My old man’s dad died just a month before I was born. I always wished I’d met him. He was, by all accounts, a real character I’d have enjoyed talking to. Ma’s dad was still with us, so to differentiate between the two, we called the old man’s dad ‘Grandad in Heaven.’
Brought up a Christian, I believed in God’s Kingdom and that my granddad was up there. When I was six, I wrote him a note and tied it to a helium balloon, hoping to start a dialogue. My old man came onto the patio, asked me what I was doing. His eyes misted over at my explanation and we released the offering together, while Van Morrison played from his radio.
I was thrilled when Grandad in Heaven wrote back. A yellow balloon appeared in the yard two days later, with a long response attached. I read it with my old man, then without delay, wrote my own reply.
This ritual went on for several years; I learned more and more about Grandad in Heaven: his childhood in India, passage to England, meeting my Gran when he took two Irish girls to church. I was getting bigger and stronger and I wanted to send him a picture of myself. I wrote the note and went to my old man’s study for some tape to attach my photo.
When I opened his desk drawer, I found all the writing paper, covered in ideas for future responses, lying next to his work reports. Only then did I recognize that same slanted scrawl, the crosses on the t’s looped instead of straight lines. I slammed the drawer, dream broken, youth flashing before my eyes: the rare Victorian coins I’d found in the yard with my metal detector, the Christmas tree lights that switched on when I asked them nicely, the Easter eggs I’d discover hidden in the bushes.
All lies, architected by him.
I became cold towards my old man and we stopped sending the balloons. I felt like a fool, a gullible idiot. He got a big promotion then and I saw less and less of him. When he developed aggressive cancer, I wanted to patch things up — for things to be the way they were before. I went to that hospital regularly, but he was usually knocked out by strong pain meds or awake but too sick to see people. The few times we talked again, I could see his spark had burnt out. The life-loving man he’d been was now a wheezing phantom, trapped in limp and feverish flesh.
“I couldn’t have asked for a better father. You know I know that, right?” I asked him more than once. He always nodded.
“I’m sorry you’ve seen so little of me lately…”
I was at the bedside when he died. I held his hand in mine. I’m sure I felt his grip tighten momentarily before he slipped away into the dark.
I grew up, married and had a son of my own. I didn’t raise him to be religious.
At a young age he developed the same interest in his ancestry as me. My ma was still around, but I told him all about my father.
“I wish I’d known my granddad, so I could have talked to him.”
“Maybe you can,” I said, and explained the contact method of my own youth.
“But that’s nonsense. There’s no such thing as heaven.”
“Maybe not, son. But Grandad would have appreciated it. Plus, you’ll always have the memory of us doing this together. You might not realize it now, but one day you’ll cherish it.”
My son upturned his bottom lip, and I was pleased by his childlike wonder as he pondered.
“Let’s do it, Dad.” I thought of my father and his father before him as we went out to purchase a helium balloon. When we got home, my son wrote out his message. I planned my old man’s response.
Luke Saldanha has been writing since he learned how to hold a pen. He had produced a box of handwritten novels before he even hit his teens. After his laptop broke, he continued writing using an android phone and wireless keyboard. Luke has upcoming work in Daily Science Fiction. He considers Paul Bowles, Jack London and Robert W Chambers to be major influences.