While walking with great-grandpa to the park, smoke fills the air, cinders fall from the sky in a forest-fire sunset. We shouldn’t be out, but can’t sit inside where grandma’s absence clings like a sad perfume, so we walk and you run, kick, climb, crawl, slide, and tap-dance ahead of us like a ball of pure energy personified. Grandpa sits on a swing for the first time since elementary school, and bounces a blue plastic ball against the slide. You spit chewed-up wood-chips into his palm. The sun above us glows orange.
We talk about grandma, and it feels good to talk about her—then devastating and weird when we realize that we are speaking in the past tense. It feels good to remember her glorious eccentricity in the company of those who knew it best, to repeat her catch-phrases and mannerisms, to enjoy her favorite treats. We dig through the medical reports from the night that she passed, searching for answers, hoping for resolution, receiving only confirmation. Videos of you, little bubbie, suddenly star grandma’s voice in the background, and we catch our breath when she speaks. She still tells a good joke.
We look to you, nugget, to remind ourselves what it is like to wade through this world in an uncomplicated state of solid joy. We over-praise your tiniest feats. We run you ragged and feed you sunshine. We thrust musical instruments into your hands. We talk enthusiastically about farm animals. We lavish you with kisses, and you lavish them back onto us.
Since she passed, I’ve been laundering little shirts stained with fresh tomato seeds, strawberry mush, beet juice, and dry-erase marker. I’ve been trying to temper the tone in my voice that communicates annoyance at the constant clawing, begging, demanding, and (often hilarious) overreaction that defines life with a toddler. I’ve been biting back screams of terror as you threaten, with every step, to destroy your perfect body on sharp corners and jungle gyms. I’ve been watching your shoes wear away at the big toe. Sometimes—creepily, desperately—I uncurl your not-so-tiny fist from a deep slumber and wrap it in my own. I’ve been loving you, son, through a sadness and longing that I know you can feel. I’ve been watching you breathe while you sleep. Again.
Our trip to the park was littered with charcoal flakes the size of quarters, yes, but also with neighbors busting through their front doors and hustling over lawns to lay a hand on grandpa and shake your square, dirty paw. It was marked with a sadness, yes, but also with camaraderie: I feel as though grandpa and I are forever holding hands, even when those hands are busy removing dried milk from hard plastic straws with impossible bends, or swatting at little fingers intent on ripping the necklace from my chest.
This is what we do.