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Eleven Hours

Eleven hours. My grandfather is dead. Depart PDX 1:15, arrive PHL 11:57, with a brief layover in Minneapolis. Before that, three hours from Newport to Portland, and two hours for check-in. The bus picks me up from the Hatfield Marine Science Center dormitories at 6:00 a.m. Seven minutes of goodbyes to my thirteen fellow interns, plus twenty for breakfast, plus making sure I didn’t forget anything, plus five to rub the sleep out my eyes. Later, an hour-long drive from the airport back to the Philadelphia suburbs, through a balmy Mid-Atlantic summer night. Twenty-one hours. My grandfather is dead.

My mother and aunt were in Madison, Wisconsin, organizing the funeral. The service would take place at Milwaukee’s St. Sava Serbian Orthodox Cathedral, where my grandfather had chaired the founding board. The funeral itself would take place an hour and a half south of Milwaukee, in Libertyville, a Chicago suburb and the center of American Serbdom. King Peter II, who died in exile during the Yugoslav years, was buried in the ornately frescoed church there, until his recent exhumation and reburial in Serbia. My grandfather would be interred outside, up the hill from his immigrant parents and all the other deceased relatives on my mother’s side. When my parents and I drive from Philadelphia to New York, I get a glimpse of the harbor from the I-95. I like to imagine those ancestors seeing the Statue of Liberty as their steamers approached Ellis Island. I like to think that they were overjoyed.

My plane reached Philadelphia a few minutes early, but my father had already parked the car and was waiting at the doors of the security area. He is used to long days of air travel, and wary of its unpredictable rhythms. I don’t remember whether he had a thermos of coffee in his hand, as he often does late at night. “Bonjour, mon fils. Je t’aime,” he said, and we hugged. I told him it was good to be back, that I was very glad to see him, and I was. The next day, we would travel to Milwaukee for the funeral. I was relieved not to be going alone.

My father pulled the car into our driveway at about 1:30 am on August 25. My birthday was on August 21. My grandfather’s death was on August 20. On August 19, I went snorkeling. My marine biologist friends and I drove down to the jetty that lines the mouth of the Yaquina River on the Pacific Ocean. We followed the line of black boulders towards the ocean, trying to escape Yaquina Bay’s soupy waters. But the tide was going out, bringing with it all the small crustaceans, algae, and detritus of the fertile estuary. Below the cloudless sky, we put on our wetsuits and dove into waters rich with plankton, and undergirded by rocks covered in sea stars and anemones. We fought the tide, which was dragging us towards the ocean. After a half hour, our faces and hands began to go numb, so we climbed out into the warm air. We wrestled our wetsuits off of our bodies, and walked back down the jetty. Squinting under a constant volley of windblown sand and the reflection of the sun on the white dunes, I felt disoriented but relaxed, as one feels after waking up from a long and unintended nap. A half hour after we emerged from the water, my mother texted me that my grandfather was in the hospital, this time for something very serious. That evening, when my aunt realized he would not wake up from his afternoon nap, she held her cellphone up to his ear, and I offered him a final narrative of my life. I told him about swimming and running on the beach, and said that I was happy and that I loved him. At 2:30 a.m., I received the message. My grandfather is dead.

The next day, I walked through the marshes outside the science center, and went to my lab early. There, I raced to measure the weights of enough dried shrimp to complete my summer research project, but unlike the week before, I was not anxiously thinking of statistical tests or sample sizes or finding previous studies on parasitic castration. I had not been stressed about my research the day before, either, as I sat with my friends in a beachfront café, regaining the warmth stolen by pacific waters. Following my mother’s message, the impending death of my grandfather had become the only thing worth worrying about. By the next day, his death had removed even this concern. There was no more uncertainty, only a thick, dim sadness under which I strolled through the marsh and played beach volleyball after work, looking forward to tomorrow, when the sun would disappear.

August 21, the day of my twenty-first birthday, the day after my grandfather’s death, was also the day of the total eclipse. By luck, I was interning in a region of Oregon which lay right in the path of totality. To avoid the coastal fog of Newport, nine of the other interns and I headed East to the interior Willamette Valley on the night of the twentieth. At 9:45 a.m. the next morning, in Corvallis, Oregon, we walked up a forested hill, hoping to catch the first darkened sliver of the sun.

The sun is the diplomat of time. It makes time tangible on Earth. Flowers open and close with it. Insects, birds, and frogs time their calls to it. Air and water grow cold and hot, and the onshore wind becomes an offshore wind at dusk, vice versa at dawn. We sleep and wake with the sun, knowing that a day has passed. I have heard that people locked in a sunless room risk losing their sense of time. The constancy of the sun makes its disappearance, and the ensuing twilight, jarring. Its authority over us is undermined—we realize that its presence is subject to something else, to the frail moon passing over it, suddenly converting day into dusk, exposing planets, dropping the temperature, and illuminating the headlights of cars on the highway below us. The sun’s temporal authority is toppled with seeming randomness, and the day and its inhabitants become liberated from time. Until we have forgotten the unmistakable shades of that late morning twilight and the sun has firmly reclaimed its reputation, the day is a free day, unbound from the laws of time. This is what I felt as we walked down the hill, picking wild blackberries from the brambles beside a path through a wide field. At 10:50 a.m., the sun had vanished, and a day before, my grandfather had died. What was I obliged to do, what could I do, besides enjoy the berries and the warm light of a cloudless sky?

My friends and I drove to a bar with a large patio and a DJ. Still there was no obligation to time—Monday, midday, and people were sitting at picnic tables, slouching over cocktails and beer, discussing, as we always have, the mysteries of the sky. Because it was hot and early, I chose a cider as my first legal drink. Before I could object, Dustin had ordered himself a cocktail and paid for both of us. As the others ordered, the two of us walked outside and claimed a table. I felt unusually calm, sipping my cider there. There was nothing more to worry about—not death, not the disappearing sun, not even handing my ID to a bartender. All of these had already happened. My cider was light, I was content. The sun was warm. My grandfather is dead.

The sun was also warm in Libertyville on August 27. At the cemetery, I carried the large white cross that in Serbian Orthodoxy serves as a temporary grave marking. Behind me was the priest, his censer perfuming the air with frankincense, his chanting amplified by that smell. My father, my uncle, and the other pallbearers lay the casket on metal bars stretched across the open grave, and I propped the cross against it. My mother and aunt stood beside the casket, alone, as the priest recited prayers over it. The priest poured grain on it, in the shape of a cross. He poured wine over the grain. The mourners dispersed and gathered around a nearby folding table that supported three bottles—one of brandy, one of the plum brandy sljivovica, and one of ginger ale—a baking pan of warm, sweet pogaca bread, honey, and a dish of koljivo, the funerary wheat pudding adorned with raisins in the shape of a cross. On the suggestion of Kum Greg, my honorary uncle, he, my father, my Uncle Ken, and I each filled a shot glass of sljivovica and walked back to the grave. Because my father is Muslim and does not drink, it was his job to pour his glass over the casket. The rest of us drank ours.

My grandfather is dead, and cannot drink. He is drinking sljivovica in heaven, Kum Greg said, with the warrior Drazha Mihaijlovic and the warrior-king Karadjordje Petrovic and the poet-king Petar Petrovic Njegos. Perhaps they are sitting in a valley between two jagged Montenegrin peaks, listening to the poems of a guslar and his one-stringed lute drift over the hills. Here, in Libertyville, the songs are those of cicadas. They are singing because the sun is out.

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