It is your responsibility to write the obituary. You’re the oldest grandchild, and currently living in Shanghai—unable to help with any of the funeral preparations. Your parents reminded you that everyone knew Grandpa had dementia, and he wouldn’t want anyone to stop living their lives to mourn. But every day since receiving the news, you have woken up to the ground falling away beneath you.
You arrive at work at 6:45. It’s early enough that no one else is there, but not so early that you’ll be alone with your thoughts for long. If you write the obituary anywhere else, you will cry. You didn’t break down when your parents told you—they seemed to be waiting for it to happen—and you have avoided speaking to them since. You aren’t sure you’ll be able to stop once started, and there’s no time to fall apart; you’re the head of your school’s English department, and too many people depend on you. You have to get through this.
You open your laptop and Google “how to write an obituary.” 63,100,000 results appear. You open the first three in new tabs, and create a Word document. You need to include KEY FACTS about his life, an article titled “How to Write the Perfect Obituary in 10 Painless Steps!” instructs, so you start with what you know: He was born in Orlando, Florida (when was his birthday?). He was married twice before Grandma (but maybe you shouldn’t mention that). He played basketball in college.
Basketball is his greatest love, Grandma always said. When the grandchildren visited during holidays, they would watch games with him while waiting for dinner. You never understood the rules, or felt a rush of excitement when his favorite team—the Orlando Magic, who else?—won, but you still pushed your way to sit in the only available seat next to him. And during the high school summer you spent living at their house (escaping the constant arguments with your parents; you were so angry back then) he would take you down to the local park to play. He couldn’t have been very proud of you—did you ever make a single basket?—but you still went each morning, before the heat became unbearable.
“Don’t give up now,” he would say, anchoring the world when you became frustrated. “I came here to win fair, not for you to make it easy. You won’t get better unless you keep going.”
These memories should be added to the PERSONAL STORIES section that an article titled “Writing a Meaningful Obituary: Can You Do It?” describes, but you abstain. Typing them out feels like moving your hand too close to an open flame. You have to keep going, though, so you begin writing: Brady Johnson was born… Unimaginative writing at best; unworthy of his life. And what would your parents think, to see his life so lazily described? They would say you didn’t care enough to write more. You can’t even find ten minutes to call on Easter.
You hadn’t seen Grandpa since you moved away, but even then, he wasn’t himself. He stayed silent during family conversations. He would sit on the couch until bedtime, staring at the blank TV screen.
One evening after dinner, a visit shortly before you moved, you joined him on the couch. He didn’t make eye contact—rare, by that point—but he was grasping onto the remote control so tightly it should have broken. It took some convincing for him to hand it over—“Can I see the remote? Just a second, I’ll give it back”—but eventually you were able to turn on the TV. The Magic were playing the Lakers in the NBA finals. And then Grandpa was smiling, a moment even more precious than eye contact.
So when he cheered for a player, you cheered just as loudly. You both clapped and yelled and swung your fists at the TV, even when Grandma came into the living room and asked you to quiet down; even when your parents were standing in the hallway, watching the scene unfold like zoo patrons too nervous to move closer to the cage. And when he slumped down on the couch after the Magic’s defeat, you squeezed his hand as tightly as you could.
“They played a great game,” you said. And he squeezed your hand too.
The funeral will be on Wednesday. Your family will hug, and cry, and probably end up at Cracker Barrel (Grandpa’s favorite) to eat chicken and dumplings. You will mourn alone in your empty apartment, miles from anyone who knew him. There had been no guilt when you moved overseas, not a moment of doubt that leaving would give you a better life. It’s the absence of guilt which has worried you the most. You have felt so numb to the absence of family that you’ve convinced yourself you lack basic attachment skills. Yet now there’s an emptiness that follows you from room to room, like a loose strand of hair you can feel but never find.
A coworker arrives; your time to write is gone. The last email from your parents is now showing on your screen; an attached picture of the whole family, from Thanksgiving in North Carolina almost six years ago. The Southerners are clad in heavy jackets; Grandpa has one of your nephews up on his shoulders; your parents have their arms wrapped around each side of you, smiling proudly. You blink back the frenzy of tears that are swelling like waves and send the sentences you have written to your parents, along with a short message: I love you both. I’ll call on Wednesday. You close your laptop and vow to keep your promise this time.