SKY STOCKTON, Why We Run, Film & Animation. Grade 12, St. Joseph High School, Saint Joseph, MI.

 

The New York Life Award was created in partnership with the New York Life Foundation to encourage teens whose works explore personal grief, loss, and bereavement. These brave students have created masterful works of art and writing that are not only an outlet for expression, but relatable stories that can help others struggling with loss. The Award is presented to six students in grades 7-12, along with $1,000 scholarships.

 

Congratulations to the 2020 New York Life Award national recipients!

William Dondero, Nathan Ferency, William Leggat, Georgia Schill, Imani Skipwith, and Sky Stockton

 

What We Talk About When We Talk About Death

WILLIAM LEGGAT, Short Story. Grade 12, Phillips Academy, Andover, MA.

May we survive our loved ones, and may our words survive us.
i. pro forma

Graham Glenn, 59, of Brooklyn, NY, passed away on Sunday, August 25th, 2019 following a two-year battle with liver cancer. He is survived by his wife, Jane, and two sons, Lucas and Hugo.

i. ex ante

I, Graham Glenn, of Brooklyn, New York, revoke any former Wills and Codicils and declare this to be my Last Will and Testament.

Dad wasn’t talking. But he’s got three months, if that, and sometimes that gives him the right.

The three of us — dad, the nurse, and I — were sitting around, just waiting. Waiting for what, I don’t know. But he doesn’t walk anymore, or doesn’t like walking, so we do a lot of sitting. He was leaning back in this old, wrinkled recliner and looking out the window with some glazed look over his face, and it’d been a few minutes, with him just like this, so I turned to him and asked him the same question I’d asked him five minutes ago, the only question I knew to ask.

“How do you feel?”

“All, alright. Yes,” he said, coughing a bit.

The timer on his watch went off. He got up and I didn’t know whether to offer a hand as he shuffled over to the long seven-day strip and shook out three, skinny pills. His shaky hands guided them to his mouth. He slid them one by one over and into trembling lips, each pill resting a second on his tongue. His finger lingered a moment on his chin; all the while he kept his eyes focused out the window.

Dad used to be a lawyer, “when it meant something,” he’d say. Had this office — all mahogany and a fern, like a thousand other lawyers. Offices like his always had some greenery. I guess it livened the place up a bit, made him feel like others were comforted, as if he seemed more personable when relative to a plant.

From where I sat, though, Dad didn’t look like he’d ever been much of anything. He’d given up the hiding, started waxing his head like a mirror. His eyes sunk back like they were hiding from something. After a while, I had to look away, so I turned to watch the window with him.

“Dad?”

“Hmm,” he sighed.

“You looking at the beach?”

“Mhm. Pretty…,” he stumbled, “the waves and such.”

“Remember how we’d walk there, when I was younger?”

“Little then, real small,” he said, his eyes losing a bit of their glaze, “Let’s go tomorrow.”

I looked at the nurse, “Yeah, Dad, let’s go tomorrow.”

“Real little, Gamie. And the birds,” he muttered, “always liked them.”

I chuckled a bit and let the silence lie. Out the window, I could see the waves crashing onto the beach, down where we’d walk. Calm today. The wind didn’t seem to have much pull.

As the sun fell lower, casting first the beach and then the apartment in its dying light, the room got quieter. The waves picked up, and I started to feel the wind pushing through the curtains. I was about to get up to shut the window and draw the blinds, when I thought that Dad might want to catch the view.

“Dad, you see those waves?”

“Dad?”

An orange bottle fell from a limp hand and made its way across the room, letting out a rolling, rattling groan as it tumbled over the hardwood.

i. in articulo mortis

Ma kept a bible in her purse and clutched the thing like she thought it might help. When she felt the light was too strong through the curtains, she pulled them shut. “Don’t want no one looking in,” she sighed and shook her head.

Dad’d been in the hospice for a few weeks, which meant that the nurses had started bringing a pastor on their afternoon rounds, just in case. Lucas joked, “He should get a rewards card,” and mom gave him a nasty glare. I was just glad they all could come, long drives and all.

