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The summer before ninth grade we went to Kitty Hawk. I remember that it was the summer before ninth grade, because school id pictures had been taken before we left, and while we were on vacation, I had used sun-in to lighten my hair, and had worn no sunscreen, so that when school started up again, I was tan and blonde, whereas my id photo was pale and brunette.
It was a family reunion, the place chosen because of my father’s insistence that we were, in fact, related to the famous Wright brothers -- despite all evidence pointing contrary. Most of the family came (and that was still a lot, my family being Catholic, albeit New-Age Catholic), and we had an absolutely marvelous time.
By then, my grandfather’s memory was gone. Completely, entirely gone: the younger grandchildren no longer had names. He woke up every morning wondering where he was. He was easily lost, easily confused, had been eighty since I was in fifth grade, and was starting to show.
I sang to my grandfather a lot, that summer. Lullabies, songs from musicals, old tunes my father had taught me, and his father taught him. That was the first summer I was ever really comfortable with my voice, the summer that I realized that, far from sounding decent when I sang, I actually sounded good. For some reason, my voice always made my grandfather smile, calmed him down, and made him manageable for the adults. Thus forth, when he began to get upset, or bored, or anything really, they called me over.
“Christine, why don’t you talk to your grandfather for a little bit?”
“Christy, your grandpa is lonely. Go sing him a song, alright, sweetheart.”
“Bear, Sugar Bear, come on honey, go hang out with your grandfather, for me. Please?”
And then, when he was sufficiently malleable, or when they had finished their conversation and was certain he wouldn’t wander off, they set me free.
A year later, almost exactly, we had a scare: he had been hospitalized with pneumonia, cause by his Alzheimer’s, in some strange way that me, the medical dictionary of the family, couldn’t wrap her mind around.
My father flew up to Miami that night, met up with all eight of his siblings. The first time all of Don’s kids had been together in years, and the first time since the youngest went to college, that they were Don’s kids.
No one called me at school to tell me, like I always thought they would. No, I walked home, and my mother was weeding the palm tree to the left of our driveway. When I walked up to her, she said,
“You’re grandfather’s in the hospital. The Priest is coming, to give him his final Rites. They don’t think he’ll make it.”
I dug through my shelves, draws, cabinets, until I found my rosary. I prayed the entire rosary, and then read all the sections I understood from my Bible. I wound the rosary around my wrist, pressed the cross into my palm, the thorns on Jesus’s crown pressing into my hand.
When the Romans put the crown of thorns on Jesus, I bet they didn’t think of the pain it would cause to thousands of Catholics later.
My prayers must have had some effect. That night, I had God’s ear, because Grandpa made it. He recovered, but my family had not.
Easter came, and everyone came down. Not everyone was there at the same time, not everyone could be. But they came.
My father drove up a couple of days in advance, my mother drove up when school let out for me and my brother.
The whole ride to Miami, my brother read some book, about some other book. I listened to some ridiculously high-pitched song on my iPod, and my mom talked on her cell.
When we got there, we feasted. My parents both grew up in Miami, and Miami has been the center of my father’s side of the family since I could remember. It’s comfortable there, like a second home.
On Easter, we saw my grandfather.
He had regressed a lot. He was grumpier, not so cheerful anymore. He wasn’t happy. When I looked at him, I knew, just knew, that it would be the last time I saw him.
I sang my lullabies, the songs I had been practicing for the audition, the songs from my childhood, songs I was comfortable with.
He sat there, in the comfy arm chair in my aunts house, and smiled, the only time all weekend.
When we left, I kissed him on the forehead. I told him I loved him, and I told him goodbye. The car ride home, I mourned his life.
Not even a month later, I walked home from school. My mother was weeding the palm tree to the left of our driveway. When she turned to me, her eyes were red, wet.
I have never seen my mother cry.
“Your grandfather died.” She whispered.
I went inside to get an ice cream cone, came back out.
I went to see a concert the next evening, and the day after that, drove to Miami for the funeral.
When we arrived at the viewing, the younger cousins (by which I mean the eight under seventeen, minus one) congregated in a corner, giggling, laughing, talking about school.
After the funeral, the seven of us ran through the same mangrove our fathers used to play in, warning each other not to pick the mangos.