Death, Rings, and 12th-Century Churches

When my grandpa sits me down next to the chessboard where I’ve still yet to beat him and gives me his annual talk about all the ways in which we are oh so similar, I decide that this year his voice sounds like the leaves. And by that I mean there’s something falling in his words. It’s September now, and in one month he will be dead. 

I don’t know that yet, and I of course don’t know many things about things that are soon to come. In two months I’ll have my first kiss, in three I’ll see all my cousins for the first time in years, in nine I’ll walk the streets of Paris for the first time. But for now, I think about baseball, how both my grandpa and I were catchers, how each of us always made up for struggles at the plate with awareness on the field. 

The day after my grandpa dies, I go to school. Keeping up a routine is healthy, I tell myself. There are as many ways to grieve as there are trees on Earth. My friends put their hands on my shoulders or around me when I tell them. Moments of tenderness that also feel a bit like falling. I’ve cried four times already. My friend who steals from my lunch every day has swiped a box of tissues from a classroom that now, as I write, I can’t remember, or perhaps never knew in the first place. And all this happens before the first bell rings and I’ve been in rapid descent all morning until finally I hit the cold, hard contours of my seat in second period APUSH. 

. . . 

One of the ways my grandpa and I were very alike was in our shared love of physics. He was a nuclear physicist in a time when nuclear physics, at least so my parents say, seemed to rule all, from something as ubiquitous as geopolitics to something as personal as your very own breath. And even years later, when I sit in physics class listening to my teacher explain some of the ways in which imagining particles as spheres falls short, my grandpa’s voice seems to fill the room. 

When you can grow a full beard, I’ll teach you how to build a nuclear bomb, I can hear him tell me, laughing harder with every word. I know he was joking, but despite that my fingers drift to my cheeks, feeling the occasional straggling hairs that have appeared around my jaw. 

. . .

The morning after my grandpa dies, my APUSH teacher goes on about John Locke, a man who I’ve now learned about for four straight years in history class. In eighth grade, he was a thinker who inspired the American Revolution. Then he evolved over the next couple of years into an Enlightenment philosopher whose work went beyond belief in Republicanism and extended to nurture overshadowing nature and social contract theory. I look at the posters about the Bill of Rights and the Electoral College. As my teacher flips through her slides, Locke is still all those things, but he is also an enigma. With posters of the Constitution and the Bill of Rights and the Electoral College hanging all around me, I begin fidgeting in my seat, my leg shaking as if it wants to escape something. It seems somehow both improbable and completely necessary for modern life to owe so much to philosophy from hundreds of years ago, which itself of course has its own, more ancient roots.

. . .

Our greatest difference was perhaps in style. Whereas I, largely out of laziness, held onto a simple look, my grandpa had a secret penchant for standing out in a crowd. He let his head bounce back and forth between completely bald and sporting a ponytail, and his beard was no different. He loved wearing bright green shirts and sticking his tongue out when my sister and I called him Grandpa Frog. 

Unlike me with my naked hands, my grandpa wore eight rings on his fingers. When I was little, every time I saw him, he would take off the massive black-and-white ring he kept on his right pinky and have me try it on. The ring would slide up and down my fingers with such ease that they may as well have not been there. One day this will be yours, he’d say. At every meal, from Passover to Sunday family Dim Sum, he’d insist that I try the ring on again, even if I’d seen him only a few days prior. And for my entire childhood, not more than a month went by without me letting the oversized ring fall from the top of my finger to the bottom, hitting the webbing of my fingers and rebounding slightly. 

. . .

Now, as I write this, I am holding that ring. It is cold and heavy and smooth, sitting in my hand like a stone lifted from the banks of a river. The ring’s central ornament follows a checkerboard pattern until the whites die down leaving only black on the edges, only the absence of light. I am sliding the ring up and down my fingers, each of them. The pinkies are still comically small, and really the only fingers that can even pretend to fill the ring are my thumbs. 

. . .

In APUSH, I let my mind wander, eyes flipping from poster to agenda to window, stopping only at the pictures of my teacher’s travels taped sloppily to the classroom’s northern wall.

