by Ted Lietz
Romo always had considered his afternoon nap a luxury, a perk of retirement. But one day that nap was more an escape, a means to knit a suddenly raveled sleeve of care. A doctor had told Romo that he would slowly decline over the next year or so. And then cease to exist.
On his way to the recliner, Romo stopped to rub away a smudge on the glass over a yellowing photograph hung on the wall. He in dress uniform, a few days before shipping out to Korea. Beside him, his late wife in her mother’s wedding gown.
Beside that photo, his son and daughter-in-law, also gone.
Beside them, a photo of Marilyn, Romo’s granddaughter. Tortoise-shell glasses and pink hair. He’d raised Marilyn, and she was the only relative he hadn’t outlived.
Romo plopped into his recliner, clicked on the TV, and tuned to C-SPAN — something about memory research. He was about to drift off when a woman on TV said, “Absent context, nuance — even facts, our minds tend to fill in the blanks with conjecture and speculation, assumption and presumption.”
Romo’s eyes shot open.
When he was gone, only Marilyn would remember him. But what would she remember? What might she guess at? Speculate, assume, presume?
Romo could write down some things about his life for his granddaughter. But he wasn’t good with words. On the other hand Marilyn, while for the moment employed as a Target cashier, had graduated that spring with a degree in creative writing.
He invited her to dinner that night.
After the meal Romo opened a package of windmill-shaped cookies, Marilyn’s favorite. He took one for himself, but only set it on his plate. When his granddaughter finished her cookie, Romo rose from his place across the table, sat next to her and explained what the doctor had told him.
Marilyn cried into his shoulder for a long while.
Then Romo smiled and said, “I still have some time, honey. I was thinking. Maybe it’s a silly conceit for a nobody like me. But if I told you about my life, do you think you might write about it? Then maybe I could look it over?”
Make sure Marilyn remembered him as he intended.
“Oh, Grandpa! That would be so cool.”
Marilyn interviewed Romo over the next several evenings. If one of Romo’s stories seemed to particularly interest her, he would explain the life lesson.
When he’d told his granddaughter everything he could remember, Marilyn began writing.
After a few months, Romo asked when he might read the first few chapters.
“Grandpa. This is a work-in-progress. It keeps changing, evolving. I want to show you my best writing, once it’s final.”
“Honey. Time is not my friend.”
Marilyn sniffled. After a long pause, she cleared her throat and said, “I’ll quit my job. Work on the manuscript full-time.”
Romo’s first impulse was to talk her out of quitting. But Marilyn would inherit the house and more than enough cash to get through even a very long bout of unemployment. Besides, who would make certain she remembered Romo as he had been if the manuscript wasn’t finished… before he was?
When Romo went into the hospital, Marilyn placed family pictures in the room where he could see them. She stayed in the room, sleeping in a chair and spending most of her waking hours pecking at a laptop computer.
One morning she said, “I’m finished, Grandpa!” and set the computer on his lap.
But Romo had trouble reading the screen.
Marilyn stuck a bit of plastic into the computer. A memory stick, she called it. She pulled the stick out and said she’d print a hard copy.
Marilyn came back and placed pages in Romo’s hands. She’d even thought to print in extra-large type.
“It makes me nervous to watch people read my stuff,” Marilyn said. “I’ll come back in a little while.”
Pushing through pain and fatigue, Romo skimmed the pages. The title, Ecce Romo, made him smile. Ecce, Latin for behold.
But the beep of his heart monitor quickened as he realized that Marilyn often reported conversations complete with dialog, gestures, even descriptions of rooms and furniture. Details Romo himself didn’t remember.
She’d attached a sticky note to the page with the first pseudo-conversation: “In my creative non-fiction course, we learned it’s okay to make up dialog and descriptions, stuff like that.”
Romo frowned at the smiley-face at the end of the note and inhaled more oxygen.
His granddaughter had gotten the gist of the conversations right and had included a few of the life-lessons he’d tried to explain.
But most of the glosses were her own. Interesting insights. Important ones. She really had grown. Still, Ecce Romo seemed more about Marilyn than himself.
He looked up.
Marilyn cleared her throat. Then cautiously, as when she used to ask Romo’s opinion of a new high school boyfriend, she said, “What do you think of what you’ve read so far?”
Before he could respond she said, “I know this was supposed to be about your life. But as I was writing, I learned so much about myself. Ecce Romo became a chronicle of my personal growth. In this manuscript, I’m the Romo being, you know, ecce’d. Are you mad?”
Romo closed his eyes tight and fell back against the pillows. He had been upset. But, late in the game as it was, Romo had figured something out. He wasn’t in control of what his granddaughter would remember.
Never had been.
This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places and incidents either are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to any actual persons, living or dead, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.
A slightly different version of this story was originally published by Every Day Fiction.
© Ted Lietz 2020. All rights reserved