When I was fifteen, my grandmother passed away. She lived a long life, the leading matron of our entire family and hub that often brought us together.
I didn’t know half of my family until grandmother was hospitalized. We visited her in groups, and I soon learned why I had never heard of them. They immediately seemed abrasive and cold. Instead of relishing their final moments with her, they discussed money allocation and the burdens of burial. A beacon of light described grandmother best, and the presence of these folk facilitated the dimming.
“She probably doesn’t have long,” a physician admitted to my father, regretting making eye contact with me as if I couldn’t handle the news. The person he should’ve been afraid of was my father, the stalwart single brother of many sisters. The doctor placed a hand on my father’s shoulder and walked out the room, chin dipped into his chest. The idea of passing came new to me, but at that moment the worst aspects of life all connected, Death tapping me on the shoulder and telling me to move aside—it wasn’t my turn—but I better realize it could be at any time.
Grandmother was deaf. My younger sister, Alice, and I grew up with her since we were children. Everyone in the family piled their baggage on grandmother, such as me and Alice’s parents when they realized two kids were too hard to raise as separated young adults.
Grandmother couldn’t hear the older family members plan around her death, but she understood body language. Those who were in grief conveyed it ostensibly. My father struggled, arms crossed, eyes coated by a perpetual gloss. Alice and I weren’t allowed to hear the conversations either. We waited outside on a bench beside our cousins, Jon and Astrid, who we only had two things in common with: We were their age, and our parents sat in on the Inner Circle.
“What do you think they’re talking about?” Jon asked, stretching his neck from the bench to try to see through the small rectangular window of the door. He looked the most innocent of us but came nowhere near it. “Should we spy on them?”
Astrid scoffed. “You know we’ll get in trouble!”
A brief silence filled the hallway. We eyed each other not in disbelief, but in collective fear of the known repercussions.
“When am I not getting in trouble?” Jon replied, smiling.
As soon as his feet hit the floor, the door opened. Aunt Melissa marched out of the room as staunch as royal guard. Black Don’t Crack didn’t pan out well for her, thanks to her endless grinning and furrowing of the brows. I was unsure what frightened me more, the fissures above her eyes, or her petrifying gaze.
“Where do you think you’re going?” Aunt Melissa probed, her pupils drilling holes through our throats. At least that’s what it felt like, partly explaining our inability to articulate in her presence.
Jon stumbled. “I—I need to ask my mom something!”
Aunt Melissa groaned before walking away. “Lucy’s inside.” As she turned a corner, Jon placed his ear gently on the door to the room, and his face lit up in candid hopefulness.
“What is it!” I whispered sharply.
Eventually, the door knocked Jon on his ass. He surfaced the cold hard floor with his palms, backing toward the bench. My father, Aunt Lucy, and Astrid’s mother, Aunt Tiana, walked out of the room with obscure smiles on their faces. The three of them were considered the crux of the Inner Circle. Whenever something important occurred in the family, they knew about it first, disseminating information on a need-to-know basis. I figured we wouldn’t learn anything. Then my father pulled me aside.
“Son, I need you to be a man for me today. Can you do that?”
I nodded, trying to swallow the natural trepidation accompanying a teenage boy staring his father in the eyes.
“Your grandmother isn’t doing well, so everyone is going to stay with us until…”
“Got it,” I said, watching a man barely hold his composure through quick nods, a forced smile, and a tint of red demarcating his eyes. But he didn’t cry, adhering to his stoic lessons of maintaining emotional withdrawal.
“Okay, take Alice to the car. I’ll be right there.”
We walked out to the warmth of a summer day complemented by a Southern breeze. The flowers were blossomed and the shrubbery around the hospital harbored many sparrows and the whiff of robust green. The sun beamed on me with newfangled light, as if I stepped out of that hospital a different person, something fluttering from the clouds into the palms of my hands, inducing a quaint revelation. I felt able, vibrant, and at the time I didn’t know this—but I were to befriend my cousins—and these friendships would flower into the most important connections I’d make my entire life.
Dusk enveloped a contemporary suburban home, isolated from the inner city. The moon shone perfectly through a clouded sky, solely revealing a path from the driveway to the front door, that is if the street lights were out, and they frequently were.
