He was dying and we were in the house alone because I’d told the hospice nurse, Kelly, that she could take a few hours off. This was her first time going solo with a dying patient and she had this “I don’t know if I can do this” look about her. Every hour or so, she would go out to the front porch and smoke a cigarette and stare across the street as though she’d lost something there. She’d take the cigarettes and the lighter out of her purse and her hands would shake to the point where it would take three or four tries to get a cigarette lit. I promised her that I wouldn’t complain or tell anyone that she’d left. I’m sure a rule was being broken there, but I didn’t care. I could see her freaking out if anything bad happened, but I couldn’t fire her on the spot, especially after she told me all about her pitiful, country song inspired life story. For some reason I have the kind of face or way of carrying myself that makes people want to tell me their stories. My grandfather used to say people see something in me that I have yet to see in myself. “God’s calling you to something,” he would say. Personally, I’ve never seen it. Anyway, I’d been locked in that moment of life and death with him before and I always came out okay. I could have easily closed my door and cranked up the music to hide from the whole thing, but my grandfather raised me better than that. Sometimes I remember that fact and other times I choose to forget it.
As soon as she left for her extended break things got hard. My grandfather had messed his pants. I can’t seem to figure out whether I should say he soiled his pants or he messed his pants. I’ve taken all of these SAT prep classes and I’ve consulted two thesauruses, but no actual word seems right to say because regardless of how I say it, I can’t seem to find any dignity in it for him or for me. That’s the part that kills me. His life wasn’t supposed to end that way. I couldn’t help but believe that somehow, somewhere a promise was being broken.
I wiped him and cleaned him and changed his pajamas. He didn’t say anything because he was there but not there. Then I worried that he wasn’t clean enough, so I ran a tub full of water for him. I carefully took his clothes off and lifted him and carried him to the bath. I washed his hair first and when I rinsed it I squeezed the cloth and watched the water trickle in near perfect lines down his by then gaunt face. Then without ordination and without authority I let droplets of water drip over his head in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. Then I washed him clean.
I lifted him from the tub and carefully dried and dressed him. Then I propped him in his favorite chair and put fresh sheets on his bed. He was so light and so fragile when I carried him. I put him back to bed, and I held him for a moment. In that short and silent moment there was no one else in the whole world. Nothing outside of that room mattered. The clocks didn’t tick. The house didn’t creak. The dogs next door didn’t bark and cars didn’t drift down the street. All I could hear was the ragged rhythm of my grandfather’s quiet but labored breathing.
I pulled back the covers and put him back in his bed. Then I put his favorite album on, Dizzy Gillespie on the French Riviera. The first song on the album kills me every time I hear it, because it’s a nearly perfect song. It has no words, because it doesn’t even need any. The song “No More Blues” began with the sounds of waves and children laughing on the beach. “Someday,” he used to tell me. “Someday soon, you and I will pick a beach and sit there and watch the sea come in and out.”
This is as good as it will ever get for him, I thought. If he doesn’t die soon I’ll kill him. I’ll place a pillow over his face and with a little weight I’ll free him. And then for the rest of my life I’ll live as though his death and my part in it was an act of mercy and not of desperation. I’d do good things and in the end everything would be okay. But he looked so peaceful lying there. So I sat in his favorite chair and I waited for him to fade away and die naturally. Maybe I even prayed for it. And when I felt sure that he would not die I fell asleep.