My grandfather is pissed that he’s been waiting so long to be taken to his seat at Yankee Stadium. “What right does Yankee Stadium have to make people wait all this time?” he asks my mother. She sighs. “I know Dad,” she says, “They have no right.”
But my mother and grandfather aren’t at Yankee Stadium. They’re waiting for hospital transport to wheel my grandfather’s bed back to the room in the intensive care unit that he shares with a 50 year-old man dying of stage four liver cancer. My grandfather, you see, is also dying. Slowly. One toe at a time, in fact. That’s what happens when you’re ninety-three years old and your arteries, hard and clogged, block blood from traveling to your extremities. Your toes get gangrene, turn black, the doctors lop them off, and suddenly there are fewer and fewer little piggies left to go to market.
So, we let my grandfather believe that he’s in Yankee Stadium, because what harm could it do? Pretending that you’ve got a hot dog in one hand and a beer in the other as DiMaggio steps to the plate is much better than actually acknowledging the sterile stethoscopes and hourly interruptions by nurses checking your vitals to make sure you’re still alive.
I used to be terrified of death – the thought of ceasing to be kept me up at night. The only way to go, I decided, would be in my sleep, peacefully, after a long life full of love, adventure, and prestigious awards, like the Pulitzer, or at the very least, a participation medal in a triathalon. Death was something to be feared and respected, to be observed and discussed with a sacred whisper. When you were told that someone had died, or that someone was going to die – from cancer, from old age, from a catastrophic boating accident – you cried, even if there was no emotion behind it. You bowed your head, said, “I’m so sorry for your loss,” and cried because that was the appropriate reaction to death.
When I visited my grandfather in the hospital recently, during one of my rare journeys back to my hometown, my mother asked him, “How many toes do you have left, Dad?”
“Oh, I’ve been counting,” he said, “I have nine…or six, or seven…about.”
He has three.
Later that day, my mother played every ringtone from her iPhone in my grandfather’s ear as he tried to doze off. She also taps his forehead with plastic spoons, in order to keep him awake during the day so that he might sleep through the night, instead of tossing and turning and pulling off his heart monitor. Apparently, several days earlier, after she’d spent hours playing her iPhone noises above his head, he announced: “I have to say, this is the most confusing book I’ve ever read! All these bells and whistles – it never stops! I put it down, and then I pick it up again, and I just can’t get through it. I would not read this book again.” It should go without saying that he hasn’t read a book in a long time.
Once, a surgical resident left wound tape and scissors and gauze in my grandfather’s bed after dressing the holes where my grandfather’s toes once were. Later in the day, my mother noticed that my grandfather was still surrounded by these medical instruments. “What’s all this in here, Dad?” she wondered as she cleared away the refuse.
“Those are my friends,” he replied.
“Well how’d they get in your bed?”
My grandfather is (was?) a brilliant man, an empiricist, a voracious reader, whose brain is now fading to gray. Yet born from that gray is someone who’s a little dearer. A little funnier. A little easier to like. He thinks that the sensor attached to his index finger, used to monitor his heart rate, is a lit cigarette because of the bright red light located at the tip of it. He keeps offering it to my mother: “Put this out for me, will you?” She pretends as if she’s taking it from his fingers and stubbing it out in the imaginary ashtray, and this placates him for an hour or so before he asks about it again. When the doctors initially explained to him the purpose of the sensor, he thought about it for a minute, then asked, “So the red light means I’m still alive?”
“Well, hopefully it won’t be on forever.”
As a kid, I used to smile whenever someone yelled at me. If I tried to wipe the shit-eating grin off my face, I’d only end up laughing. It was a nervous tic, my body rebelling against propriety. I laugh about my grandfather dying because death makes me nervous. But I also laugh because my mother is a good storyteller and my grandfather, even under the haze of morphine, still has some wit about him. These are the people who comprise the fabric of my DNA; these are the people who taught me how to laugh in the first place. This my grandfather, who is called Baboo Bob because of the way he burps (a guttural emersion in the form of “baboooooo”), who once walked around for the entire day unaware of the helium balloon on a string that my mother had affixed to his rear belt loop, who eats everything – even filet mignon – with a spoon, who once informed us, after careful thought, that he could think of 57 different ways to tell time simply by using what he found in the kitchen. This is my mother, who blew spitballs at geriatrics during my great-uncle’s funeral, who spent months using herbs and poultices to try to zap the tumors off a beloved family dog, who taught me how to throw a baseball and who encouraged her young and impressionable children to yell random things like, “There’s something on your shoe!” at pedestrians as we zipped by in the family minivan. And this is me, who will always love a good fart joke, who really only likes parties that require costumes, who still drives around Los Angeles yelling to people about imaginary somethings on their shoes. These are the people who have taught me that there is no appropriate reaction to death. Leaving this world is tragic, yes, but it’s also part of the deal you struck when you got here. To leave it toe-less and without a sense of humor would be an absolute sin.