I woke up to a call at five in the morning on Veteran’s Day, 2008.
“Hey, I’m outside, come and open the door,” said Sara, my older sister.
I didn’t say anything and hung up the phone. I climbed down from my bunk bed and slid my feet into a pair of bulldog slippers. I shuffled down the hallway, through the common room, and to the dark and silent boys side of the hall.
As I neared the door, I saw Sara stepping onto the landing. She had a tissue in her hand. In my half-asleep mind, I wondered if she and her husband fought and so she needed some sisterly love.
I pushed open the door and Sara stepped in, saying nothing. She walked passed me a little before she stopped and put her arm around my neck.
“Dad passed away.”
“C’mon. Pack your stuff. We’ve got to go to San Jose.”
You know when you’re about to fall asleep and you suddenly wake up, your body tense because it felt as though you were about to fall off the edge of the bed? In that moment I felt like I was seconds away from falling off the edge, though I was on solid ground.
Sara walked down the hall. She knew where my dorm room was, she’d visited before. I followed her, walking with my hands in my pockets. I opened my door and turned the light on, not thinking that it might wake my roommate, Ana. I slid open my closet door and tried to be as quiet as possible. I didn’t want to tell Ana what was happening and why I was packing a bag.
I tossed as many clothes into my bag as possible. Later, I realized I didn’t pack for cold weather, so I had to borrow a jacket from Sara.
We left five minutes later. As we walked to Sara’s blue minivan, I began to cry.
“I was supposed to take him to the movies this weekend.”
The weekend before my father passed away, he and I were supposed to go see a movie. Going to the movies was our version of playing catch. We’d get popcorn and a Cherry Cola and whenever we left the movies, I asked him what his favorite part was. Without fail, he always said “the whole thing.”
That weekend, though, I was too preoccupied with my late teenage romance to spend time with my father.
When I left for the two and a half hour drive back to Fresno State, my father wasn’t bothered.
“That’s ok,” he said. “I get you next weekend.”
Sara and I drove across town to her house, both of us trying not to cry. While on the road, she told me that Mohnique, our oldest sibling, called and told her our dad passed away in the night. It was likely a heart attack.
“Don’t say anything to the boys,” Sara said, referring to her sons, Elijah and Joshua. We pulled into her apartment complex. “I haven’t told them yet.”
My brother-in-law, Shante, sat in the living room with my nephews. When the boys saw me, they gave me hugs and confused smiles.
“What’re you doing here, Auntie ‘Manda?” my nephew, Elijah, asked.
“She’s coming with us to San Jose,” Sara said.
I followed her upstairs and sat on her bed while she packed. After a while, I called my best friend, Jacque. It was seven in the morning in California, and since Jacque lived in Atlanta, I knew I wouldn’t be waking her.
She answered with a confused hello, and I told her the news. After Jacque, I called a few other friends, and my then-boyfriend, Mike. With each call it felt more and more real. My father was gone.
Shante and I began to pack the car. My brother-in-law has always been a well of quiet strength. But he, like my sister, was worried about how their sons would accept the news of our family’s collective loss.
When we stepped back into the house for the last few items, I could see my nephew Elijah kneeling on the couch. His head was in his hands and his eyes had filled with tears. My sister stood with her arms crossed, trying not to cry herself. Elijah was so aware of my father’s death in a way that three-year-old Joshua wasn’t.
As we drove to San Jose, it felt like my heart was breaking. It felt like my insides had been scooped out, and I was nothing but a hollow shell. My father was my best friend. I could always count on him for reassurance, a good laugh, and a kind word. The fact that he was gone made the world seem… less wonderful.
But I didn’t cry. I wanted to be strong for my nephews, my brother -in-law, and most of all, my sister. To this day, I still marvel at her strength and grace. I only told my friends that my father died. My sister had to tell her children that grandpa – who taught them how to fish, who sat on the kitchen floor and ate toast with them – was gone.
It was overcast when we got to San Jose. Cars blocked the driveway and lined the cul-de-sac. The garage door was open, and when we parked, I saw my mother standing on the grass.