Just Talk to Him

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“Just talk to him”
Those were the only instructions my dad gave to me before he left the room, before he left me on my own, an eleven-year-old who had never even seen a pet die, let alone a human die. I was standing over what appeared to be a bed taken right out of an emergency room, complete with a heart monitor and IV. What was I supposed to say? I looked down on the frail, bed-ridden form of the man I called “Papa” and was lost in a flood of self-doubt and confusion. My hand remained tightly grasped by his, and I knew he was aware that I was the only one beside him.

My father’s father died long before I was ever around. While I was growing up Papa Fred, my grandmother’s second husband, had always been “Grandpa” to me. But the only way I ever saw him was as a man propped up on the couch with a smoke, enjoying college football. He was a nice enough man, always very kind toward my sister and me, never closed off or bitter. Every Thanksgiving he would make the journey from the couch in his home to the one in mine where he would spend the day watching his games stopping only for a bit of turkey. In truth, a part of me saw him only as a placeholder, someone to compensate for the lack of a natural grandfather in my life. He was a stranger to me.

The sweat between our interlocked fingers was beginning to pool. I peered at the clock, and my eyes darted around the room, doing everything they could to avoid gazing into the face of the dying man before me. Thoughts kept popping in and out of my head: Maybe I should talk about the weather. I’ve only been in this room once or twice before and have never noticed those toys on the shelf. I wonder how they were able to fit this bed through the door. Where did his old bed go?
“Just talk to him.” Those words resonated in my mind. Faint wheezing was the only thing I could hear over the drone of the heartbeat machine. On his face, under the mask of contentment which I had always known him to wear, was an undeniable sense of fear. He had lost the ability to move, to talk, to respond, and now the wall he had hidden behind for as long as I had known him was crumbling. No longer was he just a stranger, but a human being, humbled by what was about to come.

A feeling of empathy began to overwhelm me. I drew upon memories of my mother reading to me as I fell asleep. Just the sound of someone’s voice next to me had always lulled me into a state of comfort and protection. I would mostly not follow what she was saying; just knowing that someone was next to me and that their whole purpose during that one moment in time was to be there for me caused me to feel loved in a way that could not be expressed if I wrote about it for the rest of my life. This feeling of being important to someone is one that we all seek to capture every day in our lives. “Just talk to him.” That’s all it would take to transport him to a place where he could experience such a feeling.
“Hi Papa.” “It’s gonna be ok.” “Everything is going to be ok.”

Papa Fred died three hours later due to lung failure. Besides his wife and son, I was the last person to speak with him. Even though my time alone with him had not exceeded 15 minutes, I like to think that at the end, when there was nothing left for him in this world, he could feel the way I had when my mother talked to me, that the words I said helped him in some way to feel loved. All he needed, to experience an undying feeling of peace, was for me to just talk to him.





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