I devour books the way an addict devours heroin. The way Facebook devours time. The way a person devours popcorn at the cinema before the movie even begins. I have always been this way but I did not get this way on my own.
There are many things I associate my grandfather with: Hawaiian slack key music, roosters, pineapples, red beans and rice, black coffee and those puffy peppermints you can buy at Cracker Barrel. The two biggest ones, however, are academia and stories. My grandfather had been a professor and he always had the best stories about his childhood in Northern California. So, it wasn’t a big surprise that our favourite activity was browsing bookstores for hours and then coming home and reading stacks of books.
I should also mention that the summer I was seven years old, my family went on holiday to Oxford. My mother had been hearing buzz about this book series, Harry Potter, and since I was reading way beyond my level, she thought I might enjoy them.
So she bought me the first three books, which was a big deal as the third one hadn’t come out in the States yet. She handed them to me, saying “Everyone seems to love them, you like magic, you’ll like them.”
She was wrong.
The first sentence of the first book “Mr and Mrs Dursley of Number 4, Privet Drive, were proud to say that they were perfectly normal, thank you very much,” did NOT capture my interest. I preferred stories like The Water Babies, The Babysitters Club, the brief and now nonexistent series Disney Girls (so excellent, about a bunch of girls my age who could change into select Disney princesses and live their lives! And for someone who has been telling the world she was Belle since the age of two, they were fantastic). I could read beyond my grade level but I was lazy and didn’t want to feel weird around my peers. So the books came back to America with us where I put them on my bookshelf and forgot about them.
However, in my second grade class, I befriended a girl named Lauren, who would be my best friend for the next six years until we started different high schools and our interests were so drastically different that we just didn’t talk. Lauren had been reading the Harry Potter books with her dad at night, and since I had the horrendous habit of adjusting my interests to suit my friends (I spent two years pretending I really liked horses. In reality, they smell and I’m afraid they could kill me. Don’t ask. It was a bad time.) I went home and pulled these three books off of the shelf.
That was it. I was in love. I dreamt of being Sorted into my own house, of casting spells with my beautiful snowy owl at my shoulder, of Pumpkin Pasties and Cauldron Cakes. For the first time ever, I wanted frizzy hair and to be called the cleverest witch in my year. I fell in love with a red-headed, sometimes (most of the time) rude boy whose loyalty to his friends proved strong. I felt awful for the boy with no family but felt comforted by his found family at Hogwarts. I became one of those kids who would buy the books in the summer, spend three or four days reading nonstop, only to get the UK edition later.
In the summer of 2005, I was 13. I had a massive embarrassing crush on Hayden Christensen, had just gotten my first pink iPod mini after months of begging and was still hinting (read: demanding) to my parents that I wanted contact lenses. The sixth book, Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince was due to be released and while I had been gutted by the death in the previous book, I didn’t really dwell on it. I recognised that the series was straying so far away from the wonder of the first book, but I simply didn’t think about losing anyone else. I really didn’t think about much, except for maybe kissing the boy I had had a crush on since we were three (he was my preschool husband and we remain friends to this day, even after an awkward long time without contact. Love you, Joe). And then I was blindsided.
On July 10, 2005, I went to see a movie with the boy I had had a crush on since we were three – I think it was that Tom Cruise disaster, War of the Worlds. After the film, we went back to his house and played Banjo and Kazooie on the N64. Our neighbours were having a barbecue that evening, but because there wouldn’t be kids there my age, I wasn’t too keen on going. The hours in the afternoon dragged on and I gleefully thought that I was getting out of going to this party. Finally, around 4.00pm, my mother called and told me to come home. As his mother drove me all of five minutes, I sulked at the thought of spending all evening organising games of Manhunt and Colour War in the sloping backyard surrounded by 6 year olds. When I got to my front door, my mother opened it before I had even knocked. I started chatting to her about how lame the film was, before she cut me off by telling me to sit down. Now, this is the part where I cringe. I hate myself. I want to tell 13-year-old me to shut up and this is never the right response to anything ever. But I was trying to be funny. Noticing the serious look on my mother’s face, I said, “Who died?” I wasn’t ready for her response. “Papa.”
I remember her trying to hug me, me wriggling away and flying up to my bedroom, throwing myself onto a bean bag chair and sobbing. The only deaths I had ever experienced were my two black Labs and my great Aunt Kay that past autumn, who I didn’t remember meeting but only knew that her damn funeral made me cancel my 13th birthday party to go to Akron.
I didn’t know how to feel. I was devastated but I didn’t want to sacrifice anything, like a trip to King’s Dominion the following day with my swim team or my upcoming stint at a performing arts camp in Michigan (a very well-known one, one of my best friends at camp was the daughter of an author whose books I loved). We drove up to my grandparents’ two days later.
Six days after my grandfather passed away, the next Harry Potter book was released. And you better believe I inhaled that book the way my little sister inhales Krispy Kremes. I read and read and just like Harry, was convinced Malfoy was a Death Eater. I found Lavender Brown and her “Won-Won” to be nauseating and I felt for Hermione.
I wasn’t expecting Dumbledore to die and I wasn’t expecting to feel grateful for it. It was weird, because I had just experienced a huge loss in real life, but so many of my peers were mourning the loss of Albus Dumbledore the same way I was processing the loss of my grandfather. When JK Rowling writes about there were so many things Harry wanted to ask Dumbledore, so many things he wanted to know, but now he couldn’t, it was as though my very thoughts were being echoed on the page.
As upset as I was about this fictitious death, the real one took precedence. I couldn’t help but be appreciative for the death of Albus Dumbledore. Here was a grandfather-esque person that every single Harry Potter fan just lost. And it made people understand my loss, my grief. Maybe they weren’t feeling it the same way I was, but they were relating to it. Someone beloved to them had gone and wasn’t ever coming back.
I always think of that summer whenever I revisit Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince. I think of reading on the pea green velvet sofa in a house where grief was so palpable, the cloud hanging over the house could be seen from the next state over. I think of the choking smell of Hawaiian flowers sent to a Michigan church and the smell of ham from the gourmet delicatessen that was too much of a luxury to purchase normally (sidenote: even before I stopped eating meat, I hadn’t eaten ham since that summer). I think of a hotel room on an island and multi-course meals where the atmosphere is straining to be lighthearted but every person at that table is thinking about the purpose of the trip as a 50 year wedding anniversary celebration that didn’t get to happen. And I think of the Boy Who Lived, whose life was clouded in death from page one of the first book, and how his loss in book 6 tasted so much like my own, making me feel less alone.