Grief Vocabulary Test by Spencer Hyde
It’s not that you need to know, really—just that I need to say it to someone. I can’t think of the word for it, but we’re learning about it in AP Lang right now. Disconsolate. I have a hard time remembering the definition, but I don’t think that’s it. Whatever.
It’s not like it’s a long story or anything, but when you hear about Annie, you might stop caring about my side or how it all happened. Anyway, my parents throw this party at the end of the year with all their friends and neighbors. We live on San Juan Island, so it’s not like there are tons of people to begin with. I was twelve years old when they were throwing this particularly obnoxious party, and my friends and I snuck into the hot tub. At about ten o’clock, we decided to watch a movie in the downstairs theater room.
Halfway through the movie, there was this unbelievable shrieking coming from outside. We ran out to see Annie floating, face down, like some deflated balloon unable to lift out of the water. She was only two. She didn’t know how to swim. She looked heavy, but she was still floating. My mom struggled to hold her because she was this soaked, dripping mass bent awkwardly—and my mom called the paramedics, but they only confirmed what we all knew: she was gone.
That was five years ago. I’m in high school now, and I sleep half the time at Dad’s place and half at Mom’s. I know, what a totally original setup, right? Divorce. But it was all my doing, really. I left the gate open when we got out of the hot tub. When Annie had been gone about six months, the hot tub was removed, leaving nothing but a concrete slab.
I didn’t think about Annie getting out of bed at that hour. Why did she go outside? Why not just shout for Mom or Dad? I still ask myself those questions. Probably every day. I don’t know anymore.
You should probably know that my dad has the weirdest job ever. He runs a crematorium. It’s not like I have a say in what he does anyway. But I remember him being especially upset with me for leaving the gate open. As if I didn’t feel awful enough about losing Annie. She was just learning to color, too.
We recently learned about this thing in my Biology class: elephant graveyards. It’s this old legend where older elephants wander off from the group because they know they are going to die. So that’s just a legend, a myth. But when elephants die, my teacher said other elephants wait around and pick up their friend’s or family member’s bones and walk around with them for a while before moving on. So cool, right? Like, the fact they show so much respect for the departed. But I don’t know that I would be willing to pick up Annie’s bones. I mean, I bet the elephant responsible for the death didn’t feel all that close to those bones, or even to the rest of the herd.
Anyway, Annie is now in two urns, one in Dad’s house and one in Mom’s. They are both beautifully made, but I just see the elephant bones now whenever I look at them. Sometimes when I’m at my dad’s place I’ll take the urn and sit with it in the dark long after he’s fallen asleep.
I’m not an idiot, though, and I definitely was not going to sit there and let this mistake make me something horrible—I already felt inadequate. That’s a vocab word for our test next week in AP Lang, so I keep using it, but it’s a great word: Inadequate.
But it did make me feel like something horrible. Like, the worst. There were pictures of Annie all over the house, and it seemed like we only saw those and not each other.
Dad was quieter at meals. Mom was gone more with her friends or sleeping in super late and then leaving to go grocery shopping. How much food do we need? I think that’s when Dad started talking to the bodies before he cremated them. I caught him doing it more and more. And it makes me wonder if he spoke to the urn in the living room when I wasn’t around.
I guess it’s easy to see why we became a split family. Pass the blame around, right? I don’t remember the last time my parents spent a day with me or talked to me about my life and how I was feeling in any meaningful way. Disingenuous. That’s another word on our vocab list. That’s what they were.
Anyway, you know how those fake conversations go. They made me feel inadequate. I think they were only looking for some reflection in that hot tub water, even after all that time.
When elephants walk past places they have lost loved ones, they stop and wait for a few minutes, silently. Sometimes I stand on the concrete slab when I’m visiting Dad’s place. I just stand there and say sorry.
I wonder if elephants in their own language say anything to the bones of the dead. Like, if they’re softly touching the skulls and bones of their lost sister, are they also whispering things to them in their own language? I don’t know. I just know that whenever I’m doing my homework at the crematorium while Dad finishes up, I hear his mumblings on the other side of the quiet doors.
I’d probably speak to the bodies too. I guess it’s not that weird. I mean, we’re all just kind of bags of water, right? That’s what we learned in health anyway. And we end up ash. Big deal. So, our heat moves from one source to another—it’s in us then it’s in the bricks in the wall of the crematorium. So what?
You know, elephants can weigh six tons. That’s kind of how I feel every time I stand on that concrete slab. But now I’m carrying that kind of weight inside. So I have some weight on me and in me, and maybe that’s what I have to carry for the rest of my life. I don’t know.