I welcomed each guest at the front door. Waves of family swarmed the gates and the residual few showed up in intervals of about 15 minutes apart. Aunt Tiana arrived with Astrid first, and Aunt Lucy showed up last with Jon.
My father owned a decent-sized home. It had three levels: a main floor, upstairs, and an unfinished basement. The older folk hovered around a small dinner table in the kitchen on the main floor. I navigated my way to the basement to get away from the madness, and Alice and the cousins were attracted to idea, probably because I was the oldest sibling of the house and they figured I had planned festivities. Plus, hiding out upstairs was prohibited and considered rude.
Most of the basement was built under the kitchen. It contained a couple of old couches and an archaic coffee table. The television was so old it flashed a white light before turning on and clanking often emitted from its clunky body, as if small rats operated it from its insides.
Banter echoed through the crevices and cheap infrastructure holding the home together. The older folk either joked or reprimanded us. It felt like Thanksgiving all over again, except there were ten-fold the gunfire. We sat close on the two couches muted and victim to listening to our parents’ voices.
“Now of all times?” Jon asked, shaking his head. “Have you all heard anything about the funeral?”
Astrid cleared her throat. “All I know is that it’s in a few days. Everyone chipped in, but some were against it…others concerned about what grandma is leaving behind.”
“Not much,” I claimed, seething. “They barely care, and now they want to laugh about us and each other.”
“You hear that?” Jon questioned over his mother’s voice. “My mom is saying good things about me!”
“Bragging about one of us usually leads to demeaning another,” Astrid explained in her snarky tone. “Or they might outright shame you without a comparison.” She sighed, tossing a pillow she had been holding in her hands. “I wouldn’t listen to them.”
“I try not to,” I said.
Jon pinched his forehead. “How many times are they going to talk about school?”
“Did they even finish school?” Astrid added.
“That’s probably why they never know what they’re talking about…” Alice quavered. She barely spoke, but when she did, it was with conviction.
Astrid laughed, snorting between every heavy breath. It became the catalyst to our collective outburst, and Alice filled the role of comedian for the night.
“And what about Melissa’s face!” Alice shouted, adding fuel to the fire.
“Right!” Astrid shouted, gripping her stomach. “How have we not talked about this!”
Jon waved his hand, beaming as usual. “They say looking at her is like beholding a gorgon. Straight to stone! Melissa, Medusa!”
“Aunt Medusa!” We all repeated.
We kept it going, matching our parents’ jest. My father meandered to the basement. At that point, we had chatted for hours.
Our cousins stayed over for days, even after the funeral. We all had different relationships with grandmother yet shared vigorous cries during the viewing. It didn’t help that we realized, as cousins, we’d probably never see each other again.
My father reiterated how glad he was that Alice and I were getting along with them. But he’d say it in a disconsolate tone, reminiscent of mourning such as when he spoke about grandmother at the hospital, as if our times were limited and bound not only by death, but by also a strange type of familial segregation.
One night, the typical jocund ambience of the main floor ceased. It was sudden. I pictured an uncle-in-law mouthing off a slight, and the delighted curl of the victim dissipating into thin air, silencing and absorbing the bliss from everyone’s mouths. All it took was that one moment for the bickering to commence.
“Just ignore it,” Astrid repeated.
I heard my father rush and dive into a cesspool of verbal slander. Before we knew it, some of us were called to leave, first Jon and then Astrid. Shuffling furniture resounded through our ears, doors slamming, cementing the ring. A toxic silence, underneath a smog of fumes gassing from everyone’s heads, promoted a stillness indicative of someone storming out, their partners typically following.
“What happened?” Alice whispered. She clinched onto Astrid’s arm.
I led my cousins to the basement again that day, so I felt compelled to be the first to venture back to the main floor. Pattering up the staircase, I avoided every creak of wood known to me and Alice, learning of them the school nights we’d sneak downstairs to avoid a nine-o-clock curfew. Attempting to preserve my subtlety, I peeked my head around the corner.
