|It was under the soles of my feet the entire time, your last tangible traces hiding there in the cold, dark soil like a gruesome shadow.
By the time I made it home, you were already a memory, a story told a hundred times through frightened tears. I rushed back from college to those tears, the dark story, the grief. There was no safety net any longer, no long distance line to ward off the terrible truths. There was no circle of friends to shelter me, no drugs to dull the senses. I came home to a world you had already left behind. I came home long after you spent hours and hours under the white lights before they had taken your body away.
Some stories one is never ready to hear. I managed to get the basic facts over the phone that night and my mind immediately began to distort them. I ran the scene through my mind continually, blanks and all, like some yet to be deciphered message. I could see you hobbling down the sidewalk, struggling with its awkward size and its impossible length. You reach into the pocket of your faded flannel shirt, you find the slug and pause to press it into place. I can’t see your face, only your moving body, busy hands and the back of your head with its swirls of gray that my own fingers had patted into place so many times before. My grandmother pursues you, her face a mask of terror. For one numbing moment, I actually think I hear the shot and see my grandmother freeze. A scream breaks out from somewhere else in the yard, a strangled, anguished sound then..nothing. There isn't anything beyond this frame. The mental slideshow of horror just stops.
I should not be away at school at a time like this and my mother insists,"I come home immediately!". Fetched from the arms of my friends, I left a cocoon of comfort and found myself back home absorbed into a circle of pain where everyone seemed to be either silent or shrieking. I felt like a late-comer to some morbid party, where the guests can't decide whether to mourn or condemn their host. I had so many questions in my head, pushed back to where they burned. My attempts to find answers were squashed by my mother's frigid, canned response, "this isn't time for questions, there were things that need to be done." I put on a brave face. I absorbed the sobbing like a rented shoulder. I helped pick the flowers, your nicest clothes, pictures to help them all remember. I did those things, your arrangements, with concrete calm, a dutiful robot. I felt ashamed that I had no tears for you back then, just an overwhelming sense of what had to be done and who had to be comforted.
I doled out my strength bit by bit until there was none left for myself. All the time there were those questions, with no one left behind to help me with the answers. Had you done this thing because you had felt so alone and helpless? Had you done this thing to punish my grandmother, to punish all of us for leaving you out of our plans again? I donned the guilt like a heavy coat, wrapped it around me, disappeared in its folds. My grief had to go scavenging for comfort, begging in the back of a dark automobile “Baby, please, just make me feel something again…anything…” I feared that I had gone dead inside.
The little dog died that same week. Roosevelt, my uncle’s young cocker spaniel that you had adopted and cared for with a warmth and compassion the likes of which you had rarely extended to your own children. He had just stopped eating. I carried him to the vet myself. The police had told us he’d been outside the whole time, while they had your body on the ground with all those lights and strange noises. With all the commotion, they had barely noticed the little blond dog hiding behind the maple tree, watching everything. We dropped Roosevelt off a few days before your funeral. Two days later, the vet called to tell us he'd died. He had no explanation. We all knew it hadn't been any mysterious illness that claimed him, it had been a broken heart.
It was the morning before your wake and I found myself standing in the place where you had fallen. My grandmother has disappeared inside the house to get more of her clothes. It would be weeks before she was able to move back home. Waiting for her in the car, I was suddenly overcome to move, to go stand in that place beside the driveway where I knew you’d ended it all.
The grass was bent and broken where you had lain for so long while the cops had snapped their pictures and conducted their interviews. I reached down and touched the poisoned blades, marveling internally at my reserve. How can I believe you have done this thing? Why was it still so surreal for me? What did I need to break open and grieve for you? Someone had to grieve for you. There had been too much anger, too much rage directed at a monstrous man who'd done an unforgivable thing.
My eyes darted everywhere for something more, something tangible. Proof that all I had heard, all I had imagined was true. Where was the evidence of your deeds, something to fill up the hollow space inside me? Nothing. A cold voice inside my head said this was good, the clean-up crew had done a good job, leaving nothing here to upset anyone. I turned to walk back to the car. It was then that I discovered it, all that I would ever need to see.
It had been there the entire time, under the soles of my feet. Your blood, your life clotted thickly in patches of sparse grass all around me. Once I saw it, I saw it everywhere, all around me. How could my eyes have missed this before? A thick wine-colored stain, harassed by darting flies I hadn’t noticed. This was my last picture frame. It all suddenly came together and I saw you, that last piece of my mental jigsaw puzzle, lying inert and helpless, passing your torment into the earth in ribbons of crimson.
Your “best girl” was strong and kind that afternoon Grandpa. Somehow I managed to move again, and frantically set about clawing at the earth for loose dirt and grass. I covered everything I could see before my grandmother came out and found me. The pain and guilt choked me there in the afternoon sun, I was afraid to speak the rest of the day, afraid of what would come out. Inside me, the numbness had given way to a very private and personal grief and guilt. I had begged my mother to bring my grandmother to homecoming weekend at the college. I had begged despite your protest about her leaving you behind. This blood under my feet was the price I knew I had exacted for my selfish request.
That afternoon we attended your service and there were many who came to pay their respects. I swear I thought I would see you draw breath, as you lay in that bed of peach satin. I ached to touch your wrinkled hands folded so neatly on your chest. I forbid myself to do it, it was unnatural…dead hands. I knew there would be no warmth there anymore. Couldn’t your lips spread into that goofy grin one more time before you go? Had I been your "best girl" after all? You had left so suddenly, leaving me nothing but sticky pools, a pattern of pain in an autumn yard. You left me with no answers just this testimony of your poignant mortality and terrible desperation.
What you were to others, that’s their story of you. I knew you differently because I saw you with different eyes. I was your first grandchild and I think you really wanted to make the effort. I remember sipping iced tea, walking empty tracks hand in hand, ice-skating, card games. I think I remembered love, at least the measure of love you could manage. I know that at times you made an ugly child feel like your special little princess, your “best girl”. I felt your lost most poignantly I think, because I found more buried within your harsh exterior. I saw something tender and warm. I saw the sparkle of the man you had aspired to be, the grandfather and father that some part of you had desperately longed to become. For that, I can forgive you this horrendous thing you did to all of us that day in October. I can forgive you, but it haunts me always.
I strive now to make my own peace with you. For every harsh word I hurled your way, for every time I made you feel excluded, insignificant, futile, for every embrace I’d resisted and kiss I fought off…I am tragically sorry. I failed you too in the end. I could have tried harder I think, despite what they all say. I won’t ever get my answers, all except for one, love. I loved you despite your sharp tongue and crass disposition. I loved you when you were grumpy and withdrawn. I loved you when you were pathetic and needy. I loved you. I don’t think I ever knew it with more certainty as I did the day I covered those last traces of your life with my own hands.