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November 8, 2011
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Philip smelled like fresh iced tea and warm pretzels. I loved sitting on his big lap
and pressing my face into the itchy wool sweater he always wore, inhaling as deeply as my
little lungs could handle. I liked how he smelled like a riddle – what is fresh and stale at the
same time? He never could recognize me, though. “Who is this?” he would ask, his voice
pockmarked with a lazy, bitter twang - a remnant of the piercing poverty that was Newark, New
Jersey in the 1930s.
“It’s Olivia, silly!” I would always answer in a happy giggle, already fully accustomed to
this game we played, even though I had only seen him three times during the entire six years of
my existence.
“Olivia?” he would say in a bouncing, four-noted tone as he leaned his head towards
mine. He would slowly reach forward until his hands were on my face. They were big and
rough and clumsy, and I could feel the permanent calluses on the middle and pointer fingers
of his right hand; they were his own, personal trophies for handwriting his books for too many
years. He could no longer write and read like he did in his youth, perpetually thirsting to know
more, but he could read the contours of my face like brail. “It is Olivia!” he would exclaim in
mock surprise as he suffocated me against his abdomen in a bear hug.

He bought me an ice-cream cone. We had just gotten back from a walk around the
Berkeley neighborhood that meant so much more to my grandparents than just a place to live,
my grandma pointing out the old homes of long-past friends, the abandoned restaurants that
conjured happy memories, and the classroom at UC Berkeley where my grandpa taught for forty
years. Philip was quiet for most of the walk. Finding enough energy to talk and to move at the
same time had become difficult for him, but he still managed to flag down the ice-cream truck
and buy a drumstick just for me.

He did nothing but sit. He stared off into space, keeping the leather recliner company. I
went up to him and knelt on the old, stained carpet that had sheltered the ancient oak floor for
as long as I could remember and wrapped my arms around his torso. I pressed my face to his
hollow chest and inhaled deeply, breathing in the memories he carried in his scent, his laborious
breathing overlapping with mine to form a rhythmic purr. I sat like that for an hour, but he never
acknowledged me. He did not reach for my face in order to read me like Brail. He did not speak
to me playfully as he once did; it took too much energy to speak, and he wouldn’t be able to hear
my responses. He did not pull me into a gigantic bear hug because he didn’t even know who I
As I sat, the hour stretched into an eternity. I didn’t get up until my legs were so numb
that I couldn’t feel them anymore and my arms were so sore that I didn’t want to feel them.
Eventually though, my grandma called me to dinner, and so reluctantly I stood. I walked away
thinking about everything that Philip had done in his life and all that he meant to me, my family,
his friends, and society. In the end, was more than the years in his life that counted. It was the life that lingered throughout all of his years.

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