Oskar doesn’t believe in god, but he believes things are complicated. However, in that moment he knows that she’s his mom. She tells him she loves him.
Oskar can hear his mom cry and tries to distract himself with his “Stuff that Happened to Me” notebook. It’s full, but he considers that he shouldn’t start a new volume because the paper in the twin towers kept them burning longer. He looks at the photos of the man who might be his dad falling from the tower and reverses their order, so that it looks like the man rises back up. He imagines that if he had more photos of this moment, his dad would have exited the building and gone back home. He imagines his dad going through the events of the night before in reverse order. They would have been safe.
The book ends with the images of the falling man in reverse.
The ending of the book underscores the importance of intimacy and honesty in relationships. Grandma and Thomas’s relationship fails to find a resolution largely because of Thomas’s unwillingness to be truly vulnerable with Grandma. Although Grandma tells him about how she learned Anna was pregnant, which is a rare moment of her actually speaking about the past with Thomas, he cannot bring himself to talk about his last moment with Anna, a failure of intimacy. On a different scale, Mom keeping Ron’s tragedy a secret from Oskar to spare his feelings has also kept a relationship between Oskar and Ron from forming. Because Oskar doesn’t understand what connects Ron and his mom, he sees him as an interloper in his family. In addition, in the final chapter, we learn that Oskar’s dad opted to lie to both Oskar and his mom in his last phone calls to them. While Oskar’s dad expresses love through these lies by trying to comfort his loved ones, in reality, it deprives Oskar and his mom of hearing, “I love you,” one last time. As we learn in Chapter 15, this omission has caused Oskar a lot of pain and confusion.
The novel ends with Oskar, Grandma, and Thomas facing the inevitability of ambiguity with no clear solutions in sight. Thomas, unwilling to either leave Grandma or return home with her, stays in the airport, a liminal place between coming and going. Grandma stays with him but focuses on her letter to Oskar, evoking her earlier desire to not see Thomas but also not have him leave. Their inability to communicate cannot sever their shared history and trauma, but without communication, they cannot connect. Until they decide to try again, they have trapped themselves in an ambiguous existence, both somewhere and nowhere. Oskar, on the other hand, has begun to see possibilities in ambiguity. In the limo on his way to the cemetery, he sticks his head out of the sunroof at the part of the bridge in no borough, an ambiguous place, finding joy in the space’s liminality. He photographs the stars, recalling Stephen Hawking and his dad’s lessons of finding wonder in the unknowability of the universe. Although seeing the emptiness of his dad’s coffin still shocks him, Oskar has demonstrated he’s ready to face the answerless reality.
Chapter 17 shows Oskar repairing his relationship with his mom through honesty. Although Oskar’s mom still allows Oskar the privacy to grieve how he needs, she emphasizes that she doesn’t mind him keeping a secret from her because she trusts him. Furthermore, Oskar’s mom allows Oskar to hear her cry for the first time, trusting Oskar with her grief. In expressing trust and vulnerability, Oskar’s mom offers Oskar a concrete and honest demonstration of her love. When Oskar observes that the universe is complicated, but he knows where he stands with his mother, he enacts the lesson he learned from Mr. Black’s index card, that he is a son, and even in the vastness of the universe, that fact matters. Furthermore, because Oskar now accepts ambiguity as a part of life, he can see that his mom’s emotions do not negate her unconditional love for him or his dad.
Oskar’s rewinding of time at the end is a fittingly ambiguous ending to the novel because it’s unclear whether Oskar has found healing or suffered an emotional setback in seeing his dad’s empty coffin. In some ways, his desire to go back in time is another version of Thomas’s desire to stop time. If Oskar could stop time right before his dad’s bedtime story, his dad would still be alive—an impossibility. However, this rewinding of time differs from Oskar’s previous inventions, which always focused on how his dad died. Now Oskar instead focuses on a memory of his dad’s life that he will always cherish. The moment Oskar resets time to mirrors the recent moment of his mom tucking him into bed, where Oskar feels safe in his mom’s love. Here, Oskar allows himself the memory of feeling secure in his dad’s love, something he hasn’t felt since his dad’s death because of his own guilt. Although this action ignores the reality that his dad is dead, it is also a coping mechanism akin to his mom wanting to have a funeral. It allows Oskar to look at reality obliquely, focusing on something comfortable to get him through the pain.