Then my dog Goose walks up to me when I’m at the slab and kind of nudges me, like, Hey, it’s okay. Which, according to my English teacher is some bastardization of the old Oll Korrect. But everything is not All Correct. Not even close.
My parents love dogs. We owned a Chesapeake Bay Retriever all growing up. Dad named her Goose, and don’t ask me why. She really was a great dog. I say was because this all happened five years ago.
I guess it happened because of how much they treated Goose like a kid. My parents fought more over Goose in the divorce than they did over time with me. Want proof? My dad has an oil painting of Goose in his office at work and just some small picture of me on his desk, all crumpled and covered in dust. Awesome. Thanks, dad.
Dad ended up with Goose, and it really made Mom angry. Like, pissed. She constantly complained about not having a good dog like Goose around, but she still didn’t attempt any real conversations with me. So, of course I started disliking Goose. It wasn’t Goose’s fault, but at least they looked at Goose instead of right through her. They’d pet her. They’d talk to her. They’d comfort her.
Vindictive—that’s the word I’d use when describing my actions later that summer. I mean, it was also a vocab word on that test in English, but I can’t remember what book it came from. Once school was out, Dad told me we could visit the art museums in Seattle. I don’t know why I liked oil paintings so much. Maybe because the ones with millions of little dots on the canvas were made because the painter was brave enough to not stay inside the lines. I know that sounds kind of dumb, but I liked the idea of it all. Still do.
Anyway, Mom said she would take me shopping all the time, but it never ended up happening. That was upsetting, but I kind of expected it. Dad said we could see the museums in the summer when work wasn’t his definition of busy. And that never happened. I knew I could go myself. Eventually I did, but it’s the fact they didn’t try that upset me.
I was already depressed and angry with myself almost every time they looked at me. I swear, they looked at me but they only saw Annie floating on the water. And they realized in those moments that I would never be her. I wasn’t enough. You know when you look at someone but don’t really see them?
One time she’ll stay gone, Dad used to say. Goose is a wanderer.
I made that a reality, I guess. I started getting upset every time I’d see the urns in their living rooms. They couldn’t let go of Annie, but it’s not like they were even trying to hold on to me, right?
So, I took Goose to my dad’s work one day while he was off golfing or something. Goose was old and had arthritis and tumors in her hip joints, so I figured I was also giving her some peace. I took some of the chemicals I’d seen dad use, and she fell asleep pretty fast. I felt pretty awful about Goose, but how else was I going to make Mom and Dad feel anything again?
I put Goose in the cooker, and then I did what I’d seen Dad do millions of times and scooped her into a box. You’re probably wondering about the plausibility, but it’s not like I was a dumb fourteen-year-old. And I still don’t know if I did it right, but it seemed to work. Goose went from a bag of warm water to a pile of ash—heat from one form to another.
I put Goose’s ashes in those urns and took Annie’s ashes to my room in a box. Dad just figured Goose wandered off again, so he wasn’t concerned.
I guess in the end I was trying to redress the situation. Redress. That’s another word from our vocab test that year. I had a hard time memorizing that word and its meaning. I just kept thinking of putting a dress on twice. Stupid, I know.
But it felt right. I still don’t know why. I took Annie’s ashes to a cove we used to swim at, and I sat with them. I sat with Annie’s ashes, and I did the whole silence thing, just like the elephants. I held the bones of my sister and just listened to the slow creep of the waves up the sands.
I was there for hours. I yelled Sorry, Annie so many times that I lost my voice. I was crying when I walked into the water and let her ashes go and brushed them away with my hand. I think I did the right thing.
I guess those elephant graveyards are just a myth, but the one I made for my sister was real. I know she wouldn’t want to be in two urns at two houses where nothing but anger and depression floated around. Who would? I couldn’t handle seeing those urns and knowing I’d made such an awful mistake. I just am not that strong.
I still visit Annie’s gravesite every week. Not that you need to know how strong I am, or that we really just move from one form of heat to another because you probably knew that—I just needed to say it to someone. Validation. I think that’s the word.
Spencer Hyde’s novel Waiting for Fitz released in March of 2019, and his second novel is set to arrive this summer—What the Other Three Don’t Know. His stories and essays have appeared in Glimmer Train, Bellevue Literary Review, Five Points, and elsewhere. He teaches creative writing and literature at Brigham Young University in Provo, Utah, where he lives with his wife, Brittany, and their four children.