Sinking Suns 006/016
WORDS: Kalena Tamura
I’m drunk when my mother tells me. Reclined in a lawn chair on the front balcony of some stranger’s apartment, I listen to the sounds of trashy EDM music and hammered college kids float out through the open doors and over the balmy evening air. It’s Super Bowl Sunday but I’ve already forgotten the names of the two teams playing. The bulging sun hangs low in the sky, bleed- ing streaks of gold that shimmer on the glass windows of the UCLA medical center facing me directly across the street. Below the cars whiz past, zooming and pausing in time with the flickering green and red lights. I feel my mimosa high from the morning fade as I sink deeper into the chair with jello limbs and a sleepy gaze that settles on the sun rays dancing atop the reflective tower. My buzzing pocket reawakens me to the world. I dig out my phone and read the caller ID before letting it go to voicemail. After two missed calls, and a “Please call me back when you get this” text, I sigh before dialing her number.

“Hey mom,” I say in an upbeat tone, trying to mask any drunken slur with cheer.

“Hi Mia, sweetie, is there any way you might be able to make it home this next weekend? I know we already talked about it, but it’s your grandfather’s 80th birthday.”

“Yeah, I know. I just have that midterm next week. I thought you said it’s fine if I skipped.”

“I know. It’s just, he’s not doing too well. I think you should really try to make it, if you can. I was able to convince the doctor’s to give him permission to leave the night of his birthday dinner. I thought it’d be nice seeing as, well, he’s in the late stages and I’m not sure how much longer...” her voice peters out, swallowed by the hum of silence. I sit, dazed, my brain processing her words in slow motion.

“What do you mean? Is everything okay?” I ask, concern dissolving my drunken dim and pulling the world back into a sharpened focus. The noise on the other end of the line heightens, a scratchy gargle of uninterpretable sounds. “Mom?”

“Sorry honey I have to go. I’ll call you later tonight.” The line cuts off as I hear her voice being carried in the opposite direction.

“Shit.” I make no effort to move from the chair, watching the sky’s deep burnt orange hue fade to darkness as the reflection of the sun sinks on the hospital’s window wall of glass.

The first thing I’m reminded of as we enter Sunrise Villa is the pervasive smell of cat litter, which I find odd, seeing as there are no cats. My parents made the decision to move Grandpa to an assisted living center nine months after he was first diagnosed. Grandpa was appalled at the idea. He was still in the early stages, and found himself hardly need- ing to be taken care of. He was 71, living alone, and to my mother’s dismay, as irreparably stubborn as ever.

When I was a freshman in high school and still living at home, I happened to walk in on her arguing about the mat- ter with him over the phone one evening. I halted, hearing the strain in her voice, and stood paused in the doorway.

“I’m sorry, but I really think this is the best decision. After all, with mom not there to look after you, it’s got to be lone- some living all on your own.” My mom waited, biting her thumb nail. I pictured my grandfather’s rigid resolve gliding across the telephone line all the way from his home in San Diego three hours away.

“Dad,” my mom said in a pleading voice, “This isn’t something you can just ignore. It’s Alzheimer’s. It’s serious, and it’s not going away.” I watched through the crack in the doorway as she finished the conversation, then sat on her bed. She rung her head in her hands and quietly began to cry.

It’s been two years since I last visited Grandpa at Sunrise Villa. When I left home for college, my new life consumed me, vigorously and unconditionally. Despite being only twenty minutes away, I rarely make it home except for holi- days, and even then I still somehow manage to spend a good portion of my vacations and breaks away on trips. As I wait in the lobby with my father, I realize that there’s never been anything significant stopping me from visiting Grandpa. I just hadn’t ever made the time.

As Grandpa emerges shuffling towards us, the entirety of his weight dispersed between my mother’s arm and his wooden cane, I’m overcome with shock at how different he looks. His body is shriveled and frail, swallowed by the clothes that hang limply from his thin limbs. I stare at his gaunt face and frame, and think only of bones.

“Hi Grandpa,” I say, giving him an enthusiastic but gentle hug. He smiles at me and nods. I can tell he is happy, but there is a mist behind his eyes that I do not recognize. He kisses my forehead and says “beautiful.” It is the only word he says until we sit down for dinner.

We arrive at the restaurant on the water. It’s a stunning Italian restaurant in the Marina with towering glass win- dows that look out onto the ocean. When I was little, we used to come every year for Easter dinner. My Grandma always reserved the table a month in advance for a “front row seat to the sunset.” I always sat next to Grandpa so that we could watch for dolphins together. I never saw a single one, but every few minutes I would shout and point at a shadow glimmering on the water and pretend I had just seen a dolphin pop its head up. He always played along, acting as though he had seen it too. His responses were so enthu- siastic sometimes I began wondering if a dolphin actually had appeared, and maybe I was just the one who couldn’t see it. We stopped coming after Grandma passed away. No one ever had the intuition or energy to make the reservation far enough in advance, and after all, that other restaurant in Redondo was cheaper.

