It's been chilly here in Texas. As I type this, I have fuzzy white slippers on my feet and a mug of hot broth on the coffee table. I used to think that everywhere south of North Carolina was tropical all year round. No lie, until two years ago I legitimately believed that if you folded the US in half lengthwise, it'd be like Costa Rica on the bottom all the time. I definitely learned the hard way that this is not the case as we were camping around Mississippi in our Airstream, December 2013, with frozen pipes and icicles hanging off our bumpers (and noses).
Texas has winter. And this time of year always makes me nostalgic and a bit more weepy than usual. I miss people a lot in the winter, and spend more time than I should wishing time would slow down.
I scribbled the following memory the other night in the bathtub, my journal pages soggy at the corners from skimming the bubbles as I wrote. It's kind of sad, but it's winter after all, and plus I promised myself I'd show up with my words this year. That I'd just write, and not think; which is ten thousand times harder than it sounds.
Hopefully as I keep writing and sharing, I won't have to write these little intros. Because I've never been a girl who likes to explain herself, and plus this just feels weird. But this is new so I'll be gentle with the transition.
Here we go:
The day my grandfather died I didn’t cry. Which is like saying the sun didn’t rise. I cry watching QVC when the old ladies talk about their late husbands. I cry reading fortunes from chinese food takeout. One time I cried so hard from a greeting card, I jumped into the bathtub with all of my clothes on to hug my daughter who was two at the time.
But on this day, that heavy rush I am so familiar with, never rose up in my chest.
I have no memory of driving to the hospital or who was with me. I have absolutely no concept of when, on the large scale timeline of my life, any of it happened. I just know that in the waiting room, there was an overtired little boy who had the worst crusty nose I had ever seen. I remember I kept looking at him wondering how he was breathing through his nostrils, and wanting so badly to put him in a hot bubble bath. At one point he hit his mom hard in the leg and I judged her. I don’t know if it was cold or raining outside, but I know that when I looked out the window, I saw my aunt hiding way off in the distance sneaking a cigarette in the bushes and I kept thinking how funny it would be if her bouffant caught on fire while she was out there, and then she’d have to come back in with some crazy story about how she was now partially bald.
I must have had a baby with me, (Braedon) because I remember putting the baby down by my grandfather’s side and seeing him smile. There was this big clear plastic cup filling with brown liquid and the nurses told me the color meant it was getting close.
I picked my baby back up.
Just before it was time to leave, I asked if it was OK for me to be alone with him. Everyone said it was fine and before I knew it, it was just me, an untouched hospital meal tray, and the smell of stale urine.
He wasn’t wearing underwear and I was worried I might accidentally see his penis. His teeth weren’t in. His face was stubbly. I was very concerned that he wouldn’t want to be seen this way. He wore the exact same pants and shirt every single day for my entire life. The same belt and shoes, too and woke up at 5:00 every morning to shower and shave. Saggy sweaty balls and full gums on display is, I’m sure, not how he wanted to go out. But I had seen enough men dying to know this is kind of how it is, and you just have to make a deal with yourself that you won’t remember them this way. But you do, and that’s OK, too.
This grandfather was my Dad’s dad, and his wife signed each Birthday card, “Your adopted grandparents.” There was no blood relation, and she never let me forget it. But my grandfather seemed to hug me just as tight as the other kids in the family. He seemed to tell me the same jokes and stories as the others, too. He never made me feel like his favorite, but he never made me feel like the ugly stepchild, and I wanted to thank him for that before it was too late.
I remember thinking I wanted to put my cheek against his, and then getting close enough to smell his breath and changing my mind. His mouth was super dry but he was sleeping and minutes from dying, so I didn’t think offering up some fresh ice chips was in order. I felt bad that he felt thirsty. I felt bad that he’d never drink water ever again.
I sat in the chair next to his side, and buried my face in the crook of his elbow. All hospital sheets smell and feel exactly the same across the country and I instantly wanted to find the softest comforter in the world and wrap him in that, instead. Who wants to take their last breaths on a set of starchy 5 thread counts? I pressed my forehead into his arm, and took a few deep breaths. I bet he missed his bedroom. I bet he would have given anything to wake up to the alarm beeping, 55 year ago, on any given Monday. I bet he would have paid every penny he ever made in his entire life just to walk sleepily down the hall, trying to find the lightswitch on the wall. I bet it’s the simple things like that that will hurt the most when it’s time for me to go. The sound of my children still sleeping in their beds. The creek of the refrigerator door.
I had never snuggled him before, and it felt good that it wasn’t awkward. I could love him in my way, and there was nothing to be embarrassed of. Death has a way of cutting out all of the bullshit.
I spoke out loud, telling him how grateful I was for him accepting me into the family. I tried to look really hard at his face and memorize his wrinkles and hair and there was this one mole I kept fixating on near his left temple. I told him I was sorry I never noticed his mole before.
I remember holding his hand after standing up to leave, and seeing he still had his wedding ring on. His fingers were swollen so much that the top and bottom of the ring were completely covered in what looked like overripe grapes about to burst. I once saw a giant oak whose bark grew around the bolts that had been nailed into it. They were there to hold a tree swing, but the swing was long gone. That’s how his ring looked to me. Like that giant tree refusing to ever let go.
I am sure they had to cut the ring just to get it off. Or, now that I think about it, maybe they let him be buried with it still on. Maybe slowly, as his body decomposed in the ground, the ring loosened it’s grip and eventually just fell down to the bottom of the casket.
I wonder if you listen closely at a cemetery, maybe on a really slow day with no cars going by, you can hear the sound of rings dropping like that, one at a time.