“Do you know where the phrase ‘blood is thicker than water’ comes from?” my friend asks. We’re staggering up the massive slope of a dune, ground shifting beneath each step. Sand sieves through the mesh lining of my running shoes, entombing my feet.
“No,” I admit, bracing my palms against my quads. My friend isn’t even winded.
“It’s a misquote. The real phrase is, ‘the blood of battle is thicker than the water of the womb.’ The people you fight and bleed with are truer family than the people you’re related to.”
I have no way of knowing whether she’s right, but at that moment, it feels important.
I’ve been pondering family, particularly because I’ve never felt good at it. I’m not close with my cousins, aunts, or uncles; I shimmy out of hugs and take long sips of water to avoid conversation. While geography and age play a large role in my distance, the reality is that I don’t think they understand me—or care to. I am insular. I’m a little strange. More than that, I am lazy and slow to trust.
My grandfather isn’t, wasn’t, related by blood. He married my grandmother after she was widowed, while her four kids were still young enough to be causing teenaged-flavored trouble. He embraced the family’s idiosyncrasies—even coddled the vicious Persian cat. Though he was a part of our family for nearly twice as long as I’ve been alive, he understood outsider status. Trying to fit in.
I’m less than ten, and we’ve just arrived at the Daytona airport. My grandparents show up at the baggage claim dressed as Raggedy Ann and Andy: handmade red-yarn wigs, rosy cheeks, and gingham. I’m still young enough to be delighted with their hilarity—and they know it. My grandpa stoops and throws his arms wide. “Jenny-penny!” he exclaims.
Everyone must have been staring, but I can’t conjure the faces. I don’t have any recollection beyond my excitement and my grandfather’s embrace.
She leans forward. “He was a great dancer, you know. Back in the day he used to do The Peabody. None of the young people knew how to do it. He’d start at one end of the ballroom and just sweep all the way across to the other side.” My grandma flashes a brief smile. “Turned a lot of heads.”
The blanket draped figure on the bed stirs. Without opening his eyes, my grandpa lifts a paper-skinned hand, thumb gently touched to middle finger, and mimes a coupled whirl across an imaginary dance floor.
“Why is it taking so long for me to die?” he whispers to my brother. To his God. We have nothing to offer but musty blankets and ginger ale. Tears. What is it to be alive in a disintegrating body, your mind as sharp and quick as razor wire? We are only here to bear witness.
We’ve spent the day dazedly rolling through airports. Since our departure, my grandfather’s drifted into an unresponsive state and my grandma’s fallen—fracturing her spine. My own bones, brain are brittle with exhaustion, and it’s midnight before we finally shut our garage door. Home.
The ammonia stink of piss greets us. When we flip on the light, the dog smiles next to a cold puddle of urine. It’s clear from her balloon-shaped belly that her mysterious illness returned while we were gone. Of course.
“We’re going to have to put her down, you know.”
There’s nothing left in my personal armory. I admit defeat by dropping my luggage onto the floor and grabbing a roll of paper towels and carpet cleaner.
I don’t pick up the phone, even though I know who’s calling, and why. I’m at work, trying desperately to focus on the swamp of tasks that accumulated during my absence, and I have zero privacy. Despite that, I give in and listen to the voicemail twenty minutes later.
“…grandma’s doing better, sitting up and taking calls. Don’t think they’ll be doing surgery. I don’t get any service in her hospital room, and everything calms down around 7 p.m. You should give her a call. We did end up switching funeral homes, and I’m trying to get that figured out today. I thought you’d want to know that I had to get grandpa’s wallet for his license, an ID, and when I opened it, an old picture of you fell out. He loved all of his grandchildren, but I just, I thought you should know. Your picture was the only one.”
I can’t call.