IN THE LAST FEW YEARS OF MY GRANDPA'S LIFE, everything started falling apart. He couldn’t get up easily, and when he finally would after struggling for a few minutes, his face would be flushed red and he’d breathe loudly out of his mouth. Then he’d hobble away, his kneecaps clicking as he walked. I was so afraid of him falling, I would watch him all the way from the TV room to the kitchen as if I were holding him with my eyes. But he didn’t like for me to touch him.
“Don’t kiss me,” he’d say as I greeted every time I saw him towards the end of his life.
One day, when we were watching Wimbledon on TV, he fell asleep, slipped off the couch and slammed his head on the coffee table. I tried to catch him. He woke up with blood on his face. My brother was angry at me for not stopping his fall.
“I’m sorry,” I said, “he’s heavy.”
It reminded me of another time my brother got angry at me because I turned the TV up instead of listening to my grandpa’s story about coming home from war.
“He was crying you dumbass, couldn’t you see that,” my brother said. I felt awful. I guess I had zoned out.
Years later, when I was visiting my grandparents on a break from college, he fell in the bathroom. I was eating a sandwich and then I heard “bam!” from another room. When I opened the door, he looked like a little kid, sitting on the floor next to the toilet. But he couldn’t move. He couldn’t even do a sit up. I tried to lift him, but he didn’t want help. He wanted to get up on his own. He kept trying. But eventually, I had to call the police because I didn’t know what else to do. My grandma was freaking out.
“Oh Sam! Sam!” she said.
“Don’t you dare take me to the hospital,” he said, as if she were trying to hurt him. She said okay, she wouldn’t. But in the kitchen after dinner, she cried into my shoulder and told me that she might have to.
My grandpa loved to play chess. When we played, he would prop his elbow next to the board and hold the side of his face. What I remember about playing him was that he always took it seriously. It didn’t matter that I was a kid and he was a grown-man, let alone my grandfather. He would scour the board, his bifocals slipping to the end of his nose, and his face looming like a big moon over the game. The skin on his hands was so loose that the chess pieces left little dimples on the tips of his fingers. I used to watch his green eyes flick across the squares while he sighed in thought. His mouth usually hung open and tufts of hair poked out of his nostrils and ears. The hair on his head was wispy like a baby’s. He always won. One time he beat me in four moves.
On Sundays, he dressed up in a suit and tie with brown Oxford shoes so clean they looked made out of wood. When he drove, he couldn’t look both ways, so he just crept out into the street. I remember him slowly backing up out of a parking spot at the grocery store looking straight ahead. It terrified me.
He routinely guilted my grandma into giving him more wine, and when that didn’t work, he’d raise his voice till she filled his glass to the top. I hated the way he talked to her, but I knew he was just getting old, so I never said anything.
One day, at a pizza parlor after church, my grandpa asked me why we worshipped God. “God doesn’t need me to tell him how great he is,” he said. I thought it was an interesting question, but I also thought, why is he asking me? He’d attended church for 85 years. “I don’t know,” I said and quickly stuffed my face with pizza. I thought I had an answer, but I didn’t want to make it seem like I was contradicting him.
I contradicted him one night when I was doing homework in high school. He was sitting at the kitchen table in my parents’ home, doing a crossword puzzle after dinner. My mom was doing the dishes and my dad and grandma were upstairs. I was reading Hamlet and trying to understand what Hamlet meant by “To be or not to be.” Each time I read it, its exact meaning escaped my grasp — just barely, every time, like it was running too fast for me to catch. But I thought it was perfect. Hamlet didn’t know what to think or how to feel or even how to express himself and it resonated deep down in his being. I imagined Hamlet being under the shadow of a hundred falling arrows and then fighting off a surging wave from the shore with a sword, cutting the streams of water to pieces like paper. I felt like Hamlet was as confused and filled with desire as I was. I told this to my grandpa who, propping his elbow on the table and looking at me through glasses at the end of his nose, told me that it was the most famous mixed-metaphor in the history of English literature.
“No it isn’t,” I said, not knowing what a mixed-metaphor was. “It makes sense.”
What I meant was that it made sense to me. All I remember of the next fifteen minutes is looking down at the pages of my book while he got angrier and angrier and I kept saying it was possible to take arms against a sea of troubles.
“It doesn’t make sense,” he finally yelled.
I don’t know why my mom just kept doing the dishes.
Years later, as he was dying, I remember thinking how strange he looked. He was unconscious. His body looked alien and shapeless but still very heavy. His head was strapped up with tubes so I couldn’t see his face and he writhed and kicked his legs out of his bed sheets every few minutes. I looked at him and thought about playing chess and eating pizza, about his polished Oxford shoes, full glasses of wine, Wimbledon, and mixed metaphors. I remembered the time we spent together. I went up to him and touched his face, felt the stubble of his cheek, the contour of his arm and kissed him on the elbow. Then I watched my brother, followed by my father, who was his baby, kiss him goodbye. In my heart, although it wasn’t always clear, I understood what he meant.
Nate DiMauro is a writer and teacher living on the north shore of Long Island.
"Untitled" by Steven Kennedy