When I was six, my great grandma lived in an assisted living home called Oasis Retirement. She had a room on the second floor. It was just big enough for a queen-size bed, a dresser and a chair for guests with an attached bathroom. Great Grandma was always saying she felt claustrophobic in that room. (I asked my mom what it meant. She told me it’s the feeling that a place is too small.) I wasn’t sure how anyone could think a bedroom with a bathroom attached was too small. I had to walk out of my room and down the hall to get to the bathroom I used at home. Plus, I had to share it with my sister, Tammy. Both of us being in that tiny bathroom together seemed like a much better example of feeling claustrophobic to me.
When we visited Great Grandma, she always insisted we stay for lunch or dinner, whichever was next. She always said, “It won’t be great — these cooks aren’t what I used to be — but it’s food and it’s my treat.” Dad always made sure she was distracted when he slipped $30 to one of the waiters to cover our meals.
If there was ever anyone in that dining room less pleased than Great Grandma with the food, it was Mr. Thompson. He didn’t like anything about Oasis Retirement. When I asked Mom why, she asked me, “Do you remember the months your dad and I and your aunts and uncles spent convincing Great Grandma to move here?”.
“Well,” she said, “Mr. Thompson’s children simply sold his house and told him he had a week to pack everything that he planned on taking with him.”
I frowned. “I guess nobody would like that, not even if their new bedroom had a bathroom attached.”
Mr. Thompson complained about everything to everyone. The chicken was dry. The water was too cold. The silverware wasn’t clean enough. Most of the complaints I heard were about food since I only ever saw him in the dining room. He was grouchy toward the waitresses and he was grouchy toward the other residents. Great Grandma always tsked whenever we walked into the dining room to see him sitting at one of the tables. She was not the type to join in with Mr. Thompson’s complaining, not that he ever let any of the other residents carry on a conversation with him. Instead, she just complained quietly about how he complained so loudly.
Mr. Thompson didn’t speak to anyone unless it was absolutely necessary. Except, of course, to me. For whatever reason, Mr. Thompson’s frown lessened slightly whenever he saw me. Every time I saw him, he’d raise his hand and gesture for me to come over and say hello.
“Hello, Little Roth Girl,” he’d greet me. He didn’t seem to care what my real name was. No matter how many times I reminded him that I was Hannah Roth, not Little Roth Girl, he never changed his greeting.
“Hello, Mr. Thompson,” I’d say.
Before telling me to shoo back to my parents, he’d give me whatever tidbit of information was on his mind that particular day. Once, he told me that the sky was really another ocean. Another time, he assured me that butterflies have eyes on their wings. “That’s why they die if you touch them,” he said. “You’ve just smashed their eyeballs.” The next time, he told me Earth was flat. When I was six and even seven, I believed a lot of what he said. Now that I’m eight, I only believe a little bit.
Mr. Thompson died seven months ago. Great Grandma said the cooks had probably poisoned his food to get him to stop complaining. Mom said he actually died of a disease inside his brain. It was a big long word that I don’t remember. (I only remembered claustrophobic because I say it to myself every time I’m in the bathroom with Tammy.) We went to Mr. Thompson’s funeral. There were other kids there who Dad said were Mr. Thompson’s grandchildren. I wondered whether they had believed all the things he’d said and whether he’d only said them to me. A line of people walked through to look into a box Mom and Dad said I couldn’t look in. It seemed to have something sad inside it, so I didn’t mind not being allowed to look. We all had to sit down so the pastor could tell us about how he knows we all loved Mr. Thompson, but now he’s in heaven, which is better than here.
Remember how Mr. Thompson said the sky is another ocean? It sort of makes sense. They both change colors based on their moods and what time it is. One hold boats, another holds airplanes. One holds fish, another holds birds. Or maybe there are fish up in the sky/ocean, too, but we’re too far away to see them. Like when you stand on the beach and can’t see any fish even though you know they must be there.
I remembered the time Mr. Thompson told me the stars aren’t stars at all. He said Earth is inside a big box and what everyone calls stars are actually holes in the top of the box so we can breathe. I asked him how the sky/ocean stays full if there are holes right above it. He told me that’s what gravity’s for.
After the service, I asked Mom where heaven is. She said it’s “up.” My jaw dropped and my eyes grew wide.
“You mean Mr. Thompson is in the sky/ocean?”
Mom looked confused. I turned to Dad. I knew he knew about the sky/ocean. I guess Mom had forgotten.
Dad thought for a moment. “If he were in the sky/ocean, he’d still be inside the box, right?”
“Heaven is like being taken outside of the box. It’s even above the stars.”
Outside of the box. That sounded like something Mr. Thompson would like. The pastor said heaven is a nice place. I remembered Dad telling Great Grandma the assisted living home was a nice place. She always responded by pushing her lips together and out like a fish. I don’t think Mr. Thompson ever thought the assisted living was a nice place either.
“Do you think Mr. Thompson smiles now?” I asked Mom as she tucked me into bed.
She kissed my forehead. “I think he does.”