The Empty Chair

 

I sit rigid on the edge of a floral-patterned couch dizzied by the movement all around me. I know this house; I have been here every weekend for the better part of my life. But it’s foreign to me now. The living room fireplace with its brick base and empty hearth makes the hallway door in front of it seem unreachable from here. This couch, on the opposite wall to the fireplace, has lost all its cushioning. On the coffee table in front of me a glass of Dr Pepper sits untouched. Grandpa’s chair lies vacant in a room filled with people. Mom sits in Grandma’s chair between stints of chatter and hugs, while Dad paces around the room, eyes dim and unfocused.

My eyes burn. No amount of blinking settles the sting. I can hear whispers all around me and sideways glances at my person. I look at the hallway door and start to push off from this temporary prison, but I hear my name again and turn towards the dining room.

Containers of food cover the tables and countertops across the dining room and kitchen.

Who can think of food at a time like this?

My heart is in my stomach, creating a knot that any sailor would be proud to call their own. So many eyes settle on me, and I taste bile in my throat as I try to push the tears away again.

Can’t I go to bed? I just want to be left alone.

The doorbell rings in response. With the speed of a deer, Grandma races over to me, grabs my hand, and forces me up.

She drags me to the door, hand tight around my own. I hardly resist, but I imagine how liberating it could be at a time like this.

As the door opens, she puts her arm around me and holds me tight. An elderly couple greet us, hands entwined together. A plate of food covered in plastic wrap is in the woman’s arm, and the old man held a handkerchief in his free hand. I wonder if they know how rude it is to act like a couple at a time like this.

“We just heard,” the woman says. “We came as soon as we could.”

“Thank you,” Grandma sighs, before pushing out her chest. “And would you believe it? It’s her birthday!”

She releases me and pushes me at these two strangers. I prepare for the inevitable. This is not the first time today that this has happened.

“Oh! You poor dear!” The elderly woman hands the plate to her husband and comes into me with the veracity of a child reunited with their mother. Her cold hands and cheeks make me feel every bit of this cold January morning. I stand rigid with my arms straight at my side. Grandma’s arms wrap around me as well, and the tightness in my throat overwhelms my chest and arms.

“Thank you,” I mumble.

When will this nightmare be over?

When the woman and Grandma are done hugging me, I go back to sit down at the couch and wait for the continued humiliation.

 

How did this day get to be so awful? I remember waking up excited. Fourteen. It’s an extra awesome day because today we are moving into our new house. It’s not much bigger than the one we live in, but there’s a shower and that’s just awesome!

Earlier today, Daddy gave me my birthday present. My own phone number! A day just filled with promise.

Half an hour later, the phone rings, and moments later, Daddy rushes to get us in the van. Before we leave, he yells out to our neighbor, “My father just died.”

 

I sit straight and look at that empty rocking chair recliner. I think back at the times I sat on his lap there. About how his hands were always so gentle and soft. How his hair was cut in the same style for all the fourteen years I’d known him. I remember his smile and his happy eyes. The plaid shirt and plain pants he always wore. The watch around his wrist. The ring he never took off.

I push the tears away and stare into that chair cushion.

“Melony,” I hear. Grandma is standing in front of me. “He wanted you to have this.”

“Thank you,” I say slowly to avoid breaking my voice.

The small box has a tiny card. “With love, from Grandpaw & Grandmaw.”

I blink furiously and swallow.

The ring inside, a large garnet on a gold band and two little diamonds on either side slides onto my finger and dangles.

Grandma weeps, “It doesn’t fit.”

I stand up and cry for a moment with her. We embrace. “It’s okay,” I whisper. “We can get it resized. I can wear it around my neck until then.”

She holds the hug longer than I expect.

“I’m sorry,” she says on repeat.

I hold her tighter. What do I say back? Grandpa was my favorite person in the world… I’m no good at this.  

“It’s okay,” I say back.

We stay here for a what seems an eternity until I realize the truth. She made today all about me. I thought she was doing it to make me feel better, but maybe it was to help her cope. Today is really all about her.

It still doesn’t stop me from selfishly thinking. Why me? Why did it have to be on my birthday?

 

 

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10 thoughts on “The Empty Chair

  1. I am so sorry for your loss, and the awful timing.

    I think your thoughts really convey how you felt, and your description was very good, I love the line where you wrote: My heart is in my stomach, creating a knot that any sailor would be proud to call their own. What a good metaphor to explain something like that.

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  2. I think you did a great job of portraying your younger self and the way you would have thought back then. The changes you made to the end highlight that well, too.

    I’m sorry for your loss, Melony! I’m sure your grandpa is still with you.

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  3. Oh Melony, it truly shakes your life when a close relative passes. I can feel that in this piece. I also like how you let us in on your inner monologue, which was mostly discomfort at having your grief on display and guilt over all the “shoulds” one feels, especially at such a tender age. I think the use of “awesome” worked the first time you said it but the second in such close proximity felt repetitive. I find reading my pieces out loud can help me catch those things. This was a great study in single scene writing and that sailor’s knot line really worked for me.

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