The ash at the tip of my grandfather’s cigarette dropped and scattered on the steps leading up to the bright red door to his house. The white-paneled house was surrounded by a waist-high stone wall. He called to us, my cousin Kyle and me. He called my cousin, “KP.” His first and middle initials.
My mother and my aunts tell me my grandfather couldn’t pronounce “Kyle.” I wonder about his voice, how much our New England dialect influenced his speech. When I remember our conversations, I cannot hear how they sound.
In the driveway, we were too young to reach the rim of the old hoop, weighed down by a plastic base with wheels, unsteady on the cracked pavement. The game was less about scoring, more about reaching. I do not remember if we reached the rim or if one of our parents joined the game or if someone lowered the hoop for us. I remember a robin’s nest on the ground, masterfully woven from sturdy twigs with the pale blue eggs sitting in the middle. It had fallen straight down. I knew these eggs because of their color, because of the Crayola wrapper. The eggs had capsized like shipwrecked vessels in the places where cracks stretched across their sides, but where the shells were smooth, I wanted to touch. “There were birdies inside?” I asked. I must have been five. It was wise, the robins’ decision to build the nest under the shade of the tree over the drive, safely between the metal bars propping up the backboard of the hoop. We had ignored the hoop for so long.
In my junior year of high school, my grandmother had been living with us for about a decade, since my grandfather died and she got sick. She was the only other person in the house who enjoyed reading. She had worked as a library technician before there were machines that laminated the books instead of people. I was sitting in a navy blue armchair by the sliding glass door. The blinds peeked out across the patio to the swimming pool. Her red recliner swallowed her. I told her how annoying The Scarlet Letter was.
“Oh, it’s one of my favorites!” she exclaimed. “Dimmesdale, Hester Prynne.” A litany of character names, her lips curved up and her eyes widened. She traveled back to a moment to when reading Hawthorne’s classic had been assigned to her. I could see her, black hair in pigtails, the school dress of the fifties, hugging a book to her chest. The image floated above us.
The next time I saw a brood of robins’ eggs was the spring before I started graduate school, the last time I lived with my family. We noticed a nest tucked in the back of a hedge outside the window of the living room. Four small blue ovals. We noticed because every time we opened the back door, the female took flight. Eventually we saw the male, too, overlooking the yard from the edge of my grandmother’s apartment off our garage or stooped atop the black pillars of the fence around the pool. We saw how he swooped when the other robins drew near, how he argued with them.
My grandmother sometimes complained of being a burden to us. It is true that we moved to the house for her so that she could have an apartment with some independence, that everyone traveled to us during holidays for her, that my mother checked on her morning and night, that we drove her to dialysis three times a week, that we helped with her cleaning, that my mother did her laundry. My grandmother relied on a walker for most of her last decade alive. She rarely traveled except to appointments. When she spoke like this, we could only reassure her about how glad we were that she was with us. We could only make silent promises to spend more time with her.
Around the time we found the nest outside our window, I was visiting my grandmother in her apartment, where I sat leaning forward in my usual spot, the blue armchair tilted toward her recliner. She had a plastic tub of old books in her closet. Most of them were World’s Popular Classics editions from the early twentieth century. It seemed she had everything. Homer, Austen, Kipling, Doyle. Her brother had bought them cheap at a street sale when she was a kid. There had been more. She had kept them throughout her childhood, her married life, until the basement of the house she shared with my grandfather flooded. What she had in the tub, she said, was all that she could save. I brought the tub out from her closet and sifted through the brown, musty pages. The Brontës, Hawthorne, Aesop, Dickens.
“I’m not going to live much longer,” she told me.
“Why do you say that?”
“I can feel it.”
“Well, I like having you around.”
She laughed. “I want you to have those books. You’re the only one who will take care of them the right way.”
One day we noticed one of the eggs teetering at the edge of the nest. My aunt was over playing cards in the dining room. My cousins, my grandmother, my parents, my sister. Everyone wanted to push the egg back into the nest except me. I would not let them.
I read online that if the robins detected too much threat, they would abandon their nest. I knew that the female had her eye on us, that she still fled the nest whenever we opened the back door. I watched where she flew — to one of the trees in the backyard, where she hid behind the leaves. I imagined her watching us trying to sneak through the hedge, reach toward her eggs, stick our hands inside. I imagined all the eggs abandoned and insisted that my family leave the fourth egg suspended between the twigs of the nest and the branches of the hedge.
