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I slipped through the curtain into the chilly hospital room for what must’ve been the eighteenth time that night, first looking to the window and then to the bright light above his bed.
I took my spot in the corner of the room, between the sink and the air conditioner, face askew, hoping people wouldn’t look at me with that awful expression of empathy on their faces.
I didn’t need their pity, I needed my grandfather to come back to us.
I pushed my hands against the wall, letting my back fall repeatedly into the chalk-textured white paint over and over, unable to stand still.
I can’t handle this, I thought to myself. But then, what other choice did I have? I couldn’t just leave- what if I didn’t make it back in time incase he decided to let go?
“He’s breathing on his own.” My mother said, forcing a smile on her gaunt face which appeared sickeningly green in the nasty, sterile light of the tiny room.
“That’s good,” I replied callously, knowing that it wouldn’t make a difference. He could take all the gulps of air he wanted, but they wouldn’t do anyone much good with less than one percent brain function.
When they left to get something to drink, and it was just me and my grandmother, her head slumped over into the crook of his elbow, I decided it was time to tell him how I felt.
I moved slowly across the ten feet of tile separating me from his right hand, pale and limp, just like the rest of him.
The cold sweat which had broken across his forehead just a few hours prior was at a downpour, my attempts at removing it with a square of soft tissue proved futile, the pools of perspiration just accumulated faster than I could ever hope to wipe them away.
“It really makes him look more like himself,” my grandmother’s sister had commented to me earlier.
No it doesn’t. I wanted to say. It makes him look so sick and helpless, I can’t stand it.
But I stayed silent, just like I had been for the past thirty-six hours, completely speechless.
This was my grandfather lying dead in a dank hospital room, which was undeserving of him and all of his pure kindness.
He wasn’t perfect by any means, but he had been so giving his last few years of life- so good to people he didn’t have to be good to.
I had seen him just days prior, a picture of perfection, beaming and making jokes as if he’d been throwing punch lines his whole life, as if he hadn’t just been through major abdominal surgery a few weeks before.
He lifted up his shirt to flash the staples stacked vertically down his stomach.
“Check out my new bling!” He chortled, standing in the hallway entrance, a huge cup of sweet tea in his calloused hands.
That was just him, making light of situations that were otherwise daunting and inescapably melancholy.
As I stood in the suffocating light of that tiny room, holding on to his sweet tea-wielding hand, I wondered what he would say if he were there to see me, tears rolling down my cheeks uncontrollably like a child fallen off a swing set.
Maybe, I thought, he’d say something like, “Looks like I finally lost some weight, or maybe that’s just ‘cuz I’m lying on my back. Ha-ha, oh well.”
Maybe he would’ve hugged me like he did when I was little, and let me have a sip of his tea.
Maybe he would’ve picked my grandmother up from that chair and held her hand, walked her down the hallway and out to the car, to take her home and care for her, just as he’d done for the past seven years.
All the things he would’ve been doing, should’ve been doing just ran through my mind like a cassette tape, on fast forward and repeat. Over and over I thought, You shouldn’t be here. You were doing so good.
But the reality was that he was there, and he wasn’t doing so good anymore. He wouldn’t be there to make sweet tea and let me have a sip.
He wouldn’t be there to hold my grandmother’s hand and take care of her.
He just wouldn’t be there, and if I though that watching him die was the hardest part, I soon had another thing coming.
Because the hardest part was and forevermore will be the fact that he’s not there anymore.
And I don’t mean to make it sound like he walked out on us. No one plans to throw a blood clot on one early Saturday morning and end up on a ventilator in the hospital, waiting for their son to get home to pull the plug.
It’s been exactly five months and eight days now, since he took his last breath.
Tomorrow is his birthday. And he won’t be there to call or talk to. He won’t be there to discuss politics with or make jokes about getting old.
But he’ll be there with me because I know that the goodness he held in his heart is the potent kind that spreads across a room like wildfire, infecting people with the need to be caring and thoughtful.
I don’t remember what I said to him that night as I stood for hours, holding his hand and watching his chest, the one I’d slept on my entire childhood, rise and fall in erratic motions.
Maybe I didn’t say anything to him.
But, if he could’ve said anything to me, it would be something like, “Cherish the people that love you, and live your life well. And whatever you do, don’t take up smoking.” And then he’d chuckle that sweet, infectious laugh of his and disappear, leaving me with lessons one can only learn by example.