It is 7:00am, I hear the girls laughing as they ask Grace for breakfast. “Grapefruit, Grandma, with sugar sprinkled on top!” says Katie, and Jessie, “I want cinnamon rolls, Grandma!” They’re getting ready for school and having breakfast as I am getting dressed in our room. Steve has to drop them off so early to go to work, but I don’t mind. I’m Grandpa, the chauffeur extraordinaire. I walk out to the dining room to see two beautiful faces smiling as Grace pours them milk and orange juice. I sit down at the head of the table to a plate of buttered toast and a glass of grape fruit juice. But, it is only a dream, I lie awake in bed, eyes squeezing shut to try to get it back for just a minute. The girls are grown, old man, they’re in their twenties now with children of their own. Grace is gone. I roll to the edge of the bed, stand up, and get dressed: grey cotton slacks, soft and thin blue undershirt, suspenders, and my fedora. Looks good enough for me.
So this is what my life has come to, walking every morning to the diner with the Signal in hand. My one leg straining and aided by the old wooden cane whose worn handle knob is smooth and kind to my hand. At least it seems my breathing has gotten easier. Nothing new today; boys and girls meander to school hesitantly and I wish I could tell them to enjoy it while they’re young.
My tall glass of milk is perspiring and the paper underneath has a growing wet ring outlining the glass. The paper tells me of transgressions by my favorite sports heroes, has no one got a conscience anymore? “Would you like some more milk sir? Maybe a muffin, we have Bran, your favorite…” the waitress asks me as I peruse the paper’s dismal news. “Yes, that sounds nice, thank you,” I answer her. Bran muffins have always been my favorite, best when fresh out of the oven after Grace and the grand kids baked them. Oh, the grand kids, they’re so grown up now. They’ve made lives for themselves that are so rich and full, I wish Grace could see them as I do. They are so busy all of the time.
Two booths over a young man and his girl are playing hooky from school. Those days seem like just yesterday to me. Grace was still in high school when we met and fell in love, so beautiful and fresh faced. Summer went by so fast and we stole moments whenever we could, she surely missed a lot of morning class time then. She was so beautiful, brown thick hair, smooth skin, and oh how she could dance.
The boy has gotten up and moved to the side of the booth that the girl is on, bold move. They both face me and are laughing and talking. The boy squeezes his face against the girl’s neck and she glances up at me. My smile says, “Go on, enjoy it, I won’t look.” Back to my paper now, reminiscing can only take me so far.
“Jack, is that you? Are you there?” Just the day staff walking by the room’s door again, I guess. The home is bustling and workers are cleaning, old women wail and moan and snore all around me. I thought I saw Jack just now, but it was probably just my imagination. This bed is so uncomfortable, if only someone would put some more pillows beneath me. I wonder if Jack is watching me now, if he is trying to pull me to him. Pull me into his arms and dance like we used to, kiss my forehead and tell me how beautiful I am. He’s been out of my life for so long now, although I can still hear his voice and see his smiling face and whiskers.
Again, Jack’s face appears in the doorway as if beckoning me to join him on the other side of the threshold. He is asking for me to have breakfast with him, a game is on later, too. He wants to watch it with me. Football is just not the same now that he is gone, hasn’t been for years. We would watch it faithfully, sometimes with the kids, sometimes alone. Even the sounds of the games being on in the background were the best thing when I was working in the kitchen. It was so soothing, so familiar. It must be how heaven is; watching games, having endless breakfast and leisurely afternoons. Jack must be breathing well there; he must be enjoying the outdoors again. The sounds of the neighborhood probably pour through the house’s windows like a constant humming breeze.
I lie here, uncomfortable, intermittently hot and cold, while the woman next to me talks gibberish and the women down the hall is calling again for the “lady” to come give her a drink. How do they not answer her just to make her be quiet? Jack would handle this for me, if he were still here.
My milk is gone and my breakfast eaten, the paper is read save for my favorite part that only comes on Sundays. The Funnies, the laughter slipped into my morning and the link between my granddaughters and me. The girls lived down the street as children and always loved coming up to our house and reading the Funnies. Their smiles would brighten any room, I was so lucky to be such a part of their lives when they were of formidable age. Their children will find other things for amusement, with the Internet and so much television dominating their young lives. So many memories of the kids fill my mind, I wonder if they remember, too. Building sand castles, playing in the turtle pool on hot days, creating detailed cities in the grass with sticks off the tree; these play times flood back like yesterday happenings.
I decide to take a walk and give a quick nod to the couple. The girl smiles coyly and quickly turns her attention to her fawning beau. I catch my reflection in the window’s glass, boy, is that a scary sight! Time has not been kind to my skin; it droops like an old shirt here and there. Years in the sun as a lifeguard, soldier, and doting grandfather have left me tanned and wrinkled-but smiling nonetheless. I know the girls always loved to examine my rough hands, all the shades of skin on my arms, and my peppered beard and mustache. (They were also quite fond of my big Santa Claus belly.) Funny how after years of being fit it can all turn soft and go to the middle.
Any how, where shall I head today? Maybe I’ll head home and visit with the neighbors; they’re always out doing something or other in the yard. The house doesn’t call to me as it did when Grace was inside, so there is no need to rush home now. My pace is slow and steady and my eyes bounce from one side of the road to the other. A mother is pushing a baby carriage, pink. A few young boys carry gloves and bats and a ball. I see the mailman heading towards my neighborhood, on time as always. “Shouldn’t all the kids be in school by now?” I ask him as he pulls up next to me in his truck. “I guess some of the schools are off today…” he replies and nods as he drives on and heads to the next few houses.