The next day, the egg was on the ground, splattered next to the house’s foundation. It was split, some residue of spilt liquid drying around the shell. Through the window, looking out, I saw the female sitting on the other three. Watching her sit became my pastime. At first, any mention of the lost egg ended in accusatory glances toward me, but eventually my family forgot.
I saw my grandmother for the last time in the summer of 2016 while she was in the hospital recovering from surgery. Her medications had been adjusted, and she was fighting delusions and seizures. She was so small in the hospital bed, her arms hooked to an IV, the dark gray curls of an old perm disheveled. I stood at the end of her bed with my parents, my sister, my aunt, and my cousins surrounding her. She stared past my shoulder, as if at something behind us.
“My lover,” she wheezed.
“Mom?” My mother asked.
“I see him waiting for me.”
“Mom, are you okay?” My mother reached toward the call button. Then my grandmother smiled and started to laugh.
“Gram, are you messing with us?” My sister asked. My grandmother’s face fell to the side in a small nod and she kept laughing.
By the time I made that visit to the hospital, I had spent most of the previous six years visiting for holiday breaks and for the summer. I had earned my undergraduate degree in South Carolina. Afterward, I spent time teaching abroad before I moved back home. “Say good-bye to your grandmother,” my mother told me every time I left. “This may be the last time you see her.”
How many times had I seen her for the last time? She was in the hospital recovering from a surgery. The doctors had removed her kidney because it was bleeding. Before that surgery, we hugged each other, gripped each other’s elbows. The doctors said her chance of survival was unlikely. Yet, she had lived.
My grandmother died about a month later in September, lying in her red recliner. I was starting graduate school in Idaho. It was 9:30 at night, and I had just showered. I saw a missed call on my phone from my mother. It would have been after midnight in Connecticut. And I knew. For six years, it was the phone call I had trained myself to expect.
During her last spring alive, the last spring I lived in Connecticut, I watched the robins’ eggs hatch. All three were healthy. Every day after work, I peeked through the window at them, the three fuzzy heads stretched toward the branch above, their beaks open, expectant, whenever the male and female were both searching for food. I watched them until the tufts fell off, until their mature feathers grew in, until their auburn bellies were indistinguishable from one another and from their parents. Until I came home from work one day and my father said they were gone. I ran to the window and saw the nest, empty, saw the shell of the fourth egg below, spattered with white droppings, the pale blue of its shell faded and decayed.
Unpacking my books in the new house I was renting with my girlfriend, going into my third year of graduate school, a worn, vintage book with a red-taped spine jutted from the pile. Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter from my grandmother’s tub. I had carried it with me the summer before, because my girlfriend had joked about dressing as Hester Prynne and Arthur Dimmesdale for Halloween. “You’re from New England, and we’re living in sin,” she had explained, grinning. I wonder if my grandmother would have approved of us, the lovers.
Sometimes, when I fear I am forgetting the sound of my grandmother’s voice, there is one memory that brings her back. My mother had just driven me home from the airport for one of my visits. I must have been in college.
“Go see your grandmother. We didn’t tell her you were coming home.”
“It’s late. She’s probably sleeping.”
“She’ll want to see you.”
My mom pushed the door open to my grandmother’s apartment and told her to wake up, that she had a visitor. My grandmother opened her eyes. She was curled up in her red recliner. She glanced toward the door and spread her arms over her yellow pajamas with the butterflies, embarrassed. When she saw me, she leapt from her chair faster than I had seen her move in years. She hobbled. My mom rushed to steady her.
“My Brian!” my grandmother said, and she stepped toward me with her arms out. Her voice had the slightest rasp. Her first syllable a whisper. Her surprise, her excitement, showed in her tone, by her open jaw and by her lips contorting into a grin. The vibration seemed to catch just for a moment as it moved up her vocal cords. There was always a quick rupture when she spoke, a recovery.
I was in Connecticut for a white, icy Christmas in 2017. My parents had sold the house I grew up in and moved to a condominium. While there, I looked through the boxes stacked in the basement, the plastic tubs. I could not find the crate of books my grandmother privately willed me, but I knew they were in the storage unit my parents rented before they brought them to the condo. I knew they must have been somewhere.
We were ready to go meet family for dinner. Then my mother was sitting at the table with her head in her palms, crying. My father and I stood on each side. She wore my grandmother’s cross over a floral shirt. She had a black cardigan over her hunched shoulders. Mourning colors, I thought, even then.
“I’m not going to go,” she said. “Nobody needs me anymore.” My mother was an orphan, I realized. My father and I glanced at each other, rubbed her back. “Grandma was the last person who needed me,” she said. The absence between us like the fourth egg, abandoned. Every response I could think of sounded like a platitude.