By Kelly Ansara

It was November 9th 2003. On this Saturday morning I was woken up by a frantic scream, a loud bang on a windowand a whispered curse from the room next door. This would forever be remembered as ‘The first time I saw my father cry’. It was also the first time I’d heard the word ‘dead’; a gut-punch word that seemed to strip the world of its colour. My grandfather had died. His body was wheeled out on a stretcher, and driven off in an ambulance that whined all the way down the street.

So it began – grief; a word that came at me like the plague. Grief has always seemed to elude me. It forms a quick progression of hugs and the nodding of tilted heads that pass on sympathies from people you’ve never met. I have never seemed to grasp hold of it, that emotional stress ball. I have seen grief being carried like an old school bag, flopping at the person’s feet with sadness spilling chaotically out like discarded books.

My grandparents lived in a cosy cottage behind our face brick house. My aunt, who was living with us at the time, immediately fell into a bout of frantic crying. My grandmother balled her fists in anger and her tears dropped and stained her shoes. She felt cheated; I knew this because she shouted it at the top of her lungs. My father’s face fell into his open palms. He looked almost pathetic in his half-forgotten and rushed pyjama dressing: obscenely short blue rugby shorts, and a left sock. (My father never wore socks to bed – a ‘less is more’ kind of guy). His 5XL frame heaved with a breathless sob, a quick in and out of breath, openly for everyone to see. I couldn’t say I was horrified by his crying but more so by its public nature.

I slowly moved toward my room, trying to refrain from making any sudden movement that would have set off another emotional showcase from my aunt. Everything also just felt as if it had slowed down by fifty milliseconds per minute, including my grief. I took tiny steps to my bedroom which was littered with some or other boy band craze. The dramatics of my aunt had drained me, and my grandmother’s loss was so profound it seemed to smother me. But it was father’s teary debut that seemed to knock my world off its axis. A Superman turned Bizzaro. His towering framed shrunk almost instantly. Men weren’t supposed to cry, were they? He had just lost his father. Something I refuse to imagine, even in moments of ‘what if?’.

I pulled out the chess set, a plastic Crazy Store toy purchased with the last scraps of my pocket money. It was magnetic and cheap. This was the only connection to my granfather that I had left. I set up the pieces methodically, sticking them slowly onto each coloured square, mouthing each piece’s name and beginning to play. This was our thing, my papa and I. He’d spent countless hours teaching me strategy and rules, mind games, and ways to untangle myself from a potential checkmate. For the first time, I played chess by myself. I should have been used to it by now, being alone, I was an only child after all. When I had forced myself to lose against myself, I picked up the set and flung it against the wall.

As family members arrived, they stained our shoulders with tears which set my aunt flinging herself around the house. My grandmother stood there: helpless and empty. That night I let her sob helplessly into my neck. It would end up being a tradition we would keep for years later.

I had five older cousins on my father’s side. This was before they started having kids of their own, expanding our family tree to almost double. All arrived to pay their last respects to my grandfather. The man whose feet we used to sit at as he drummed out phrases like: ‘A spoonful of sugar, kids, makes the medicine go down’ or, and this one always seemed to catch me by surprise, ‘If something scares you, it’ll be the best thing you ever do.’ Most of the time was spent coaxing my aunt from the bathroom and making cups of tea that went instantly cold.

We aren’t a religious family as a whole. While my grandmother visits an Anglican church every Sunday, we never took part in the covering of mirrors and large feasts like my mother’s Jewish side of the family. I watched my grandmother and cousins pray, grieve, and settle into the new life of having lost someone. Being an atheist more to irritate my grandmother than actually not believing, I grew envious of their tears, the acceptance of grief, and their faith. “Aren’t you going to miss him, Kelly?,” my cousin Terry said. Yes, I was going to miss him, but I couldn’t mimic tears to show them.

When everyone left, my father looked instantly older. He had somehow made miracles occur with funeral homes, ambulances, and lawyers. While my aunt sobbed, my uncle stood in the corner like a timid school boy. Everyone wore their grief, dealt with it by recounting memories, crying, poring over photos, and sniffing clothing. Each family member exorcised themselves of sorrow.

Surely it was time to weep rivers, pound my fists and impersonate my aunt’s despair. Wasn’t that how we are taught to express grief, by showing it in abundance? We fumed. We ate. We hugged. We looked solemnly into the distance. We held silent minutes with pictures. We now spoke in the past tense. That night I was tucked into bed with an ‘are you sure you are ok?’ look from my mother which received a silent nod from me. I was alone with my own brand of grief – defined, felt, and expressed only by me.

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