I was 11 when I went on my first date. It was the summer of, I believe, 2003. Me and my now estranged cousin spent our months off from school at our grandparents’ summer house in Kuşadası, a Turkish beach resort town on the Aegean coast.
Every night, the cool kids went down to the shore with their bikes, congregated around the benches overlooking the impulsive sea that stood between Turkey and Greece, and talked about the old man who allegedly swam to a Greek island every day and came back without getting caught. He was a legend. We had all seen him dip into the water early in the morning and fight the choppy sea.
No one had really talked to me and my cousin (who was a year older) about puberty and being teenagers. So we did things our own way. Both of us woke up every morning and checked our underwear to see if we had had our periods (nope!) and whether our boobs grew (nope!). During the day, we read Cosmo Girl on the beach while eating the börek (a Turkish phyllo pastry) our grandma had packed for us — and at nights, we went down to the boardwalk to meet the cute boys.
After weeks of trying to make friends and earn a seat on one of the benches, my cousin arranged us a double date with two boys that we had met on the beach. We promised each other that we were not going to tell our grandfather, a retired NATO General, about our date. “We can walk to the beach by ourselves, grandpa,” we told him. He seemed eerily calm and let us go.
Maybe half an hour into our double date, the boy I had already developed a crush on pointed towards the bushes a few feet away from me. “Is that old man with a baseball cap — ,” I remember him stutter, “your grandfather, the general?” I turned around and there he was, my grandpa, trying to hide behind the bushes at 10pm, and failing miserably with his signature baseball cap that he wore night and day. Once his cover was blown, he pushed through the green and started walking towards our bench. The boys ran before my grandpa even made it to where we sat. We never saw them again.
On December 30, 2019, my dad and I were sitting in our kitchen in Istanbul when my grandma called to tell us that my grandpa, Mehmet, got very sick all of a sudden. My dad bought a ticket to Denizli, the Aegean city where my grandparents lived during the winter, and my mom and I decided to drive him to the airport. But once we got into the car, another call hit. “Cardiac arrest?” my mom asked. My dad nodded. We waited in silence as raindrops pounded on the car, the ruthless winter rains of Istanbul. I bought tickets for the same flight for my mom and me. We left the city. I was not even wearing a bra and didn’t change for three days.
Nothing scares me more than death. That’s why most of the time, I feel compelled to say I have no fears because who doesn’t fear death? It seems so obvious and so unpreventable that there appears to be no reason to bring it up. Spiders? Snakes? Mice? Heights? Yes, I used to be afraid of flying but no flight is scarier than the one you take to catch someone you love before they die. Everything else seems trivial in comparison.
By the time we got to the hospital, my grandpa had already lost consciousness. “I don’t get it, though,” I remember myself repeatedly saying. “Why are we crying? Why are we crying for someone who’s not dead yet?” We lost him an hour into the New Year’s Eve due to “pneumonia-like symptoms”. Twelve hours later, my mom and I were standing next to my grandfather’s friends as the imam asked if we gave him our blessing. The Turkish army wrapped my grandfather’s coffin in a flag and put him on a military truck. While we followed, strangers on the side of the road saluted him.
Once we got to the grave, a line of officers waited in perfect posture as my grandpa’s body covered in white cloth hit the damp soil. My dad and a few others buried him, and the rest of our family handed out pide, a type of flatbread, to those mourning. “Come come,” an annoying lady shouted across the graveyard to a friend, “The pide is very warm.” I approached my dad and told him I don’t want to be buried without a coffin. Me neither, he said. And no feasting by the grave. And please keep this lady away.
Just a week ago, my dad and I had dropped off my grandpa at the airport in December and I, guarding our still car right next to a no-parking zone sign, had watched the old man drag the flimsy suitcase that he bought at a discount store. He stopped for the wobbling blue bag a few times, and through the glass doors, he disappeared into one of the busiest airports in Europe.
“Based on my life experience,” he had said in the car, “Going outside with wet hair will get you sick.” It was 40 degrees Fahrenheit out but our car was like a human-sized oven. Regardless, my grandpa was bundled up in his jacket in the back of the car, clutching the handle above the window as a true Turkish man would, and his fedora sat on top of his gray hair. I put my wet hair up in a bun and told him no one has ever died from wet hair. “Just my opinion,” he uttered. And that was the last time we talked to each other.
My grandpa loved to dance with me. He taught me how to waltz. He apparently listened to an entire album of The Doors and thought it was the worst thing he had ever heard in his life. But he loved Julio Iglesias. Every morning he brushed his hair with the skinny brown comb that he had dozens of, just in case he lost one or two or three. Each breakfast he had the same number of black olives and the same number of green olives with the same amount of cheese and jam. He always scolded me for having just one pair of glasses. Recently my dad went through his stuff and found seven identical pairs of glasses.
Four days after my grandpa died, I flew from New York City to Istanbul, by myself, as I do twice a year. Within the first 30 minutes of the 11-hour flight, I felt a twitch in my right leg, then left, then upper thigh, then underneath my shoulder. I asked for a glass of complimentary white wine. Turkish or French? Turkish, I said. By the time I landed, my entire body was moving in weird spasms. I woke up my mother, who is a doctor, and asked her if I was having a seizure or a blood clot was headed towards my brain. No, she said, you’re just upset, Deniz. Very upset.
Late at night, I replayed a moment from my grandpa’s funeral when I stood next to my dad, next to his father’s grave. And the most irrational solutions to alleviating my pain came to my mind. Maybe, I thought, maybe if I had a child right now and named him Mehmet, I would feel much better. I had never thought about raising a kid until I saw how valuable life is, and what happens when it’s gone. It’s just gone.
“Some people are worried about death because they just want to be immortal,” my therapist, who is based in Istanbul, told me after I shared my plans of becoming a vampire if that meant I would get to live forever. “And some people are worried about death because they feel like they haven’t done what they are supposed to do in their lifetime,” he added. Yeah, I murmured, I don’t think I have done as much as I want to. After a moment of silence, he reminded me that it was the end of our session: See you next week, Ms. Deniz. And disappeared on my screen.
The spasms still come and go but in moments of heartbreak, I’ve been able to tell myself that the only antidote to death is a good life. Death will always feel untimely to those who stay behind but my grandpa, well, I truly believe that he did whatever he wanted to do. As I step out into the cold in New York, I think of how he may have failed to convince me that I shouldn’t leave my hair wet but I’m sold on making the most of something I can’t have forever.