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If I Stay, Page 18

Gayle Forman

Page 18


  Why can’t someone else decide this for me? Why can’t I get a death proxy? Or do what baseball teams do when it’s late in the game and they need a solid batter to bring the guys on base home? Can’t I have a pinch hitter to take me home?

  Gran is gone. Willow is gone. The ICU is tranquil. I close my eyes. When I open them again, Gramps is there. He’s crying. He’s not making any noise, but tears are cascading down his cheeks, wetting his entire face. I’ve never seen anyone cry like this. Quiet but gushing, a faucet behind his eyes mysteriously turned on. The tears fall onto my blanket, onto my freshly combed hair. Plink. Plink. Plink.

  Gramps doesn’t wipe his face or blow his nose. He just lets the tears fall where they may. And when the well of grief is momentarily dry, he steps forward and kisses me on the forehead. He looks like he’s about to leave, but then he doubles back to my bedside, bends so his face is level with my ear, and whispers into it.

  “It’s okay,” he tells me. “If you want to go. Everyone wants you to stay. I want you to stay more than I’ve ever wanted anything in my life. ” His voice cracks with emotion. He stops, clears his throat, takes a breath, and continues. “But that’s what I want and I could see why it might not be what you want. So I just wanted to tell you that I understand if you go. It’s okay if you have to leave us. It’s okay if you want to stop fighting. ”

  For the first time since I realized that Teddy was gone, too, I feel something unclench. I feel myself breathe. I know that Gramps can’t be that late-inning pinch hitter I’d hoped for. He won’t unplug my breathing tube or overdose me with morphine or anything like that. But this is the first time today that anyone has acknowledged what I have lost. I know that the social worker warned Gran and Gramps not to upset me, but Gramps’s recognition, and the permission he just offered me—it feels like a gift.

  Gramps doesn’t leave me. He slumps back into the chair. It’s quiet now. So quiet that you can almost hear other people’s dreams. So quiet that you can almost hear me tell Gramps, “Thank you. ”

  When Mom had Teddy, Dad was still playing drums in the same band he’d been in since college. They’d released a couple of CDs; they’d gone on a tour every summer. The band was by no means big, but they had a following in the Northwest and in various college towns between here and Chicago. And, weirdly, they had a bunch of fans in Japan. The band was always getting letters from Japanese teenagers begging them to come play, and offering up their homes as crash pads. Dad was always saying that if they went, he’d take me and Mom. Mom and I even learned a few words of Japanese just in case. Konnichiwa. Arigatou. It never panned out, though.

  After Mom announced she was pregnant with Teddy, the first sign that changes were afoot was when Dad went and got himself a learner’s permit. At age thirty-three. He tried letting Mom teach him to drive, but she was too impatient, he said. Dad was too sensitive to criticism, Mom said. So Gramps took Dad out along the empty country lanes in his pickup truck, just like he’d done with the rest of Dad’s siblings—except they’d all learned to drive when they were sixteen.

  Next up was the wardrobe change, but it wasn’t something any of us noticed right away. It wasn’t like one day he stripped off the tight black jeans and band tees in exchange for suits. It was more subtle. First the band tees went out in the window in favor of button-up 1950s rayon numbers, which he dug up at the Goodwill until they started getting trendy and he had to buy them from the fancy vintage-clothing shop. Then the jeans went in the bin, except for one pair of impeccable, dark blue Levi’s, which Dad ironed and wore on weekends. Most days he wore neat, flat-front cuffed trousers. But when, a few weeks after Teddy was born, Dad gave away his leather jacket—his prized beat-up motorcycle jacket with the fuzzy leopard belt—we finally realized that a major transformation was under way.

  “Dude, you cannot be serious,” Henry said when Dad handed him the jacket. “You’ve been wearing this thing since you were a kid. It even smells like you. ”

  Dad shrugged, ending the conversation. Then he went to pick up Teddy, who was squalling from his bassinet.

  A few months later, Dad announced he was leaving the band. Mom told him not to do it for her sake. She said it was okay to keep playing as long as he didn’t take off on monthlong tours, leaving her alone with two kids. Dad said not to worry, he wasn’t quitting for her.

  Dad’s other bandmates took his decision in stride, but Henry was devastated. He tried to talk him out of it. Promised they’d only play in town. Wouldn’t have to tour. Ever be gone overnight. “We can even start playing shows in suits. We’ll look like the Rat Pack. Do Sinatra covers. Come on, man,” Henry reasoned.

  When Dad refused to reconsider, he and Henry had a huge blowout. Henry was furious with Dad for unilaterally quitting the band, especially since Mom had said he could still play shows. Dad told Henry that he was sorry, but he’d made his decision. By this time, he’d already filled out his applications for grad school. He was going to be a teacher now. No more dicking around. “One day you’ll understand,” Dad told Henry.

  “The f**k I will,” Henry shot back.

  Henry didn’t speak to Dad for a few months after that. Willow would drop by from time to time, to play peace-maker. She’d explain to Dad that Henry was just sorting some stuff out. “Give him time,” she said, and Dad would pretend to not be hurt. Then she and Mom would drink coffee in the kitchen and exchange knowing smiles that seemed to say: Men are such boys.

  Henry eventually resurfaced, but he didn’t apologize to Dad, not right away, anyhow. Years later, shortly after his daughter was born, Henry called our house one night in tears. “I get it now,” he told Dad.

