By Alana Saltz.
I wasn’t sure my grandfather was going to be aware of what was going on when I read to him from my novel. As I share the words I’ve written, he laughs at my narrator’s self-deprecating humor twice, and that’s how I know that he understands me. After I finish, he struggles to find the words to tell me what the story is about.
“The girl is very…it’s…very internal. It’s mel…mel…”
My sister and I take guesses at what he’s trying to say. Melancholy? Melodic? He shakes his head no. I never find out because he trails off and stares up at the ceiling. I hear the churning of the oxygen machine, see the silent face of Clifford on the TV screen, the show on mute.
Finally, just when we think he’s asleep again, he says, “You have a gift with words.”
I smile and say, “Thank you.”
Three hours later, I’m sitting in the front lobby of the hospice, watching the sun set over snow-covered roofs and bare trees. I’m thinking about how my grandpa barely knew me, only saw me once or twice a year when I visited St. Louis, yet he supported my dream to tell stories and have them heard. He helped me pay for grad school so I could study writing. But I’d never shown him any of my work until today.
There’s a whir of sliding doors behind me. Murmurs of nurses and patients down the hall. Clean couches, bright lights, my mother beside me talking to someone on the phone and complaining about his treatment, the sky dimmer, deeper, darker.
These are moments I want to remember. If something difficult has to happen, it makes me feel better to think I can use it to tell a story, reach some insight, make sense out of things that don’t make sense. I hover outside the moment, taking notes in my head like a good writer, or just someone who needs to hover because it’s too hard to be close, to be inside.
Rushing around, getting him coffee with a straw, spoonfuls of muffin. I’m watching my mom and aunts and uncles and grandma try to help while I sit still, knowing there’s nothing I can do anyway. Here I am trying to have an insightful moment while my family tries to make my grandpa eat so he doesn’t die, even though he’s going to die, it’s just a matter of delaying it.
My sister appears beside me holding a Styrofoam cup in her hand.
“A nurse just told me I look too young to be drinking coffee,” she says. “Do I look younger than usual today?”
I shake my head. My little sister is 22. She doesn’t look 22, but she does look old enough to be drinking coffee.
She sits beside me and picks up a newspaper, and my aunt checks in with the front desk, and I write a note on my phone because that’s what I do, what I tell myself I know how to do. I’m useless in the moment, but I tell myself I’ll make art of it, say the right thing, say something, anything, later.
“I feel bad for grandpa,” I tell my sister. It’s the one thing I can say.
“That’s life,” she says, without looking up from the paper. “That’s death.”
“You’re so blasé about everything,” I say.
She doesn’t reply.
I look at my pale reflection in the window then past it at the sky, now black. I can only see the faint glow of rooftop snow and colored Christmas lights strung around heated houses.
A few days go by. No one’s sure when it will happen. My mother goes in every day, but I need to take a break on Christmas Eve. It’ll be my first Christmas ever without him. I think about how deceptive childhood is, how we assume that certain things will stay the same forever. Even when everything else in my life changed, I could always count on my grandparents and their house in St. Louis. Their cozy den with a big TV, the spinning lazy Susan on the kitchen table, the basement with toys from my mother and her siblings’ childhoods: a little rolling dog on a string, baby dolls with fading faces, and model cars, trains, and airplanes. We stay in a comfy basement room with no windows and stacks upon stacks of National Geographic magazines. Next-door is my grandpa’s study, the walls covered in World War II memorabilia and his engineering diplomas.
It’s been a couple of years since we actually stayed with my grandparents. As they got older, it was harder for them to host us. First, the annual Christmas Eve dinner was moved to my uncle’s house. Then we were asked to stay with my aunt. This year, my grandfather won’t even be at Christmas dinner. He never will be again.
I’m 26, and he’s the first close family member I’ll have lost.
After Christmas Eve dinner, my aunt drives me to the hospice. My sister and I have to leave the next day, and this is my last chance to see him before I go. She said goodbye earlier, and now, it’s my turn.
It’s eerily quiet in the hospice. My aunt and I approach my grandfather’s door.
“Do you mind if I have a minute alone?” I ask her.
“Of course,” she says.
I step inside. The room is lit slightly and dimly. My grandfather is asleep, I think. The sound coming out of his mouth is loud and disturbing, a combination of breathing, wheezing, and snoring. His body shakes so hard that it’s almost convulsing. It’s completely black outside the windows. It feels like it’s just him and me in the entire world.
I sit down on the chair beside his bed and watch his chest rise and fall fast. His face is pale, hollow, barely what it was. It’s strange starting a conversation that you know will be the last you ever have with someone. This is something new to me, and something that terrifies me.
But I have to stay here. I can’t hover or record. This is a moment I have to be in.
“Hi Grandpa,” I say.
His eyes stay closed. I don’t know if he can hear me, but I talk anyway.
“I really wish I could have known you better. I’m sorry we always lived so far away. I feel like you never really knew me.”
He keeps snoring, showing no signs of listening.
“Thank you for helping me with school,” I continue. “I couldn’t have done it without you and Grandma. I’m glad you got to hear a little of my writing.”
I wipe tears away with the scratchy fingertips of the mitten still covering my hand. I haven’t taken my puffy coat or scarf or gloves off. It’s stuffy in the room, but I don’t care.
“I love you,” I say. It’s not something I said much, maybe ever, to him before he got sick.
I put my hand on his cold arm for just a moment. I’m scared and sad and I’m not used to this. I’m not used to saying goodbye, not forever.
I sit with him for a few minutes. I don’t want him to be alone, and I don’t want any particular moment to be the last. I hope he doesn’t hear me crying.
Finally, I pat his arm, and leave the room. Leaning against the wall in the bright hallway, I take deep breaths and wipe away more tears.
In my mind, I hear my sister say, That’s life. That’s death.
Alana Saltz is a freelance writer and editor living in Los Angeles. Her essays have been published in blogs like The Urban Dater, Writing Forward, and HelloGiggles. She has an MFA in Writing from Antioch University Los Angeles and recently finished a memoir about her lifelong struggles with anxiety disorder and depression. You can visit her website at alanasaltz.com or follow her on Twitter @alanasaltz.