Regarding the Death of Your Grandfather

Tomorrow, when you find out about your grandfather’s death, you’ll nod and quietly say something along the lines of “Oh.” You’re thirteen. You haven’t thought too much about what will happen when he dies, which is silly because he’s been in the hospital for almost a month now with death written on his heart rate monitor. You’ll be surprised by your reaction. Unconsciously, you’ve assumed that you’ll cry—weep, even—and that his death will change your life forever. It won’t, at least in the way you’ve envisioned it. Not in the way you’ve imagined loss, which has been an abstract concept for the first thirteen years of your life, looming like a beast in the corner, like a sword overhead. You expect it to gut you, to be the most painful experience imaginable. When you experience it, though, you’ll go back to finishing the pancakes your mother cooked for breakfast as if nothing happened.

Your parents cut your vacation short when they heard that he was dying, and headed straight from San Diego to San Francisco. They drove eight hours through the night, speeding across the flat California heartland while the dawn broke and you drifted in and out of sleep. Occasionally, you’d hear them talk in hushed voices, but they’d stop whenever they noticed you awake. This sense of urgency was electrifying, as if this event was on a scale much greater than your comprehension, and it was, but it made the whole trip dreamlike. Only when they dropped you off at home and left for the hospital did the lucid emptiness of it all begin to set in.

They didn’t take you to see him the first few times they visited the hospital. You presumed that the adults were dealing with their emotions in the adult way, whatever that was. There were goodbyes to be said, a will to be arranged, and a funeral to be held. That didn’t stop you from feeling left out, though. He was your grandfather. But, you felt left out in the same way that putting you at the children’s table during family dinners made you feel left out: as much as you’d like to sit with everyone else, you wouldn’t know what to say.

The first time you saw him in the hospital, it was nighttime, and the room was lit by a fluorescent tube over his bed. Your grandfather was a small man, and he looked even smaller as he lay there dying. The hospital bedsheets draped over his skeleton as if someone had tightened the skin around his bones too much, and made you queasy as you stood next to the giant bed. The strands of hair left on his head seemed to fall off with each mechanical breath he took.

Then your mother was behind you. From over your shoulder, she said, “Dad, your grandson is here.” She didn’t bother using your name at that point, your grandfather having long forgotten that he even had a grandson—had you.

“Can he hear me?” you asked.

“He’s in a coma,” she whispered, and you left it at that.

“Hey, Grandpa.”

Standing there for a second, you almost expected him to speak through the oxygen mask covering his face. He’d suddenly wake and speak lucidly, displacing the rubbery plastic from his face in the process as if it were a tangled jacket. He’d to speak to you in a way he never had. But he didn’t. There was just the whir of the machinery and droning silence. A few seconds later, relatives began to crowd around the bed, and you lowered your shoulders in relief as you were shuffled back into the shadows of the room. Sitting down in a chair near the window, you watched from deep inside your body as the people surrounding him slowly melted into the ascetic hospital glare encircling his body.

The weeks following his hospitalization felt timeless to you. You were on summer vacation, were free to do what you pleased, and your parents had a funeral to arrange. The house was empty, except for the times your parents would go into their bedroom to talk on the phone. When you were in the same room as them, they towered over you, spoke over your head in words that never seemed to register with you even if you tried to listen. Instead, you drifted from room to room trying to occupy yourself. You watched three hours of Cartoon Network, and two more after that. Then, you walked to the nearby elementary school and stood in the middle of the soccer field, gazing up at the cloudless sky.

Before the hospital, before he began dying, your parents used to pick him up from the nursing home and bring him over for dinner sometimes. You couldn’t describe it at the time, but secretly, you hated these dinners and the way they made you Some Kind of Sad. You hated how, every time he came over, your mother turned snappish and tart. She’d circle him like a hawk while the food cooked, arranging his napkin and utensils in incremental adjustments. When she had to fix the top buttons on his shirt, she jerked his neck to get a better grip. You felt bad for him, and for her as well.

“Dad, do you want green beans?” she asked in Japanese as she hurried around the kitchen. The timer on the oven began to beep.


“Dad. Green beans, Dad. Do you want to eat any for dinner?”



“Green beans?”

His head swiveled to follow her. You sat across the table, shrinking in your chair. Sometimes, he looked at you.

He had forgotten his English by the time you began to remember him, which was odd because it was his first language. Your mother told you he used to speak Japanese to his mother as a child, and maybe that’s why he used it now: because he was a child. After decades of little red cartons of Marlboro cigarettes, his Japanese was garbled and derivative. You couldn’t understand him, but his voice dug into you and made you squirm in the way that phlegmy throats or a wet cough did. When he dies, you’ll remember him for this quality alone, his voice will be an identifying marker in the same way you remember a striking set of eyes or lips. It will be tied to both your grandfather and his cigarette cartons with a visceral kind of repulsion: when you go to university, you’ll party and take a lot of drugs, but, whenever a friend offers you a cigarette in the quiet, early hours of the morning, you’ll always decline politely, and they won’t ever question you, in tacit understanding that you have personal reasons.

He once told a tour guide at the Asian-American museum that he had been in an internment camp during the Second World War. The young lady seemed politely interested, but your mother corrected him, saying “You were in Japan.” You watched as your grandfather made a small o with his mouth in confusion. He kept insisting that he spent his childhood in Manzanar to the tour guide, who clasped her hands together at her waist and let out a small polite laugh. His eyes unfocused and fogged as he tried to dig through what was left and bring back memories of Manzanar from somewhere in his brain: the portion that had been infused with plaque. You weren’t sure who to believe that day. You won’t know the answer until after he dies.

