls were no longer beige— instead, they were covered in floral wallpaper. The TV now illuminated a slideshow of memories. And most of all, he was surrounded by baskets of yellow roses.
* * * * * *
His grave was on a little patch of grass that overlooked a little pond. The weeping willow tree danced in the soft breeze and the waterfall trickled down the rock like teardrops. Everything was at peace: the grass perfectly cut, the flowers at full bloom, my pappy finally laid to rest.
His casket sat above the hole anxiously waiting to be filled. Hovering over the spot of ground that would become his home for the rest of eternity. He was covered in flowers. Each one brilliant in its own respected color.
We sat in rows waiting as the pastor spoke. His beard’s bright red hue laughed at the brilliant scarlett roses. He preached what he could, fumbling over obstacles like remembering my Pappy’s age and that my pappy was divorced. When he was done he welcomed all of us to place a rose on the casket. I waited as everyone got up, filing in from the back. I was the last seat in the first row. I waited as dozens of people rose to plop a flower onto the casket. With each flower, the casket grew taller, slowly margining up to the skyscrapers.
I was the last to go. The last embrace my pappy will ever receive. I walked up to the casket and placed my yellow rose on top, tucking it in like a child to sleep. One last reminder that there is happiness in this dismal world. One last touch for when I am not there.
Milton, MA 02186
Awards: Personal Essay & Memoir
Best in Grade Award, 2020
Gold Medal, 2020