I wonder if this will be my grandfather’s last time at this restaurant. I wonder it and then immediately wish I could take it back, but it’s too late. Thoughts don’t work like that. Outside the waves smack hard against the shore as I stare out the car window, feeling small.

The spaghetti slaps the checkered tile floor, a wet smack followed by the ricochet of white ceramic shards. The room freezes. The only movement is that of a single meatball sent flying across the floor by the impact of the crash. It rolls forward and comes to a stop, nudging against the toe of the waiter’s black loafer. Heads turn as the room hushes. We are all swallowed by the stillness.

Across the table my grandfather is standing with red sauce oozing down the front of his white button down, blooming across his chest like a gun wound. His chair is toppled over behind him and his expression is perplexed.

“Where is Kathryn?” he repeats for what feels like the hun- dredth time, though this time his voice is soft. The frustra- tion and anger have melted, overshadowed now by blended tones of confusion and worry. My mother leans over to the waiter and immediately begins whispering a slur of mum- bled apologies.

“He has Alzheimer’s,” she explains. “He doesn’t remember.”

“Where is Kathryn?” he repeats once more. It’s no longer a question. The words leave his lips automatically, emotion- less, as the mist behind his eyes dissolves.

“She’s gone, dad. Mom’s gone.” My mother reaches out to put a hand on my grandfather’s shoulder. Around us, the gazes of other families beat down on us like burning heat rays. I stare at my plate of carbonara, pretending not to notice the air being sucked out of the room. I feel the strings in my chest being pulled tight. I focus on breathing and pray they don’t snap.

Grandpa excuses himself to the restroom.

“Check on him, Irving,” my mother fires to my father in a voice that is her whisper-scream. “I’ll get the check.” I do not wait for the workers to come mop up the mess, do not wait for them to pick up the shattered pieces of our broken family.

I don’t hear my grandfather come up behind me as I sit on one of the benches outside the restaurant. He takes a seat beside me, slowly lowering himself and resting his cane along the side of the wooden bench. I take his hand in mine and together we sit, engulfed by the humming noise of the ocean’s pulse, as wave after wave beats softly upon the shore.

There is yelling. The people stare. There is shouting. I am shouting. “Dad please, sit.” I don’t sit. “Sir,” the waiter pleads. I don’t sit. “Where is Kathryn? I need to find Kathryn!” I hear my voice, but do not feel the words escape my lips, do not feel them dissolve into the air. Where is Kathryn? Where has she gone this time? There is whispering. They are whispering and staring, my daughter and the waiter. Secrets drip from her lips, spilling into his ears. They won’t tell me where my Kathryn is. No one will tell me where my Kathryn is. The waiter nods. His lips purse. He stares into me. His face is saturated in pity. It bleeds in the wrinkled creases near his narrowed eyes, lining his fur- rowed brow. Recognition clicks. A wave of familiarity knocks the wind from my lungs. It is a look I have seen countless times, an expression inked onto countless faceless strangers. And then I remember. Her tone is hushed, her expression pained. “He has Alzheimer’s. He doesn’t remember.” Her words swim, slipping through the gaps in her teeth like smoke. He doesn’t remem- ber. I blink. The simplicity of my daughter’s words smack me in the face. I don’t remember.

My head spins slowly on its axis. I look. The floor is littered, spilled spaghetti, a broken plate, piercing shards of white ce- ramic painting the checkered tiles. “Where is Kathryn?” A hun- dred faceless figures, I do not recognize. Two faceless children I sense that I should recognize, I know that I should recognize, but who are just as faceless as the rest. “She’s gone,” a voice murmurs. I lift my gaze to face my daughter. “Mom’s gone.” A waiter, my daughter, her children, an encroaching circle of empty eyes. Artificiality presses down on us. The cardboard fig- ures stare. The synthetic air is stale on my tongue. He doesn’t remember.

I excuse myself. I walk to the bathroom. The water is rain, sliding down my cheeks. I rub my palms against closed eyes, digging the heels deep into the papery skin, erasure. I turn the sink off, grip the counter. I lift my gaze. I stare into the face of a man, a father, a grandfather. Concentric circles, a hazel ring hugs an ebony iris. My chest sinks. I wait for the day that I will lift my gaze and look into my reflection, the day I will meet the faceless figure of a man, a father, a grandfather that I do not remember, faded, dissolving among the rest. I take a breath. Today is not that day.

My daughter’s husband walks me outside, holding my arm like a small child. I do not fuss, letting myself be held.

“I’m gonna pull the car around. Will you be alright with Mia?” he asks. I nod in assurance, lowering myself down onto the wood- en bench next to my granddaughter. She turns and smiles at me, taking my hand in hers. My daughter comes up behind me and once more places her hand on my shoulder. In the golden light reflecting off the water, she looks so much like her mother. I feel the worry and paranoia ebb from my bones. I allow all the lost memories to be taken from me, pulled out to sea with the parting waves. I sit with my beautiful family, listening to the lull of the ocean crash, shattering upon the shore. Part of me wish- es to speak, only to realize there is nothing that needs to be said. The sun sinks below the horizon. The world dims to dusk. I forget all that I do not remember. This moment is enough.