By W. Leander
I was eight years old when my grandfather, a kindly, sports-loving, retired police officer, died—in the same manner he had lived his entire life. Quietly. He died from lung cancer. He died at night.
It was summer, and I was staying with them, he and Grandma, out there in their little house at the tail-end of a dead-end street in lifeless Independence, Missouri, where I spent my summer vacations during those early years.
I know I was there when he passed away. Because I am told I was. Just as I am told that on the night he died, when the paramedics arrived—with their stretchers and squawking radios and forbidding flashing lights—I cried as I stood under the shadow of the hallway, in my Fruit-of-the-Loom underwear and dirty tube socks, whispering to any adults who passed near me: Where is Grandpa going and when is he coming back?
I can’t, however, remember anything from that night. Not the paramedics. Not the stretcher. Not the tears. No, my memory of that time is as hazy and tenuous as summer itself. No day stands out.
This is what I remember: tubes. Thin, clear tubes attached to bags; bags filled with liquid—buttermilk-looking liquid that replaced his food, bright pink liquid you needed gloves to handle, clear liquid that smelled like aspirin. The tubes snaked down from these bags, first into blinking, burping machines—the various serious-looking apparatuses that kept him alive once he came home from the hospital that last time—and then into Grandpa, who stayed confined in bed, not the bed he shared with Grandma for thirty-plus years, but the new hospital bed, which took up space in the dining room, positioned in such a way that he could still see the TV comfortably.
I remember that hospital bed, with its heavy rubber wheels and thin blue mattress. It had chrome bars that could be raised on either side and locked into place with an ominous click, along with a hand crank used to elevate both ends. I remember the gauze; the oxygen tank; the large plastic cup, always nearby and always filled with ice water because he was so constantly thirsty; and how no one could ever make noise during the day, because he was either sleeping or trying to sleep—the pain not always kept at bay by medication. Plus, I can recall the sharp smell of urine, which hung in the heavy, stale air that entire final summer, at first from the commode, placed as it was in the living room, right next to the TV, then later due to the urine bag that hung and drooped off one side of his bed.
What I can’t remember, no matter how I try, is his face. Grandpa’s face. What it looked like. Its creases. Its blemishes. Its moles. Instead, in my head is a runny image of a face. Nothing is in focus. Just a brown blur with a crop of grey hair and the same nondescript, haunted, hollowed-out eyes that could be found on the face of any elderly black man who had spent the majority of his life in the South.
"I don’t have the beginning to this scene, no idea why we are sitting across from each other, so delighted as we are, rocking out with imaginary instruments."
And that’s it. That’s all I can remember about my grandfather, not his love of catfish and Royals baseball, not his fondness for toy models of classic cars. Nor can I recall any time spent with him before the cancer robbed him of so much. I can’t remember any fishing trips or any trips to the park. Can’t remember a time when he chased me in the yard with false teeth rattling in his hand. These moments, if they ever existed, are gone. Erased from my memory. All except for one.
It is one simple scene, years before. The two of us. Alone. Grandma out running errands, no one else in the house, and Grandpa is babysitting. However, in my faulty memory, Grandpa is played by Morgan Freeman.
We are in the living room. I am on Grandma’s plastic covered sofa; Grandpa is seated across from me in the easy chair. Between us on the coffee table are three discarded Jell-O Pudding Pop wrappers. I’ve eaten all three and am thinking about asking for a fourth, the benefit of Grandma being gone. We are both rocking, side-to-side, grinning at each other while playing air-guitar. We are mirror images, the two of us. I am either copying him or he is copying me. I don’t have the beginning to this scene, no idea why we are sitting across from each other, so delighted as we are, rocking out with imaginary instruments. There is no audio. I can’t hear my grandfather’s voice.
I see me—him—sitting there in my striped tee-shirt and missing front teeth, grinning goofily at my grandfather; so nakedly happy and uninhibited and trusting that I am sure I have never smiled like that since.
I look at my younger self and wonder what is going through his head. How much does he know about the world around him and his place in it? I don’t know. Will never know. I can’t remember, can’t fit myself inside such a small frame. He is a mystery to me. Just as I am to him. Forty years, for him, is an eternity, an inscrutable span of time.
And he is right.
We are strangers, he and I—separated by an impenetrable wall of years and experience. Our cells aren’t even the same now. His body, still coated with baby fat under tulip-soft skin, is free from the scars long since faded on my scraped and rusted self. We hardly look related. Still, I feel paternal and protective of my little me. I shudder for him. I want to reach out and shield him from the years ahead. From what comes next.
Remember this, I want to tell him. Remember this moment. This man. Your first father figure. You will have so few. Remember his loving, healthy face. His aged patchwork of wrinkled, brown skin. His scratchy cheeks. His sorrowful, smiling eyes.
Remember him for me.
But I am too distant. And it is much too late. They are ghosts now. The both of them.
So, I must content myself to watching these two strangers from afar, watch as they beam at one another. Laughing and strumming to music only they can hear.
W. Leander is a current degree candidate at The Mountainview Low Residency MFA in Fiction and Nonfiction.