When I moved back to the United States, I thought I was returning home. But even after my grandfather’s death, thousands of miles separate me from my family.
My grandfather and I went to the same high school. His senior portrait from 1949 hung in the hall where I shouldered through throngs of teenagers in 2003. We also went to the same state university in downtown Portland. He was on the basketball team. I went to a lot of poetry readings. Papa lived in Oregon all his life; his driver’s license number was four digits long. Since college, I have lived in Canada, Ohio, Virginia, Connecticut. I have been to Paris, Barcelona, Athens, Rome. In my life, I have boarded planes as frequently as my grandfather reeled in a fish from the Clackamas River.
When Papa died last night, my husband said, “I want to say I’m sorry for taking you from your home, but…” I finished his sentence in my head: but we didn’t know that planes would become dangerous. That traveling across the country could mean infecting my grandmother, my parents, my brothers or their families with the virus. When my husband “took me from my home” (he didn’t; I’d have followed him anywhere) we didn’t know that I would be the only one of my siblings who would have to see Papa on his deathbed over FaceTime.
Papa didn’t die from COVID-19. He died from kidney failure, or from eighty-eight years of being alive. Yesterday morning, my mother told me: “It’s his going-to-heaven day.” My mother, an RN, knows what a person looks like on the day of his death. My mother has spent much of her professional life in a mask. She has never worn her wedding ring; it gets in the way of washing her hands. Sometimes I wonder if the pandemic is less jarring for her—if, in a crowd, she has always held her breath, curled her fingers into self-contained fists.
Leaving Oregon never felt like a choice. My leaving was a foregone conclusion, as necessary as learning to ride a bike, and as thrilling as mastering my brother’s manual Volkswagen, its gearshift swaddled in gummy black tape. Why? Don’t tell me that mobility was written into the code of my generation. Plenty of millennials are raising families where they themselves grew up, inheriting their parents’ suede sectionals and shopping the same Safeway, aisle by aisle, even in their dreams. Maybe it was all the James Taylor and Joni Mitchell songs my mother sang to me. Songs about highways, songs about leaving. Maybe it was Oregon itself: the confirmation that every dirt road led someplace special. When I was eighteen my boyfriend took me to Paris. Afterward, I passed pictures around my grandparents’ patio table. Papa whistled. “Not a tree in sight!” Not true, but he needed it to be true, the way I needed Paris to be Paris.
My husband and I lived in Toronto for seven years. We had a child there, a son with dual citizenship. He was four months old when we came back to the US. It was Trump’s America, newly, and still, there was some relief in repatriating. No more international airfare, no more fretting over passports and work permits. We thought it meant something to live in our home country. I was still thousands of miles from my parents’ front door, but couldn’t I see them whenever I pleased?
After returning to America, we lived briefly with my in-laws in New York. Four months is an age at which babies often stop sleeping. Because their synapses are firing, or because they have come to dislike the way the air conditioner turns on and off, or because babies are pack animals at heart. I don’t remember which theory we landed on. What I remember is watching The Handmaid’s Tale at two in the morning while my son nursed. From my groggy husband, I extracted the same nightly promise: if the United States ever began to strip me of my basic rights, we would go back to Canada. We would not make brunch reservations while the Republic crumbled all around us. Of course, this way of thinking proved painfully naive. Few have the foresight to abandon their country the moment before it ceases to be their country. Who could call it? Turns out, the end of the Republic is just chaotic enough to be disorienting, just mundane enough to be numbing.
Maybe I ought to have stayed where I was born. I could have taken the definition of country into my own hands. Country might have meant the Oregon moss, mud, and pine. Or it might have meant living within driving distance of my grandparents. Instead, I took for granted that I could flit from one coast to another at will. I mistook the middle part, all those prairies and deserts, and snow-capped mountains, for something called America.
Here is what I will remember about my grandfather: the towering height of him. The boat in his garage. The way he sat beside me and, in greeting, smacked my thigh so hard it burned. Of my son, he would say: “Handsome little guy, isn’t he?” Of my dog: “Good looking dog, isn’t he?” Once, he watched my grandmother and me dip artichoke leaves into a bowl of melted butter and said, “Seems like a lot of work for a bite of green stuff.”
“It’s whimsical,” Nana explained.
“Whimsical as hell!” Papa barked.
I remember donuts from Winchell’s on McLoughlin Boulevard. I remember lunch at Tēbo’s on McLoughlin Boulevard. How my grandfather sat with his long, sinewy legs crossed and wore water socks all summer. He was pennywise but generous, conservative until it suited him not to be. In 2012: “I voted for a winner.” When I got married and didn’t change my name: “Good for you.”
I am mad that I wasn’t in Oregon yesterday. I wanted to be in the room with him before he died and to hug my grandmother, who knew Robert Lawry Adrian all her life. I wanted to tell my own father how much I love him and to make fun of my brothers’ lumberjack beards. I wanted to play with my three-year-old niece and to hold my six-month-old nephew for the first time.
How long does a pandemic last? we asked Google in March before we learned that the answer is as long as the federal government remains indifferent to our deaths. Here is what I regret, especially if I miss another chance to say goodbye, or if my mother boards a plane to see me and gets sick in the process: thinking that America ever meant home.
Emily Adrian is the author of several novels, including Everything Here Is under Control. She lives in New Haven, Connecticut.