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What To Do When Your Grandfather Is Dying
Pack your nicest clothes and too many books into your rainbow duffel bag. On second thought, transfer your clothes to your brown backpack. Load bag in trunk of car. Feel your mom’s edgily anxious eyes watch you fumble. Forget to fasten your seatbelt. Turn on the radio. Hum to “Big Girls Don’t Cry” for a few seconds but then stop, feeling clunky and loud. Turn the music off when your mom gets a phone call from her brother. Listen in and try to discern if her father, your grandpa, is doing better. He isn’t. Stare into rearview mirror as your mother cries. Don’t turn the radio back on. Don’t talk.
When you arrive, hug the distant family you haven’t seen in a while. Look somber. Feel removed from your body as you are pressed into chest after chest. Go into your grandpa’s bedroom. See your grandfather laboring to sit up on the bed. Remember jumping on that same bed with your cousin. Weeks ago. Years ago?
Listen to the crackle in you grandpa’s throat and the fear in your mother’s voice. Look down at your toes and smile when he says to your mom, “look, Mary, isn’t she a beauty?” Though no one says anything, sense your dismissal. Sit on the closed toilet seat in the bathroom for the next fifteen minutes. Glance up in surprise when your cousin Zach comes in. You didn’t say hello to him. He has to go home to get more clothing. Hug him goodbye before hello, blinking your dry eyes in an awkward acknowledgement of his wet ones. Realize you haven’t said hello to your grandma either.
See your cousin Tuddy. Hug her as tight as you can, noticing she looks scared. Wonder what your face looks like. Sit and talk flatly of boys at school. Don’t cry. Sleep over at her house and don’t stay up too late like you usually do.
Get up for church in the morning. Stop at Grandma and Grandpa’s house on the way. See your Uncle Joe’s face shift when he talks to Uncle Ed. You aren’t going to church.
Be herded into the back bedroom and stand at the end of a line to kiss your heavily breathing grandpa goodbye. Start to cry. Peck his face quickly, feeling the wrongness of his temperature. Kneel to say a rosary around the perimeter of his bed. Forget the words to the Hail Mary. Wipe your nose on the sleeve of the jacket you borrowed from your cousin. Hope she doesn’t notice. Feel your stomach growl but shake your head when your cousin asks if you want to go eat. Sit listening to the silence of your grandma, bent over your grandfather and the unreliable rhythm of his breathing and feel hungry. Notice you are the only grandchild in the room. Get up to go, feeling suddenly self-conscious. Eat casserole until you feel like throwing up. Play sixteen games of speed with your cousin. Don’t remember who won more.
Sit on the bathroom counter talking to your cousin as she pees. Reach up to feel if there actually is a layer of glue over your eyelids. There isn’t. See your mom in the kitchen. Realize you haven’t talked to her for the past twenty hours. She looks unfamiliar. Drink a Mountain Dew.
Sit tangled up with your cousin Anna on the leather couch under an afghan that your great-grandmother crocheted. Laugh uncontrollably over a joke neither of you can remember five minutes later. Feel guilty and get solemn again.
Sit by your mom at the kitchen table eating peanuts. Stare at a picture of your handsome teenager grandpa riding a tractor. Feel the corners of your mouth turn down as your mom says, “that’s my dad.” Feel tears prick as her fingers trace his grinning black and white face. Get queasy as you watch her face screw up. She cries. Go to back bedroom and cry as well. Feel ashamed for not staying with her.
Go back into the kitchen. See your great aunt walk in, sobbing and looking around at everyone, bobbing her head up and down. Your grandpa is dead. Don’t cry. Look at a wide-eyed Tuddy. Nod when she says, “should we go tell the other cousins?” Walk into the living room and choke out the news. Suck in your breath as the tears begin to flow all around you. Watch your cousin’s faces. Feel guilty because the tears aren’t coming. Rub your eyes in an attempt to make them produce the sadness in the same form as everyone else.
Walk into the other room and tell your cousin Shannon to turn off the TV. Get unreasonably angry when she doesn’t, she wants to watch “The Cheetah Girls.” Storm out while Tuddy says, “Shannon- Grandpa just died.” Hear Shannon click the TV off. Feel bad for getting so upset. Eat some more casserole.
Turn your face away when they take your sheet-covered grandfather out of the house on a stretcher. Close your eyes as the younger cousins argue over which movie to watch. Finally put in “Home Alone 3” when they have come to a consensus. Be asked to turn it off by your uncle. Go to sit outside with Tuddy. When your nose starts to feel like ice, go back inside.
Spend the next day eating and playing speed. Learn how to shuffle cards. Try to read the books you brought, but get too distracted by all the stories being told, all the crying being done. Go with your mom and cousins to talk to the music coordinator for the funeral. Feel embarrassed for your mother when she can’t explain what she wants because she can’t stop crying. Get carpet burn on the backs of your legs from laying on the living room floor so much. Iron your blouse for the wake.
Go to your grandfather’s showing at the funeral home. Sit on the couch upstairs and watch the line of people waiting to see his body extending down the block. Listen to ringtones on Tuddy’s phone. Venture downstairs and feel mobbed by all the people you don’t recognize. Look at your grandpa’s makeup covered face. Go back upstairs and sit on the boxes of pop with your cousin Abe. Start talking and laughing so loud until someone asks you to please quiet down. Go downstairs and pray with your entire family. Listen to your aunts and uncles and second cousins tell story after story about good old Charlie, bribing nurses to sneak him cigs and organizing 500 tournaments. Get up with Tuddy and stumble your way through a story. Realize you are just repeating what you’ve been told; you don’t remember any of it yourself. Sit back down. Look back at your mom sitting with a cousin you don’t recognize three rows behind you. Notice people standing in the back, on the sides, so many pressed together to see your grandpa. Start to sniffle a little bit again.
Wake up early the next day. Get in your grandma’s shower and realize you don’t have a razor. Borrow your cousin’s black tights. At the funeral home, stand around your grandpa and say goodbye for the very last time. Look at your grandma, her hair curled and her hurting body clothed in her new black suit and cry until you feel that you ribs will crack. Get in the hearse to drive to the church.
Choke on the incense during the mass. Don’t cry one bit and feel out of place among your weeping relatives. Feel like laughing more than you should during the funny parts of the eulogy. Imagine yourself as lead when your uncles bring in the casket. Imagine yourself as a feather when they take it out and trip over your feet as you shuffle out with the rest of your family.
Stand in the frigid cold at the cemetery and look over at your great-uncle’s gravestone next to your grandfather’s. Hurry through the last farewell, blow on you hands to warm them up and clench your eyes tight to squeeze the wetness from your eyelashes, drying them with your cousin’s scarf. Stare at the dark wood casket and forget that it contains your mother’s father. Rush back into the car from the cold. Go home and go back to school and back to almost real life.
Get used to calling your Grandma and Grandpa’s house just your Grandma’s house.