  Strangely enough, in some ways Gramps seemed as upset with Dad’s metamorphosis as Henry had been. You would have thought he would love the new Dad. On the surface, he and Gran seem so old-school, it’s like a time warp. They don’t use computers or watch cable TV, and they never curse and have this thing about them that makes you want to be polite. Mom, who swore like a prison guard, never cursed around Gran and Gramps. It was like no one wanted to disappoint them.

  Gran got a kick out of Dad’s stylistic transformation. “Had I known that all that stuff was going to come back in style, I would’ve saved Gramps’s old suits,” Gran said one Sunday afternoon when we’d stopped by for lunch and Dad pulled off a trench coat to reveal a pair of wool gabardine trousers and a 1950s cardigan.

  “It hasn’t come back into style. Punk has come into style, so I think this is your son’s way of rebelling all over again,” Mom said with a smirk. “Whose daddy’s a rebel? Is your daddy a rebel?” Mom baby-talked as Teddy gurgled in delight.

  “Well, he sure does look dapper,” Gran said. “Don’t you think?” she said, turning to Gramps.

  Gramps shrugged. “He always looks good to me. All my children and grandchildren do. ” But he looked pained as he said it.

  Later that afternoon, I went outside with Gramps to help him collect firewood. He needed to split some more logs, so I watched him take an ax to a bunch of dried alder.

  “Gramps, don’t you like Dad’s new clothes?” I asked.

  Gramps halted the ax in midair. Then he set it down gently next to the bench I was sitting on. “I like his clothes just fine, Mia,” he said.

  “But you looked so sad in there when Gran was talking about it. ”

  Gramps shook his head. “Don’t miss a thing, do you? Even at ten years old. ”

  “It’s not easy to miss. When you feel sad, you look sad. ”

  “I’m not sad. Your father seems happy and I think he’ll make a good teacher. Those are some lucky kids who get to read The Great Gatsby with your dad. I’ll just miss the music. ”

  “Music? You never go to Dad’s shows. ”

  “I’ve got bad ears. From the war. The noise hurts. ”

  “You should wear headphones. Mom makes me do that. Earplugs just fall out. ”

“Maybe I’ll try that. But I’ve always listened to your dad’s music. At low volume. I’ll admit, I don’t much care for all that electric guitar. Not my cup of tea. But I still admired the music. The words, especially. When he was about your age, your father used to come up with these great stories. He’d sit down at his little table and write them down, then give them to Gran to type up, then he’d draw pictures. Funny stories about animals, but real and smart. Always reminded me of that book about the spider and the pig—what’s it called?”

  “Charlotte’s Web?”

  “That’s the one. I always thought your dad would grow up to be a writer. And in a way, I always felt like he did. The words he writes to his music, they’re poetry. You ever listen carefully to the things he says?”

  I shook my head, suddenly ashamed. I hadn’t even realized that Dad wrote lyrics. He didn’t sing so I just assumed that the people in front of the microphones wrote the words. But I had seen him sit at the kitchen table with a guitar and a notepad a hundred times. I’d just never put it together.

  That night when we got home, I went up to my room with Dad’s CDs and a Discman. I checked the liner notes to see which songs Dad had written and then I painstakingly copied down all the lyrics. It was only after I saw them scrawled in my science lab book that I saw what Gramps meant. Dad’s lyrics were not just rhymes. They were something else. There was one song in particular called “Waiting for Vengeance” that I listened to and read over and over until I had it memorized. It was on the second album, and it was the only slow song they ever did; it sounded almost country, probably from Henry’s brief infatuation with hillbilly punk. I listened to it so much that I started singing it to myself without even realizing it.

  Well, what is this?

  What am I coming to?

  And beyond that, what am I gonna do?

  Now there’s blankness

  Where once your eyes held the light

  But that was so long ago

  That was last night

  Well, what was that?

  What’s that sound that I hear?

  It’s just my lifetime

  It’s whistling past my ear

  And when I look back

  Everything seems smaller than life

  The way it’s been for so long

  Since last night

  Now I’m leaving

  Any moment I’ll be gone

  I think you’ll notice

  I think you’ll wonder what went wrong

  I’m not choosing

  But I’m running out of fight

  And this was decided so long ago

  It was last night

  “What are you singing, Mia?” Dad asked me, catching me serenading Teddy as I pushed him around the kitchen in his stroller in a vain attempt to get him to nap.

  “Your song,” I said sheepishly, suddenly feeling like I’d maybe illegally trespassed into Dad’s private territory. Was it wrong to go around singing other people’s music without their permission?

  But Dad looked delighted. “My Mia’s singing ‘Waiting for Vengeance’ to my Teddy. What do you think about that?” He leaned over to muss my hair and to tickle Teddy on his chubby cheek. “Well, don’t let me stop you. Keep going. I’ll take over this part,” he said, taking the stroller.

  I felt embarrassed to sing in front of him now, so I just sort of mumbled along, but then Dad joined in and we sang softly together until Teddy fell asleep. Then he put a finger over his lips and gestured for me to follow him into the living room.

  “Want to play some chess?” he asked. He was always trying to teach me to play, but I thought it was too much work for a supposed game.

  “How about checkers?” I asked.

  “Sure. ”

  We played in silence. When it was Dad’s move, I’d steal looks at him in his button-down shirt, trying to remember the fast-fading picture of the guy with peroxided hair and a leather jacket.