During dinner with Mom and Ron, Oskar finds out that Ron’s wife and daughter had died in a car accident. Ron and Mom met in a support group for people who had lost family. Oskar didn’t know that Mom had been going to this group.
Ron isn’t just a quick replacement for Dad, it turns out—Mom met Ron because she was suffering so much from Dad’s loss that she went to a support group. So Dad is at the center of Ron and Mom’s relationship, just as Ron’s lost family is at the center of his relationship with Mom. And, of course, form this they have forged a new relationship, as well.
Oskar has packed a backpack and gathered all his supplies together to dig up the coffin. At 11:50 PM, Oskar sneaks out of the house to meet Grandpa, and at exactly midnight, Gerald, the limousine driver who had driven Oskar to Dad’s funeral, arrives. During the drive, Oskar figures out that he can open the sunroof; he stands partway out of the car and takes pictures of the stars; Gerald warns him when a bridge or tunnel is coming up so that he won’t get decapitated. There’s a photograph of the starry sky in the chapter.
Oskar repeats the journey to Dad’s gravesite that he took in the first chapter, when Gerald drove Oskar, Mom, and Grandma to the cemetery. This time, Oskar is also obsessed with looking at the stars—he seems to have conquered any fear of traveling after all his exploration through the city. The peacefulness and quietness of the night sky suggests an order and safe respite from the turbulence of life on Earth.
At the cemetery, it takes twenty minutes just to find Dad’s grave. Oskar and Grandpa start digging, but after an hour, they’ve barely gotten anywhere. The flashlight runs out of batteries, and Oskar calls Gerald to tell him to get more. They shovel in the dark. When Gerald returns with the batteries, Gerald helps them shovel, which makes it go much more quickly. It’s 2:56 AM, exactly two hours after arriving at the cemetery, when the shovel touches the coffin.
Oskar imagines that he’ll be able to dig up his Dad’s grave quickly, perhaps because of the ease with which Yorick’s skull appeared in Hamlet, but dredging up the past appears to be trickier than Oskar had imagined. Gerald had seemed remote and distant when they had buried Dad, but now, Oskar and Grandpa rely on the kindness of this relative stranger to help them reach the coffin.
Oskar is surprised that the coffin is wet and cracked in a few places. The lid just rests on top: it’s not nailed shut. Oskar opens the coffin and is surprised, although he knows he shouldn’t be, at how empty it is. Even though Oskar and Grandpa had gone over all the details, they hadn’t discussed until the day before what they would do when they opened the coffin. Oskar says that they will fill it, but he can’t decide with what. Grandpa brings suitcases filled with letters to his unborn son to put into the coffin.
Oskar knows rationally that his Dad will not be in the coffin, but he can’t help but hope—even though the hope is completely irrational—that Dad might somehow appear there, or, at least, that Dad might have left him a clue of some sort. By filling the coffin with the letters to his son, Grandpa gives closure to the ritual: he has, in some way, finally delivered these letters, and now their messages will be preserved, like the “I love you” in the tin can from the story of the Sixth Borough, or Dad’s voice on the answering machine.
It’s 4:12 AM when Oskar returns home. Mom is on the sofa, awake, but doesn’t ask Oskar where he’s been. Oskar can’t sleep. He goes into the living room and starts crying. Mom hugs him. Oskar promises to get better soon, to be normal and happy, and Mom says that it’s okay.
Mom has been following Oskar’s expedition from afar the entire time, and this night is no exception: she knows, without him having to tell her, that his journey has been necessary.
Mom says that Dad had called her from the World Trade Center on the day that he died. Dad told her that he was on the street, out of the building, even though he wasn’t. Oskar cries, and Mom carries him to bed. Oskar tells her that it’s okay if she falls in love again, but she says that she never will. He hears her crying.
Oskar had tried to protect his Mom this whole time from the fact that Dad had called on September 11, but it turned out that Mom had also had a message from Dad on that day that she had never told Oskar about, and in that message Dad also had tried to protect Mom from the truth. All of these lies, however misguided, are expressions of love and the desire to protect a loved one.
Oskar gets out his binder of Stuff That Happened to Me, which is full. He finds the pictures of the falling body. He rips the pages out of the book and reverses the order so that the last one is first and the first is last, creating a little flipbook so that it looks like the man is falling up through the sky.
Oskar’s flipbook now represents not anything that happened to him in reality, but his imagination’s desire: the “Stuff That Happened To Me” is in fact a log of Oskar’s fantasies, not his reality.
Oskar imagines what it would be like if time worked like that: if the man had gone back into the window, and Dad would have left his messages backward until the machine was empty, and the plane would have flown backwards to Boston. “I’d have said ‘Dad?’ backward, which would have sounded the same as ‘Dad’ forward,” says Oskar. He would have told Oskar the story of the Sixth borough backwards, from “I love you” to “Once upon a time.” “We would have been safe,” says Oskar. The book ends with a flipbook of pictures of the man falling up through the sky.
The images at the end of the book that imagine the body falling up into the sky rather than down out of the building present the same dream of revising history that Grandma has when she dreams about the animals going back onto Noah’s Ark or Genesis happening in reverse: it might be more comforting to try and reverse-engineer the past, since hindsight is twenty-twenty, but inevitably, everyone must face the truth, and all that anyone can do is continue to live and love each other as deeply as possible in the present.