My mind drifts to another famous English thinker. In 1676, between when he claimed to have begun inventing calculus and when he published Principia, Isaac Newton wrote in a letter that “if I have seen further, it is by standing on the shoulders of Giants.” And, of course, I think of my Grandpa. And I know that he was propped up by thousands of years of papers and corrections and theories, but I also can’t help but begin to imagine him as a Giant. An image of a massive human pyramid spanning generations and generations makes its way to the front of my mind, every newborn given no choice but to be placed at its top.

As a high schooler, I find myself relatively high in the human structure. Suddenly, the bodies below me become somehow heavy. My shoulders shake back and forth rapidly and without pattern, the same way moonlight reflected over the waves tends to scatter. I am straining every muscle in my body, and trying to decide how many bricks in a pyramid can come loose before the whole thing comes tumbling down.

. . .

Less than three years after my grandpa’s death, an electrical wire short-circuits and the roof of the Notre Dame Cathedral catches fire. I first see this on a crooked Snapchat story posted by someone I haven’t spoken to since middle school. And then, in what seems like less than an instant, my phone buzzes with headlines and real-time alerts. I turn on a stream and watch it burn.

My first real thought is a selfish one: how lucky am I that we chose last summer to visit Paris. I remember clearly waiting in a long line under the summer heat in the hopes of seeing inside the Notre Dame. Once inside, I stared mostly at the stained glass, how it seemed to bend light at its own will. 

On my computer screen, as the main spire collapses, I watch a thousand years of history fall to the earth in seconds. I become more uncomfortable than seems natural. I’ve never prayed in my life. I believe in impermanence as a nearly fundamental truth. In the following hours and days, a billion dollars is pledged to repair the building. I see more pictures of the pre-fire Notre Dame than ever before, as if the fire had in some way resurrected the structure it ravished.

The day after the fire, for a moment, I picture the thousands and thousands of hours spent designing, building, and maintaining a building that large and intricate. A sense of loss that’s only just been put into words. Of course, it doesn’t make much sense. Only three people were injured in the fire. Nobody died. No life was lost. Perhaps a line running from us to our ancestors like a vein had been severed, but what good is a vein connected to the dead?

. . .

Often, even now, my mom will stay up crying over old photos of my Grandpa. I hear her at night and over breakfast. I try to say that it’s okay, even if I don’t totally believe it, even if there have been weeks when I’ve snapped awake after dreaming of him. In one dream, I was in an airplane flying to a nameless city, staring out over a cloudless sky. The forests below looked like scattered poppy seeds, and I began drawing constellations between the pine dots. And then I began imagining all the air molecules that perhaps once belonged to my grandpa. I tried to count them like sheep. When I woke up, I felt a storm inside my chest and so I cried.

I haven’t told my mom about the letters or emails from my grandpa that I saved. And I haven’t mentioned the folder on my laptop called “Grandpa Pics.” And I haven’t showed her the journals I filled trying to write a eulogy or a novel or anything that could capture anything important about him. But most of all, I haven’t told her about all the nights I’ve dreamt of the massive ring with a shining black-and-white checkered pattern slowly rotating in a burning building, the flames growing and dancing as if they’re alive. Except this time with no news cameras. No crowds and no Snapchat stories. Only a ring falling away from itself. Funny how something so carefully put together can be destroyed by something as blind as fire. The ash falling like an early spring rain. 

But on happier nights I dream of telling future generations all about crazy Grandpa Frog, his massive glasses and dark sense of humor. I imagine them seeing some little bit of him within themselves, the same way I do when I sit down to play a game of chess or watch a baseball game or study physics.

. . .

Is this not what has separated us from other primates for the past few million years? That our discoveries are fluid but preservable. That we may recall more than what has seared itself into our heads as memory. That we may remember more than that which maintains a physical presence. That in the 17th century Newton (and Leibniz) conceived of calculus, and since then we’ve passed it along and polished it as easily as an old family portrait or a ring. 

By Colton Wills

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