When I was younger, I got engaged to a boy I hardly knew. The relationship wasn’t healthy on a variety of levels. Thanks to a mulishness of both age and personal character flaws, I refused to call it off even when warned by family members and friends. In about a year, I’d isolated myself from all of them (save the not-so-great fiancé.) Stubborn streak aside, I bear an enormous resemblance to a certain lion that trafficked with red-shoe-wearing gals, a walking hay bale, and a dude made of metal. Though I was a few decades late for that audition, I’m a shoe in when they produce a re-make.
Point being, I was too afraid to call it off. I’d gotten myself into this mess, pushed away life-long friends and my beloved family and wore the proof on my lil’ sausage finger. I didn’t know how to back out even though I desperately wanted to. I’d turned my back on my family, friends, religion, and way of life. How could I ask for help and bear the shame?
One day, I got a phone call—the first from my family in months. My grandfather was in the hospital. He’d gone to flip the light switch and couldn’t do it. A brain tumor; inoperable. Two weeks from the discovery of this terrible tumor, he was bedridden, his hands tied to the bedrails to keep from hurting himself. Not long after that, he fell into a coma. The doctors were warning us that he didn’t have much time. “Come to the hospital. Now.”
The fiancé refused to take me so I called up my best friend and hoped he’d take pity enough on me to grant me this favor, even though he’d been shunned in the great-fiancé-fallout. He agreed and I offered up one of the first prayers I’d uttered in weeks. The waiting room was small, packed with my cousins, siblings, aunts, uncles, and parents. Each family was being given a few solitary moments to speak to my grandfather while the rest of us waited our turn. I held my best friend’s hand, terrified to be in the same room with people I’d known for the whole of my life. No one spoke to me and I didn’t try to change that. My parents were busy dashing to and from my grandfather’s room, consoling grieving children and burying their own. I kept my distance.
Too soon, it was our family’s turn. My friend stayed behind, offering me a shaky smile. We crowded into a tiny darkened room. The monitors were silent, emerald pulses of light splaying over the floor and the cutting, pungent scent of disinfectant barely masking dying cells and fragility. There were perhaps four chairs, reserved for my mother and elder sisters. We barely fit. I stood alone in the far left corner, a place I’d chosen.
No one spoke. Tears rolled down drawn faces, sniffles interspersing small hiccoughing sobs from men and women alike. I don’t remember if I shed tears, though I knew they danced in my vision.
For the first time in months I was in the same room with siblings and parents I loved. I was with them but not a part of them. They clung to one another, heads bowed in united grief, fingers gripping each other’s like mini-talons and just as fierce. My youngest siblings cried loudly and were scooped up in the embrace of the older children or my mother. My older brother stood behind the closed door, now and then reaching out to stroke my mother’s back; whether to offer comfort or be reassured by it, I do not know.
I wrapped my arms around myself and stood alone.
It was then that I remember a scorching wetness blazing over my cheek. I stared at the prone form of my grandfather, a man a hardly knew because of some difficult family dynamics. I should have been grieving for his dwindling life, should have grieved for the lost chance to know him--but I wasn’t. I was grieving for the life I’d thrown away. I could not seek the comfort of my sisters’ arms, nor lean against my brother while he stifled sound. I dared not. I had done this. What right had I to ask?
And then my father crossed the room and wrapped an arm around my shoulders. Wordless, he tucked me against his side. I felt the heat from his body and breathed in that fragrance that spells, “D-a-d.” He and I hadn’t spoken for almost two years unless it was to shout at one another yet…he was the first and only one to cross that room and pull me close. I was selfishly grateful for my ailing grandfather just so that I could be held by my dad.
While my family sobbed for a diminishing life, I sobbed for the rebirth of one.
I believe that while my grandfather was suspended between this world and the next, he orchestrated that moment. I believe that he took the hand of a broken lost girl, clasped the hand of a son he loved dearly, and brought the two together. I learned later that my mom watched me standing alone and guided my dad.
Did my grandfather whisper to her? I don’t know but I believe that without words, he guided my parents across the room to me and saturated that embrace with love and forgiveness. He gave that gift to me as one of the last gifts he could give and it saved my life.
What happened after that? I reconciled with my family, broke it off with the fiancé, and married the best friend.
I’ve learned much of my grandfather since then and I know he was a great man. I know he lived a full and satisfying life in which he helped many and loved even more. He raised my father to be a rare sort of man—the best kind of man. My grandfather was an exemplary human being who left the world a better place than when he arrived in it. It doesn’t surprise me that in his last moments on earth, he still worked to change and save lives…
Not the least of which was mine.