When you were younger, when eponymous diseases were still beyond your understanding, you used to think Alzheimer’s was pronounced and spelled Allstimers. That was something comedic to you: that a sickness—especially one whose effects were not tangible to you, not comprehensible yet—could be called Allstimers. You used to think to yourself: where were all the timers? What were the timers for?

After tomorrow, after your grandfather dies, you’ll be asked to write a speech for his funeral. You’re a terrible writer—have been told over and over again that you can’t start sentences with and or so or but. You’ll make your best effort though. What you’ll find most difficult, when you sit down in front of your computer and actually write, is coming up with things to share about your grandfather. You’ll try to think about the qualities he had, but come short. He liked to smoke cigarettes. He was Japanese. He had Alzheimer’s. Then, you’ll switch tactics and think up memories to share. You have one memory of the time he escaped his nursing home to buy a lottery ticket down the street and got lost. That scared your mother, who found him on the side of a busy street. She transferred him to another home after that. Another memory you have is of the time your uncle grabbed you by the shoulders and held you in front of your grandfather. It was his eightieth birthday. He had an empty grin on his face, wearing a party hat that drooped slightly to the side. Gripping you by your tiny shoulders, your uncle laughed and laughed as he kept asking his dad, Do you know who this is? Do you know who this is? You wanted to move but your uncle had taken the bones from your body and frozen you in place, and all you could do was look away.

It’ll be your mother that’ll suggest writing about the time the three of you went to the zoo. She was the one that organized the trip, your grandfather already too afflicted with dementia to do any of the planning himself, but this is a concrete memory, one that you can latch onto. You’ll write almost everything you can remember about that day, filled with platitudes about your grandfather. One thing you’ll leave out is the cadaverous look he gave you, standing by the penguins, questioning who you were and where he was.

Years later, you won’t be able to recall a single conversation you had with him. Perhaps you never had any.

The funeral will be held in a Buddhist Temple. This is how you’ll learn that your grandfather was religious. You’ll learn a lot more about your grandfather in the coming days. An old friend, a man named John, will be present in a wheelchair. He’ll tell you that he and your grandfather were stationed in Korea together as part of a radio crew. That’ll be the first time learning that your grandfather was a veteran. Another thing you’ll learn that day: he was present in Hiroshima when the bomb was dropped. He was studying at University there, despite being an American citizen. Even into his eighties, he had yearly checkups to measure the radiation levels inside his body. One thing you won’t learn that day—will never learn—is how he survived. Your mother never thought to ask him while he could still remember.

“He was so strong. For someone of his stature, he could sure as hell beat the crap out of me,” John will say to you, picking at his food.


“Oh, if only Taichi had told me he wasn’t doing so well, I would’ve visited him in his nursing home.”

“Dad, I told you that he was sick. We visited him a few months ago.” his daughter will tell him in a pleading voice.

“I could’ve brought him some old photos or something. If only I had known he wasn’t doing so well.”

Later, you’ll learn that John is in the early stages of Alzheimer’s as well.

When it’s your turn to pay respects to the body, what you’ll think about most is how you appear to the rest of the congregation. You’ll be in manual control of your body the whole time, standing behind your aunt: She’s crying and talking out loud to her dead father. Her cries will make you feel exceptionally small, almost invisible, as you wait in line. When it’s your turn at the casket, you’ll look over your grandfather’s corpse, taking note of your hands hanging at your side. You’ll take note of how long you stand there, how featureless and mournful your face appears to everyone else. You’ll take note of the suit he’s wearing. Right before you turn around, you’ll wonder: will they burn the casket in cremation?

And that will be the last time you see his face.

One day, your mother will stumble upon a box of home videos. Inadvertently, you’ll watch all of them with her in one sitting. They will mostly be videos of your mother and father playing with you when you were a toddler. In some of them, he’s there too. You almost won’t recognize him: your grandfather looks younger in these. He acts differently. You’ll watch in nervous excitement, taking note of the subtle differences, like the way he walks instead of shuffles. How his voice doesn’t echo inside his mouth, doesn’t get caught in his gums, but rather projects through the television. And when he smiles, it’s with agency and conviction. In these videos, he’s a person.

In one of them, he picks you up as you waddle by, lifting you far above his head. He spins in circles while you laugh and squirm. When he lets you down, you begin to slip out of his grasp and make a run towards the camera without looking back. Just as your feet touch the ground, though, he gives you a discreet kiss on the back of your head. Then, the camera shakes and the VHS tape screeches to a stop.

And you’ll cry.

So sleep soundly tonight. Tomorrow, when your grandfather dies, you’ll feel nothing. The grief will never come, but, when the day comes that you inevitably decide you want to write, be not just any writer but a fiction writer, the first stories you’ll write will be about him: this person that you never knew. You’ll make him kind and thoughtful and intelligent like he must’ve been. And the stories will be a mess, have to be, because how do you sort through all of those memories? Your sentences, in some way or the other, always seem to meander. Also, they clunk along. Sometimes, for no reason, they’ll just stop. You’ll get discouraged. You’ll hate your writing. You’ll hate yourself for your writing.

Things won’t always be this way, though: slowly, and through lots of practice, you’ll learn. You’ll get better too. Someday—someday—you’ll write down all of your observations about the world and about your life with phrases like I see, and I think, and I feel. There will still be guilt, your grandfather will never quite leave your mind, but, eventually, to express how you feel, all you’ll have to do is…

But that’s all for the future. Tonight—this night—your grandfather is alive. You’re a thirteen-year-old boy and the world beyond your bedroom is boundless. A sweet summer breeze slips into the room and rustles the curtains while you listen to the pleasant hush of crickets in the distance. Far overhead, millions of miles away, stars explode, collapse back together, and begin to burn again: their light has traveled centuries to reach you. If you have any thoughts, they’re nothing you’ll remember the next day. So sleep soundly tonight, because a lot’s going to change.

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