I struggle to formulate my ideas, a combination of my lack of Spanish knowledge and this sudden lump in my throat that I swore wasn’t there a minute ago when I was sitting at my desk prior to the end of class.
“Profesora… hay una emergencia …con mi familia,” I pause, searching for the right words within my limited vocabulary “mi abuelo…su corazon”
What was planned to be a quick explanation as to why I would have to miss class the following day turned into a sudden reality check for me. This wasn’t some excuse to make it a 3-day weekend in Vegas, nor was this about some distant relative I had met once or twice in my life. This was about my grandpa, someone profoundly impactful on my life, dying.
We’re all dying, I reminded myself, all approaching the irreversible state of death. My grandpa just happened to be placed on the fast track. And I had to catch up to speed to accept it.
Leaving the room to quickly walk across campus to my next class, I regained composure. Ok, I told myself, I can deal with this. I’ve been through it before. I mentally went through the plan in my head. Tickets bought, calls made. Now, just one more class, a bag to pack, and then straight to Los Angeles.
Soon after, I leave my house, take the Bart to Oakland, and convince myself that I’m not sleepwalking because everything seems unreal. Boarding the plane I feel like I’m being removed from a chapter in my life, propelled forward, and then descended somewhere in the unknown future. We land before I know it and I take a taxi to the hospital. I’m convinced I’m getting overcharged by the unsympathetic driver playing obnoxious ‘80s music, but reluctantly pay without any energy or time to argue, and enter the hospital I know all too well.
Room 575, the receptionist tells me, followed by directions on how to get there, which I mostly ignore, my mind lurking elsewhere. I wander around, take an elevator up, walk down long hallways.
“Cute boots,” a nurse remarks, and I nod in acknowledgement.
Finally, I hear my mom’s high-pitch teacher-sounding voice and am drawn to the room. She comes to hug me—it’s been months since I’ve been home—but my eyes and body are fixated on what I ascertain to be my grandfather lying on the bed, mouth wide open, eyes shut.
You’re prepared for this, I remind myself. I take off my backpack and remove the souvenirs I brought my grandpa from Prague.
“Honey, he’s not able to see it. Put it away, it’ll frustrate him”
I look at the Mozart coaster and Golem magnet, regretfully return them to my bag, and approach the bed. If only I had given them to him earlier…
“Look who’s here” my mom asks, her tone sounding like she’s speaking to one of her pre-school students rather than her 92 year old step-father. She formally introduces me with much excitement, and to both of our disbeliefs my grandpa opens one of his eyes. My mom facilitates the opening of his bruised, wrinkled arm and instructs me to grab his hand gently. With his other frail hand he tries to help pry open his other eye, and is able to successfully do so just a crack.
“Hi gramps” I say, as casually as I can, “It’s great to see you.” His tongue moves ever so slightly as if he’s trying to communicate but is unable to do so.
My mom breaks up the silence, “Chelsea flew all the way from Berkeley to see you.”
My mom has a way of loudly pronouncing the word Berkeley, finding every excuse she can to drop it into conversations with her friends, the cashier at grocery stores, every nurse or doctor who walks into the room. She cues me to take over the conversation, but I don’t know how. My grandpa has never been a man of much overt feelings. We could spend hours talking about literature or current affairs, but rarely ever feelings.
“I brought you some things from Europe. There’s this magnet…you remember that story, the story you told me, about…about Golem and Rabbi Le…Low…Loewi… I can’t remember, but it was a Rabbi. You never actually told me the whole story, but you referenced it before. Anyways I found it, a magnet with the image. It made me think of you”
I fought through. “In my thesis class this week my professor quoted a line, and I recognized it almost immediately. It’s Shakespeare. The line that ends in ‘Juliet and her Romeo’ or something similar to that. I’m butchering it, I can’t quite remember…”
“I’m sure if grandpa could speak right now, he would be able to recite the whole sonnet,” my mom interjected reassuringly.
“Yeah.” I agreed. And then, silence.
I wondered whether or not I should hug him. The bed was pretty tall and there was this plastic barrier so I couldn’t strategically figure out how that would work. Besides, my grandpa and I rarely hugged. He showed his affection towards his affirming statements of how proud he was of me.
“This thesis class, gramps, it’s great. Assuming I write the paper and get it approved, I get to graduate with honors. I’ll get to wear an extra cord…” my thoughts trailed off to graduation that he would not likely be able to make. Stay positive, I reminded myself. His eyes closed again.
The doctor came in to examine the heart monitor and other medical equipment, during which my mom whispered to me, “he’s had visitors all day. Friends, family, everyone in the area, but you were the only one he opened his eyes to see”
When the doctor left we resumed positions by the tall, isolating bed. My mom recalled memories of me as a child sitting on his lap learning how to use the “’puter” and memories of he and my grandma before she had gotten sick. A lifetime of stories.
Later my mom gets a phone call from my brother coming to pick me up. My mom would stay the night in the hospital.
“It’s been a long day for you, go get rest” she assured me.
She signaled me to say goodbye, but I was at a loss for words. I thought of the last scene to my favorite movie, Big Fish. How could I summarize what my grandpa meant to me at this very moment? How much of what I say even registers?
“You’re the best gramps in the whole world,” I said, feeling like I was 7 again instead of 21. I compromised with a kiss on the hand, and left.
Real life doesn’t have storybook endings. As the story of my grandpa’s life is coming to a close, mine is just beginning. I feel the duty to fill my story with meaning and with wisdom, as my grandpa has done over the course of his life. I was the one who got to leave the hospital room that night, and I assured myself that I wouldn’t take that freedom—that life—for granted. If not for myself, than for my gramps.