By Molly Speacht
He died on my mother’s birthday, a few weeks before Christmas. We were in a hospital when we found out about his death; not the one who would be soon placing a white sheet over my grandfather’s body, but the one my mom’s friend worked at. I was young, seven or eight, and I can only remember certain things: the loud cries of my mother and the touch of her sweater as I wrapped my arms around her back. The moment seemed frozen in time, and I tried to remember everything; from my first memories of his creased fingers to the last time I held his hand.
I only saw my grandfather only a few times a year. He didn’t like to travel like my grandmother because he might miss a key football game. But when I did see him, I looked forward to hearing the sound of him rummaging in his pockets for something. After a brief period of clanging coins, my grandpa would present me with a penny, a nickel, a dime, and a quarter. I could always count on this gift, this money that would buy a piece of gum or a sticker at the ice-cream shop down the street.
The last time I saw him he couldn’t put his hands in his pockets. My family and I were in Sacramento for Thanksgiving when we got the call that he had gotten into a car accident. I didn’t understand why we had to leave so quickly. I wanted pumpkin pie and mashed potatoes. My mom and I left that day. It was the first time we had ever been separated from my father on Thanksgiving.
We drove to San Francisco and got on the first flight to Lansing, Michigan. I loved airports, and I wanted to go into to all of the gift shops and get candy and coloring books. My mom tugged my hand passed the sparkling windows painted with magazine covers and “I Love SF” memorabilia.
“I want a coloring book,” I planted my feet in front of the open door of a crowded bookstore.
“We have to catch our plane, we have to go,” the lids of her eyes were still red with lack of sleep and lack of dryness since we had left Sacramento, “We don’t have time.”
“But I’ll be bored on the plane.”
“Okay, but get one quickly, we don’t have long.” She tried to sound tender and understanding, like in some way I did understand the weight of what was happening, despite my attempts to hide it.
She was wrong. I didn’t understand. At my great-grandmother’s funeral, I brought my talking Barbie doll and laughed when plastic figure let out a recorded quip in the middle of the service. I never knew my great-grandmother nor did I truly understand why my grandmother’s eyes cried hot tears that dripped down her cheeks and neck. I didn’t know why she felt that way, or why anyone felt that way. Not until I arrived in Michigan.
The dirt encrusted snow crunched under my ill-equipped sneakers as we walked toward the automatic glass doors of the hospital. I shamefully have to admit I was thrilled to be in snowy Michigan, as I hoped to make the snowmen and angels I had watched other kids make in movies. The hospital was whiter inside than it was outside and the halls were long and intimidating. I didn’t see my grandfather for days. I watched as relative after relative entered the room while I played Mad-Libs and ate Hostess cupcakes. My mom said I would see him soon. But soon took forever.
I finally entered that forbidden room holding my mother’s hand. He didn’t look the way I remembered him. He didn’t have any pockets. He wasn’t even wearing jeans. A thin sheet covered him, tubes ran from his arms, and his bright eyes were closed. I didn’t know what to say; all I could do was approach his bed and grasp his wrinkled palms. The bumpy line on the television next to him made a sharp spike.
“He’s happy,” the nurse put her hand on my shoulder. “You made him happy.”
And just for a second, I thought I saw him smile.
After that I thought he was going to be fine. I thought in my elementary mind that I had saved him, that my small, chubby fingers healed all of his wounds.
That’s what I thought about in the hospital cafeteria the day we found out he didn’t make it. I toned out my mother’s sobs and thought about how I hadn’t saved him, how the nurse that day had somehow lied to me. But then I realized why I was confused, why I didn’t understand before. I didn’t really understand why my mom’s eyes were scarlet in the airport that day or why my relatives dabbed their eyes with white tissue paper and talked in hushed tones in the hospital waiting room whenever they thought I wasn’t looking or listening. I had never experienced this kind of tragedy before. But in that moment, in my mother’s arms, I finally understood.