On the TV hung in the top corner of the room, some syndicated sitcom was running the same episode for the third time today.

“You know, Graham, it might do you some good to try some exercises. I heard from the nurses that even just sitting up can have a huge influence on your health. Exercise, sure, but also morale and all that,” mom paged through notes she’d scribbled down.

“Graham, are you listening to me?”

On the TV, a large man in a three-piece suit missed a few golf shots, then slammed his club down in rage. Dad let out a small chuckle, joining the chorus of the laugh track on the speakers.

“If you can pay attention to that thing you can pay attention to your own health. Come on, Graham.”

“Don’t bother,” he said, not looking her way.

“Don’t say something like that, Graham, that’s morbid.”

“Yeah. Something like that.”

Dad lifted a bony arm that looked like it might break if he let it drop.

The chunky golfer let out a scream and dad turned back to the TV. Lucas laughed with him. Mom shot them both another glare. Dad turned to me, vaguely motioned a cup with a stiff hand, his IV dancing off his wrist.

“Water, Gamie?”

“Sure thing.”

I turned the corner to the nurse’s station. “Some water for room 104, please.” In the hallway, with the pitcher in my hand, I heard the tinned laughter again, followed by mom:

“For Christ sakes, Lucas, can you turn that damn thing off?”

“Oh come on, let him laugh.”

Then a scream less comic. I turned into the room and dropped the plastic pitcher to the floor.

“Graham?” The remote slipped out of his palm and fell to the floor with a crack.

“Dad?” The batteries rolled out from the case, whining as they slid along the floor.

“Oh my god, someone get a nurse. Graham!” A frantic beep from the EKG. Lucas’s hand shaking as he tried to start compressions.

The laugh track on the TV kept ringing out through the room, leaving a dull, metal echo that remained long after the show cut to black.

i. ipse dixit

Where is my good death?
my happy family,
sick nurse,
IV?

What are my last words?
Tell me, so
I can write them down,
be sure to get them right.

Give me the easy way
if that’s what I deserve,
if my total’s in the black.

Where is my good death?
my varicose goodbye,
scribbled in formaldehyde,
a last epileptic fit.

Put on a show,
as my eyes close,
I grasp for a goodbye
with no words.

i. inter vivos
We, the witnesses, sign our names to this document, and declare that the testator willingly signed and executed this document as his last will.

Dad’s smile looks fake. I guess I can’t really fault the home for that, though. Even if he were still here and really smiling, I’d probably think it was fake. It’s just unnerving, is all. I pictured it different.

“We’ve gathered today to honor the memory of Graham Glenn,” the pastor said, stopping before dad’s name to make sure he got it right. Can’t blame him, either, though, he’s done it too many times before to make it personal. For him, it’s a job. “Before we continue, Lucas Glenn would like to share some remarks.”

“The Oxford English Dictionary defines greatness as…,” I laughed, “no, I’m just kidding. Dad always said if I started a speech like that, he’d kill me.” I turned to face the casket, “Here’s your chance, dad. Give me your best shot,” I lifted my arms in mock protest, “… No? Alright then.”

“When I was eight, Dad took me to a waterfall. It wasn’t all that special of a place, and, to be honest, it’s not all that special of a memory. It was one of our only trips. Kind of a ‘less is more’ parent, huh dad?” I said to him. Mom sent me a bloodshot glare.  “But when I sat down to write this, it was what came to mind, so um, here goes.

“I remember we got to the top, we’d climbed these steep rocks and I’d narrowly missed some falls. He pulled me up and I felt the water run past my feet, and I looked down.” 

The stage was about fifteen feet from the front row, four from Dad. Or what was left.

“It couldn’t have been more than like ten or fifteen feet, but, from where we stood, I could’ve been leaning out a skyscraper. Dad laughed when he saw my face.” I felt hot, scrambled for the next page. “He pulled me back a bit from the edge and we laid down in the fall, letting the tide roll over our arms and legs as we watched the sky run past above us.