A flipped table marked the destruction of our kitchen. In the kitchen center, the surviving parents, including my father, shaped a circle with their arms. It was all I needed to see before heading back down.
“Do we have to go?” Jon asked.
Alice began to cry, so I drifted to her and Astrid first, and hugged them both. Without question, Jon joined. Ever since then, we promised to never speak poorly of each other. We promised to never storm out and to never use death as means to segregate.
In honor of grandmother, my father hosted family reunions once every New Year’s Day. They were far from successful; we’d get only a few visitors each year. Since then, with exception to my sister, Astrid, and Jon, I haven’t seen much of my family.
* * *
The next major loss of our family didn’t occur until many years later. Alice and I hosted a meeting among the cousins and in-laws. It required some of us to fly in from other states, others to simply drive from a few miles away. Nevertheless, death did not fail to gather us.
We sat at a large mahogany table, drinking wine and passing around photos on our phones. We all had kids, and they formed their separate groups around the house.
“Do you have any more wine?” Jon asked, wiping a spill from his chin.
“Of course,” I answered, scooting out of my chair. “Bourbon?” His eyes lit up, mimicking the festive tree in the backdrop.
Astrid shook her glass. “Don’t forget about me, add a couple of cubes too.”
I looked at Alice before she interjected, “Don’t even got ‘ta ask.”
I made a round. The living room was empty, as was the kitchen. I heard laughter coming from the basement and peeped my head in the pathway leading downstairs. Some of the kiddos encircled a table and played video games. The only ones missing were my son, one of Astrid’s sons, and Jon’s daughter.
Walking outside to the deck, I was welcomed with a chilling spring breeze. The shivering lasted longer than normal, surfacing the tip of my spine to find its way down my legs. I turned right to discover the missing three kids on a wooden garden bench.
I cried in front of them, and they looked back at me in ingenuous confusion. I wondered: Is this what it was like for him? All I could picture was when my father tried to conceal his emotions, for all of us.
But, I couldn’t. The tears stormed in complement to rain suddenly falling from the sky. The children ran in to avoid getting wet, joy escaping their mouths. And I smiled, asking myself if it was forced, as I followed them.
Death haunted us in different ways. For the innocent, it was new and tainting, and it might not process as quickly. It might take months or years to coagulate and ambush the heart. Those who experienced it at younger ages woke up one day and realized the painful implications of loss. Until then, the gap between naivety and grief could be filled with joy and unity. And that was the goal of our Inner Circle.
“Wine, right,” I reminded, wandering to the basement. I opened a cabinet and grabbed two bottles of pinot noir. As I turned, Jon welcomed me with concerning scrutiny, his arms crossed, and left shoulder resting on the staircase.
“The bourbon?” He leaned even further.
My eyes began to water again, and I couldn’t explain why. “You probably don’t need it,” I snickered, leaning with him. My attempt at comic relief failed, and the knob of the cabinet felt so cold.
Jon’s hand comforted my shoulder. He hugged me, and I maneuvered my arms to replace the bottles of wine. Quietly, I reciprocated.
“You know, that night you told us our parents were hugging…you said it was because of losing grandma, remember?”
I nodded my head against his shoulder.
“It wasn’t. It was because, during the darkest times, when you’d expect people to be there for each other, our parents failed at gathering them. This hurt. My uncle felt so guilty he decided to host the family reunions, and no matter how hard I tried to convince my mother to go, we only showed up once. Look, I’m sorry—”
“Don’t be, man. Let’s get it right. Now.”
Hearing the footsteps of many others, Alice and Astrid met us and formed a circle. After a brief moment, I glanced upward with glazed eyes, feeling a tear surface each of my damp cheeks. I beheld our sons and daughters gazing at our formation—and with open arms—I invited them in, to complete the circle.
Delvon T. Mattingly, who also goes by D.T. Mattingly, is a fiction writer and poet from Louisville, Kentucky and a PhD student in epidemiology at the University of Michigan. His works have appeared or are forthcoming in literary journals such as Maudlin House, Jellyfish Review, Star 82 Review, and scientific journals such as Anesthesiology, among others. He currently lives in Ann Arbor, Michigan. Learn more about his work on his website.