I’m hungry. My hands shake so much I can barely get my food to my mouth. I’m so lucky to have my family around to help sometimes but when they are not here it’s hell to get it all in. They feed me and laugh when they get food on my chin. Who would have ever thought my grand kids would be feeding me? I sure as hell never did. I never knew I could be so helpless, just like an infant. I am trapped here in this bed, in this used up and tired body, in my mind some days. Jack pops in and out and reminds me that I lived such a full life. I have raised four children, watched them grow and was surrounded by their friends and then their children. I’ve been so lucky to watch my family grow and grow. I think John came to visit and brought a Christmas tree. The holidays have always been my favorite time of year. (Maybe it’s also because I get to celebrate my birthday, too.) The kids looked at me kind of funny when I say John was here, I wonder why that is. I saw him clearly; he was so much like Jack in his face and hands. Just like Steve, too. Those boys both look so much like their father; they even have his round tummy. When I hold Steve’s hand I see Jack’s and feel Jack’s hand if I close my eyes; the big strong fingers and rough palms with soft, thin skin on top.
The ladies who work here tell me how beautiful my grandchildren are. I agree, they’ve grown so much and my great grand kids are even cuter. I tell them that I’ve got grand kids and great grand kids all up the coast and across the US. They act impressed but maybe it is just because they miss their own children. Sometimes it seems like they never go home, there is always someone poking at me or asking me how I am doing. I use the down time to think about Jack and I back in Chicago and the start of our life together.
Summer days in Chicago were balmy and too hot to ever cool off completely. I spent my days at the lake with my girl friends; we would ride the train into the city and head to the water each morning. Our swimsuits covered much more skin then, you know, left more to the imagination. There were dances then, at least a few times a week. We could walk everywhere then and I would dance all evening and walk all the way home with no fear. Not like today, everyone is crazy nowadays. I met Jack at a dance, I was just fifteen. He took me to movies, just thirty five cents back then to go to the movies; can you believe it? Jack was a lifeguard and he was older than me. I’d watch him swim with broad, strong strokes when he would step down to cool off. He was so tan and so handsome. You know, no one falls in love so young anymore but we made it work, we did. He told me he knew I was the one; I was sixteen when he proposed. There was no question he was the one for me. We walked everywhere because neither of us had a car, but we didn’t care. As long as we were together we were happy.
Jessie is having a baby now. Three generations past our own! We’re finally going to have a boy in the family and in California, Jack would be so proud. I’m sure he sees her growing belly from up above but I wish he could be here to congratulate her. He’s missed the births of too many great grandchildren. She’s so close too, like Kate. So close, but he is so far away, at least to them. He’s here with me, a faint shimmer to his skin as if he flew through morning mist and appeared at my window.
Grace’s face appears and fades away with the afternoon sun’s rays on the carpet. I feel as if our worlds are mixed up like stirred coffee and cream. Sometimes I wonder if she sees me or hears me when I talk to her. It probably looks so funny when I am talking to no one but I want her to hear my voice if she can. I tell her I’ll see her soon and that I miss her so much. I tell her that I see her like she was as a young mother, vibrant and so full of life. She inherited her mother’s vivacious attitude and her father’s love of nature. She had such a green thumb and just loved being out in the yard, working on the bushes and flowers everyday.
It seems like these last few days she has been around more and more. I wonder if things are going to change for me. I wonder if I will be with her again soon. Is Heaven ready for me?
I’ve grown so tired these last few days. I feel like time is going by so slowly and I hear more and more of Jack’s voice. I hear his prayers now, even when I do not see his face as much. Sometimes I think I am always eluding him. I told Kate the other day that I thought he was around when she was here. I was surprised to hear her say that she was glad, that she hopes it is him. I told her that he was angry with me for always being a few steps ahead of him, out of his grasp. I sent him away with my words, told him to stop pestering me and let me sleep. I think she thinks I am pretty funny, but I know she understands why he would be here. I know it’s about my time to go.
My sister’s life went down this path; it looks familiar because I remember her walking it. She just stopped eating and started sleeping all the time. And now I am, too. And I know that I have to go soon. I think it’s time to tell Jack I am coming home to him. I’ve got to let go.
The nurses are bringing me food but I will not eat it anymore. I have been sleeping for almost forty-eight hours now. I hear a lot more voices around me than I am used to and I see the faces of my past. Jack’s voice dominates the rest but I recognize my father, my mother, and my daughter, Dianne. Dianne was gone too soon, stolen from me. No mother should lose a daughter. I close my eyes and see them all, they’re healthy and happy and all together somehow. Will the family here know that I have gone willingly if I go now?
My breath comes in short, gasps and I try to wait as long as possible between each one. For some reason, it is easier to be still than to breathe. Is this how it is for everyone at the end? These last few weeks, months even, have been so hard for me. My body has failed me time and again and my legs have all but given up. The physical therapist here is a strong, kind hearted African American man. He was so patient with me over the past few months, but he too has finally stopped coming to get me. I guess there comes a time when one has to give in to their body and be done with movement. I feel like I have slowly reverted back to the baby I came into this world as. The women around me have tormented me with their constant babble and inconsiderate loud voices. My children have visited but not enough to make the place I am staying bearable. I have asked so many times to go home with them but I know in my heart that they cannot take me. Sometimes I say it just to show them I want to. My thoughts have been so jumbled lately, as if I cannot decipher between dreams, reality, and the television’s stories I hear all around me. I’m letting go of it all, at last.
Sleep is my savior and yet, even now I can tell my dreams are slowing. They are moving towards a clean, soft light that’s pink and white like a fading sunset. Jack’s face has become clearer and clearer and he has not left me for hours now. I can almost feel his hands holding mine, lifting me from the bed to stand and walk with him.