You are twelve years old and walking down the hallway to your bedroom, when an old photograph on the wall catches your eye. You’ve been walking past the photograph for your whole life and have never stopped to take a closer look. But today is different; it’s his birthday. Your feet halt on the scratchy carpet as you stare up at the old black and white photo mounted beside your sister’s school picture. Your dad’s dad is seated in the middle of the photo. You call him that because you’ve never met him. You cannot call him “grandpa” because he was never really yours. His dark hair is slicked back and he is smiling widely. His eyes seem to sparkle and he appears so full of vitality. Your father and uncle sit beside him, nestled into the crooks of his arms. This family seems so whole, so happy. It pains you to know that the same young boys who were smiling in that photo would soon be mourning the death of their father.
Your dad’s dad died in a scuba diving accident when your father was eleven. He had been a brain surgeon, an army doctor, and a dedicated husband and father. When your grandmother’s memory was still intact, she would tell you stories about him, your favorite being about his attitude on family vacations. He would say that his days on vacation were only complete if he did three things, whether they be swimming, sailing, or taking a walk. You’ve always dreamed of traveling with him. You make a silent wish, staring deep into your dad’s dad’s smiling eyes. Suddenly, he comes alive for you.
You hug him tight. He smells of cologne and Clamato juice. He kisses your cheek and leads you to his car.
“Where are we going?”
“It’s a surprise.”
You climb into the passenger seat, which smells of cigars and your granny’s perfume. They must have gone out the night before. They are so in love and granny’s memory is fine; you have never even heard of a disease called Alzheimers. Your grandfather turns on the radio and begins drumming on the steering wheel as Frank Sinatra’s voice drifts through the speakers.
“How’s school?” Your grandfather’s voice has the depth of an ocean and its smoothness soothes you.
You tell him about your success on the swim team and your straight As. You tell him about how much you love to read and write. You tell him that you love history because it prevents people from making the same mistakes. You wish you could rewrite history, but you don’t tell him that.
“What a smart girl you are. I’m so proud to be your grandfather.” This is all you have ever wanted to hear. He begins to hum to the beat of the music and your eyelids become heavy.
When you wake up, you realize you’ve arrived at your granny’s summer house on Cape Cod. You look over at your grandfather, still seated behind the steering wheel.
“Let’s go,” he says. “We have to do our three things.”
Within the next half hour, you are on the first hole of the golf course, watching your grandfather practice his swing. He wins, scoring below par on every hole, but you are proud of yourself for finally hitting a ball over the lake. Your grandfather gives you a pat on the back as you watch the ball soar over the water, sparkling in the sunlight. You decide to play tennis next and go easy on him because of his bad hip. Eventually, you choose to play as a team, trying to hit the ball back and forth as many times as possible: 42 times.
“What’s our third thing?” you ask, sitting beside him on a bench at the tennis courts. Your lips are red from the gatorade he bought you at the Beach Club. Your grandfather wipes a bead of sweat from his forehead.
“Follow me,” he replies. It’s getting darker; you move quickly.
Eventually, you reach a beach. Your grandfather removes his tennis shoes and socks and you do the same. You feel the warm sand sand sink beneath you, seeping between your toes. He grabs your hand; you feel every wrinkle and the coolness of his wedding band. His grip is firm and steady, probably from his years as a neurosurgeon.
He leads you to the end of a jetty and you both sit down. You stare up at the sky and admire its beautiful pink color. It reminds you of cotton candy. You’ve seen hundreds of sunsets on Cape Cod, but this one is ethereal. Your grandfather releases your hand and runs his fingers through your hair. A comforting sensation trickles down your spine. You turn towards him and stare deep into his brown eyes. You can almost see his soul.
“I love you,” he says, his voice shaking. “Don’t you ever forget that.” He rolls up his pants and slowly descends from the jetty. You move to follow him, but he stops you.
“I have to go.” He begins to wade into the water. You try and yell to him to come back, but no sound escapes. You watch as he sinks deeper and deeper into the water, mimicking the setting sun. You continue to call out to him, but he does not turn around. Eventually, the tip of his head disappears and you stare out at the calm ocean that has swallowed him whole.
“I love you too,” you murmur softly. Everything goes dark.
You are back in your hallway, staring at that photograph of your grandfather. A single tear slides down your cheek as you realize you have lost him again to the jaws of the sea. Despite the pain, you can’t keep a smile from spreading across your face as you recall the day’s events. You did three things.