My grandma died the week before my debut novel, Horror Business, came out.
It was 4 a.m. and I woke, not with a jolt, but more of a lurch. I assembled my bearings: I was on a friend's couch, in a dark room, in The Excelsior District, a neighborhood in the outskirts of San Francisco.
I'd flown up the day before to attend a conference on digital news media, but I only made it to the reception dinner, where I managed to drink a lot of wine and listen to some guy talk about linking keywords within articles to ads—a pretty stupid (and possibly malicious) idea in hindsight, but the wine made it seem agreeable.
I lay in the darkened room and listened to the wind push branches against the window. Stale wine still coated my skull, but there was something else, a dreadful feeling that something was just off. My phone lit up. It was a text from my dad. The text.
I'm not usually a spontaneous person (I typically have to have a five-day lead time to build up the nerve to get a haircut), but I booked the next flight back to San Diego right then. Suddenly, the thought of trying to engage with digital news people or learning about the best strategies to attract page views seemed bleak on a monumental scale. I just couldn't do it.
While at the airport, I got an email from a friend whose opinion I hold dear and who had read an advanced copy of the book. He said he dug it. Goddamnit, I thought. My brain resorts to cliché expletives when it can't handle opposing emotions.
My grandma died in Billings, Montana. She'd lived there since 1982 after the Conoco oil refinery that employed my grandpa transferred them from Cloquet, Minnesota. She was upper-Midwestern to the core, with an accent straight out of Fargo (one of my favorite stories is her calling my dad after watching that movie and asking, "We don't really sound like that, do we?").
However, plane tickets from San Diego to Billings cost more than even the strategiest alt-weekly page-view-getter can afford. I would be driving to Montana.
The drive from San Diego to Salt Lake City is 12 hours. I watched fog-coated palm trees become desert become Vegas become red rock become snow-capped mountains. The Plimsouls' song "A Million Miles Away" popped up on shuffle—a song that my dad played regularly during my childhood, but the significance hadn't sunk in until then. I played it on repeat, thinking about loss, about my dad's loss, the fleeting, contradictory nature of life, and l let the tears come.
I spent the night at my mom's house in Park City, Utah. The next day, accompanied by my older brother and younger sister, we embarked on the nine-hour drive to Billings. We talked music and listened to scary podcasts. I tried to get my sister to explain Snapchat (she's 21). The grandeur of America's spoils unfolded before us; everything held a deeper, emotional resonance. Rain turned into a blizzard in West Yellowstone. In two days, I climbed the entire height of the U.S.—a feat that I irrationally didn't think could still be possible because, I dunno, the Internet?
After my grandpa died in the early '90s, my grandma spent the next 20 years travelling around the globe: South Africa, Alaska, Europe, you name it. She basically YOLO'd before Drake. On her 80th birthday, she jumped on an inflatable tube and let a speedboat pull her around a lake. And she loved San Diego. When I got married a couple of years ago, not even a recent surgery kept her from attending.
We got into Billings late, but were still greeted by aunts, uncles and cousins—all of whom I hadn't seen in in more than 20 years, so it might as well have been meeting them for the first time. My dad—a normally stoic guy—had the weary look of being put through the emotional ringer. And who can blame him? It sucks to lose your parents, no matter how old you are.
I was introduced as a writer to the family members I didn't know. They congratulated me on Horror Business and asked what it was about. It was difficult to talk about the horror, darkness and death of the book amid the grieving. I fell back on the word "spooky" many more times than a man trying to get his work taken seriously should admit. "Everything is very spooky," I kept saying.
The morning of my grandma's funeral, my dad joked that I should've brought copies of the book to sell. "Maybe give a reading," he said. I smiled. Us Bradfords, we cope with dark humor.
Gail Elisabeth Bradford's funeral was Feb. 10, 2015. She was cremated the day before. It was a touching service, and the sight of my dad embracing his siblings showed a glimpse of his vulnerability—a rare, heartening sight, and one that I'l never forget.
My brother, sister and I left the next day. Before heading out, my dad said, "Thank you for being here."
We talked less on the way home. That's usually how it goes on road trips. I thought of the past four days. I thought of the words "novel," "death," "road trip," "California" and "Montana" and how they could've been culled from a forgotten indie drama, and it made me sad to consider that my life consisted of keywords and plot-points.
But, mostly, I thought of my grandma and how much I'll miss her. Wishing that she could've stayed around for at least one more week.
Ryan is the author of Horror Business. Write to firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter at @theryanbradford