“And uh, after a while, when our fingers started to get pruny and the water began to run cold, dad got up. He walked to the edge and motioned for me to watch as he let himself fall backwards into the water.” I thought how similar he looked now to that moment in mid-air. “I rushed over, fingers clinging to the rounded corner of the precipice. From below, he yelled for me to join him. From above, though, I couldn’t. I couldn’t tell if it was deep enough to break my fall, couldn’t tell if I had it in me to jump, couldn’t tell if it was worth it.

“What I could tell was that I loved him, that I trusted him, that I knew he wouldn’t hurt me.” These are the things you have to say, right? “ I creeped to the edge, pulled myself up, and let myself fall as he had. In that moment, suspended in air, I was comforted knowing I was falling into that same water he had.”

“Dad was always there, even when he wasn’t.” I looked at Gamie, caught a knowing eye. Yeah, that’s comforting.“When he was away, at court or at the office, he was guiding us with his absence, showing us what it meant to work for, uh work for a family, for a better life. Dad wanted what was — best for us, and did anything and everything to get it.” I sped through these last sentences, didn’t want to linger with my shrinking throat. “I always knew that whenever I had to face something, whenever there were waters I was unsure of wading into, he’d already jumped; I could count on him to catch me.” I put my notes away.

“But now I’m standing here, and I don’t know if the water in front of me is too deep or not, and you’re not here to catch me anymore.”

I turned to the casket, “So, dad, what now?

i. postmortem

Dad gripped a coffee best he could between two hands and sat with his back to the café window, past which I could just catch a glimpse of the bay through the fog. Though his thin, gray fingers shivered against the paper cup and the clothes he wore hung loose and baggy around the sinewy flesh of his arms and legs, he looked comfortable. He looked awful, but he looked comfortable.

“I was researching this drug, Denalix, and it’s got good reviews online. Not a lot of side effects. Relatively,” I said.

His thin lips buzzed, “Mhm.” The overhead lighting reflected off the dark pools gathered under his eyes; his cheeks were thin, caved inwards like the dents on the sides of a car. I could tell he wasn’t looking at me, that he was drifting, tired. I wondered if I should ask about his symptoms.

“I was thinking I’d talk to Dr. Martin and if you wanted we could start next week. I think it’d be good for you,” I said, “better than the last one, at least.”

“I don’t know, Gamie,” He took a sip of coffee, and his sleeve slid down past his wrist as he lifted the cup. Beneath the cuff, I could make out the thin veins of his arms, each a trail with circles in green and black. “I don’t know.”

“Well, think about it. If you want to beat this — we — if we want to beat this,” I corrected myself, “we need to hit it pretty hard.”

He sighed and moved in his seat to face the beach, and I couldn’t tell whether he was shaking his head or just craning his neck.

“It’s so calm today, Gamie, can we not talk about this? I don’t know what I’d do if I had to swallow another set of pills.”
I felt a response rising in my throat, so I sipped my coffee to stop it.

“It’s so calm here,” he said, “Do you see those waves?”

I couldn’t, the fog was too thick, “No, Dad.”

“It’s beautiful, Gamie. They rise and fall with one another. The tide swinging back and forth, like a pendulum.”

I leaned towards him across the table and tried to watch with him. His head shone in the sunlight peering through the clouds. For a moment, the dark circles lightened, his cheeks seemed fuller.

“There’s trees there too, by the waves. I can see their shadows in the water. When they fall, they won’t make much noise.”

I could do with six more months of this. Maybe there’d be a dryness to his voice, a grey behind those eyes, but at least he’d still be here. I watched as his gaze swept over the beach, past all the trees and the waves. What was in that fog, what could he see that I couldn’t?

Above us, the fluorescent lights let out a low hum. A cashier, armed with a broom, swatted the cheap strip a few times before giving up. On its own, the buzzing stopped.


Signed and Declared by Graham Glenn to be his final will and testament.

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