In the upstairs bedroom towards the back of my grandparents’ house, I was squeezed against my mom in a queen-sized bed. My dad slept on the other side of her, facing the window. Something woke me up in the middle of the night. It was dark, the rest of the room kept barely visible by the glow of the living room lamps emanating up the stairs and into the hallway. Gram and pap always slept on the couches with the lights and TV on. But I knew it wasn’t them or the lights or the TV.
I peered over the side of the bed and my heart stopped. A black creature sat beside the bed, it’s black eyes glinting in the dark. So, I did what any sensible four-year old would do and I pulled the blankets over my head to shield myself from the creature. I fell asleep that way, with the blankets pulled all the way up over me.
Twenty years later, I still remember that night. I honestly can’t say for sure what the creature was or if I even really saw anything. Perhaps it was a dream. Although it felt too real to be a dream. My best guess is that it was the ghost of my dad’s dog, Tubby.
Tubby’s actual name was Troubles. She was a rambunctious black Lab and rat terrier mix without a tail who loved to chase squirrels, run around the neighborhood without a leash or collar, and get belly rubs. They penned her Tubby because she blew up like a balloon after she got fixed as a puppy. She stayed large, but it never affected her energy.
Tubby was originally the neighbor’s dog. The family was moving away and couldn’t take her with them. Somehow, Tubby knew this and one day, she followed my dad home and didn’t leave. My dad and grandparents were forced to take her in.
My mom was afraid to bring me to my grandparents’ house and show me off to Tubby when I was born years later. She thought Tubby might attack me and got nervous when Tubby approached. But she just sniffed me curiously and watched as the humans welcomed a new, tiny human in the family.
Tubby knew I was a baby. She ran straight to me when I cried and would look at my parents or grandparents as if to say, “Um, something is wrong with this human! Help!” She laid on the floor with me. She let me touch her and tug on her fat rolls and fur. But she didn’t live for very long after that. Tubby became very sick and had to be put down.
I was too young to know what it meant to die but I continued to experience losses. Two years after I woke up in the middle of the night to see a black creature staring at me, my pap died of cancer. He was a quiet man, immensely creative and kind. He loved puzzles, painting, needlepoint, and building small wooden airplanes. He loved baseball and revitalized the neighborhood ballpark; it was named after him when he passed away. He coached and ran the snack stand and would never fail to give me Ring Pops and Swedish Fish whenever I visited him. I’d sit next to him in a lawn chair at the field, happily eating my candy and watching the boys practice baseball while he fell asleep with dip in his mouth, blackened saliva dribbling on his polo shirt. “Don’t tell gram,” he’d say and we would both laugh.
His death didn’t impact me until later, as being six years old was still too young for someone to understand what death meant. As a teen, I would often wish he was still alive so he could see me excelling in school. That was one thing he always told my dad: do well in school. My dad didn’t listen. I did.
My mom took the two white doves from his funerary wreath home with her after the funeral. I still have one of them in my room today, in addition to a couple of small pieces of his needlepoint work and a painting of the Virgin Mary at the back of my closet. An old, black compass buried in a drawer. A small, dusty white touch lamp that stood at his bedside is on my dresser now. Small reminders of a man I barely knew but whose company I greatly enjoyed as a child.
Gram’s health deteriorated after my parents had a falling out with one of my aunts. The last time I saw her was in the hospital, a thick plastic tube shoved down her throat, wires and tubes stuck to other parts of her body. She had no energy. This wasn’t the gram I knew, who loved to crack jokes, give bone crushing hugs, whiskery kisses, and eat cookies and wafers. She was dying at the time and I was completely unaware. Her heart failed her after I came home on my last day of seventh grade.
This loss hit me hard, for I had lost the woman who would always talk with me over the phone while I lived in different states and countries as an Army brat. She was one of the few constants in my turbulent childhood. I keep a Halloween card from her on my desk at home, her untidy cursive echoing in her voice with our signature telephone sign-off, “Love you, a bushel and a peck and a hug around the neck.”
I still have her costume jewelry. A gold necklace with a Virgin Mary pendant. A large angel figurine holding grapes that once stood on her cluttered coffee table. A plastic, glittery, heart-shaped box with a butterfly winged fairy on top sits on my dresser, a Valentine’s gift from her long, long ago.
I cried loudly at her funeral. But no amount of crying would ever bring my gram back.
When I was 22, my Aunt Chris passed away a few days before New Year’s. She was in poor health and required a breathing apparatus when she slept. She simply stopped breathing in her sleep after her last hospitalization. I was stunned to learn of her death for she was only 59. We went to her viewing where the grips of sadness overtook me. The next day, my mom couldn’t go to Aunt Chris’s funeral. She had cried so much she threw up, stricken with guilt that we hadn’t gone to visit in a long time. But how could we have known? My dad and I went together and came home that New Year’s Eve, drained of life ourselves.
Aunt Chris and I would send each other emails when I lived in different places. We inserted silly emoticons and smileys and wrote in brightly colored font to update each other on recent happenings. She sent me the first two Harry Potter books when I lived in Dongducheon, Korea. I was hooked. She then sent me the first Harry Potter film on VHS. When we came back to live in Pennsylvania, she bought me McFly’s Greatest Hits Tour DVD for Christmas, the object of my obsession at the time.
It snowed right after her coffin was lowered into the ground. Aunt Chris loved snow.
A few days after we buried her, I checked my old Yahoo email account to reread the old emails from her. I got a nasty shock when I realized that all of my emails had been wiped out from my account. I was devastated even further. Maybe I was foolish to think I could still hold on to those emails. But those missing messages were a reminder of all things temporal. She would not come back, just like gram, just like pap.
Somewhere in the dream world ether, I have seen them again, jovial and healthy. Perhaps dreams are just the imagination, concocting stories that never were or never will be true. But perhaps in sleep, we slip into another reality and join with those we’ve loved and lost. Neither explanation really matters. Just as long as we continue to remember.
And perhaps I’m so sad because I was convinced they would be ever present. They never were infinite, not on this Earth anyway. And I am just the same. Temporary. Finite. I will have an end. Sometimes that makes me clutch tighter to the mementos I have of them. Sometimes it brings me peace.
I like to think that Tubby visited me one last time when I was four-years old to make sure the little human was okay. I’m no longer such a little human, but I recognize that one day I will take over the graveyard watch. It may come at any time. I will acknowledge it and then cover my head with the blanket, to fall asleep and wake up to morning.
About the author
Jessica Milewski is a writer and mental health clinician in training. She earned her BS in Psychology with a minor in English Literature, and is currently earning a Master's in Social Work. Her self-titled blog focuses on her writing journey and her experiences as both a budding clinician and a person dealing with mental illness.