Every week, two of my dear friends and I meet to talk about theology and books, but mostly Aslan, over drinks at a speakeasy-style establishment in Nashville. Last Thursday, much of our time was spent discussing our families and childhoods and stories we’d never thought to share before. During our conversation I was reminded of the last memory I have with my grandfather. Rummaging through old notebooks and files, I found a piece I wrote for my creative writing class about his death. Most of my recent energy has been focused on the broken areas of my childhood, but this is a beautiful memory—maybe one of my best. It’s not his birthday or anything, but I thought I’d share it because it’s good to write about good things sometimes.
It was my third trip to Boston that year, so I knew Grandpa wasn’t going to last much longer. He had been sick since I could remember, but always managed to bounce back and recover despite the doctor’s reports. He was always a fighter—everyone knew that—but nobody expected him to last this long with a heart functioning at fifty percent. I landed at midnight, greeted by cold October weather and a tired mother.
“He’s at the nursing home with your grandfather”
“How’s Grandpa doing?”
“He’s worse than last time… you need to prepare yourself.”
I’ve always been the crier in my family and my parents feel obligated to “prepare me” for bad things, as if that would somehow make them better. Pulling into the nursing home, I saw my dad waiting in the front. He was exhausted. His eyes were glazed over, his face unshaven, and his smile unconvincing.
“Dad, how’s he doing? What are the doctor’s saying?”
“I don’t know, San. I wouldn’t be surprised if we got the call tonight.”
“So he’s not going to make it through the night?”
“I wouldn’t be surprised.”
I couldn’t stand the thought of my grandfather dying in a room by himself while I was thirty minutes away in a hotel. It didn’t seem right. I grabbed my suitcase, got out of the car, and insisted on spending the night with him. Hesitantly, my mother brought me to his room and set up a bed using two chairs and a blanket. She turned on the fluorescent lights and for the first time, I saw my grandfather as a vulnerable man. He had tubes going in and out of his thin, pale body. I closed my eyes and tried to remember what he looked like on Sunday afternoons when we’d visit to watch a baseball game. He’d wait for us outside, lounging on a chair in the same outfit: a pastel colored shirt tucked into his khaki shorts that came just above the knee. His socks were pulled up mid-thigh, complimented by a pair of sneakers he bought because Nana insisted he needed better arch support.
This wasn’t the same Grandpa I knew from Sunday afternoons in Winchester.
He glanced at me slowly and closed his eyes, fading back into a restless sleep. After my mother left, I turned off the lights and looked around the room to see deflated “Get Well Soon” balloons and hand-drawn cards taped to the walls. I wanted to pick him up and bring him back to the house so he could be in a familiar place, somewhere full of happy memories, but it was impossible now. All I could do was try to be a good memory in the midst of inevitable death.
“Help! I need water! Can’t you see I’m dying?”
“It’s okay, Grandpa. Here’s something to drink.”
“It’s Savannah, your granddaughter. I’m here to stay the night with you.”
“You’re the most beautiful girl in the world, you know that?”
He fell asleep again, but not for long. Over the next hour or so, his body jerked every time he woke up because of pain or anxiety or thirst. I closed my eyes again and tried to remember Grandpa’s contentment as we watched TV together. I loved The Thoughts of Animals on the Discovery Channel. Episode after episode, he watched it with me, never admitting that he hated every minute of it. Come to find out, he used to recite poetry in his head to make the time pass. Throwing up his hands in the air, he finally confessed, “Why the hell would I care about the thoughts of animals, Savannah? I can’t even keep my own thoughts together!”
He had spunk and loved to laugh. But this wasn’t the same Grandpa I knew from Sunday afternoons in Winchester.
He shouted again about being afraid, and I was torn to pieces inside. This isn’t how he needs to go, I thought to myself. He needs to be ready. He needs to be at peace. With that, I pulled out my Bible and started reading the book of Psalms aloud.
“Savannah,” he interrupted. “Can you hold my hand?”
I offered my tear-stained hand to join his on top of the blanket.
“I can’t think of anyone else I’d rather be with. Keep reading.”
I continued reading for the rest of the night, and by sunrise, I noticed he hadn’t cried out for help in hours. I slowly slipped my hand from underneath his chin to see if he was breathing. Much to my surprise, he was. Grandpa woke up at seven thirty that morning. The nurses said he hadn’t slept that long without crying out for help since he arrived. After he woke up, he called me closer to his face. Looking at me with tears in his eyes, he slowly said, “Good morning, beautiful. It was absolutely marvelous to have you with me tonight. I wouldn’t have had it any other way. You look gorgeous. You always do.”
That was the last time I heard him speak. He passed away three days later, on October 27th, 2009. Thanks for the happy memories, Grandpa. I’ll see you soon.