(Note: this is a sad story. If you’re not in the mood, you should skip it.)
One day in May 2009 I nearly had a panic attack when, during my afternoon run, I saw a crow on the sidewalk lying on his back and taking big, slow breaths.
I stopped running and walked up to him slowly. I was wrong — he wasn’t breathing at all. It was the wind making it look like he was breathing. Once I was close enough I could see that a cat had gotten to him.
But the sight of his chest pointed at the sky nearly had me in tears.
* * *
Aging is a non-stop succession of large and small damages.
I remember in my mid-thirties being proud of how smooth my hands were. A few years later they weren’t smooth at all.
Some damages heal, some heal part way, and some don’t heal at all. My hands are never going to be smooth again.
We’re all battle-scarred ships at sea that can never reach port. We patch up as best we can and keep sailing, and we hope our damage doesn’t sink us.
* * *
In early 2009, a few months before I saw that crow, I got a phone call from my Mom: my grandfather had just had a massive stroke. I got in an airplane right away and flew back east to see him.
He lived in a very small town in south New Jersey. Much of my family still lives in that town. I flew to Philly and then went to Elmer Hospital, where he was.
When I got there he was already not talking and his eyes were closed, but he was alive. We all talked to him. I don’t know if he could hear or understand — I kind of think not — but you have to talk anyway.
He was a great man. I don’t need to convince you by listing all his accomplishments. One of the many will do: he built a swimming pool for the town back before the polio vaccine, and he helped keep that swimming pool running for decades. It’s still there. (I went swimming there just this past summer.)
* * *
He lasted a few nights. Each night somebody different stayed with him. It was my turn the night he died.
He was in ICU rather than in the hospice, and so he had a blood oxygen monitor hooked up to him, and I watched it slowly climb down over 10 hours.
His breathing had become slow, with long pauses between breaths. The pauses kept getting longer. Eventually, around dawn, one of the pauses was just not followed up with another breath.
That was it. As peaceful as that. Which he deserved.
* * *
It would be fair to call my grandfather a sexist, I guess, like every man of his era — but he fully supported his wife when she, in her 40s, went back to school to get a college degree and a master’s degree. (She became a public school librarian.) He supported his two daughters — one a banker, one a physicist-turned-programmer (Mom!) — and I never ever heard him say a word about “women’s work” or other nonsense.
He did all the cooking! (He loved cooking for people, and he was great at it.)
But when I was a boy he did teach me to always hold the door open for women. I remember asking him why. He said something like “stronger people always have to help weaker people.”
That’s sexist, for sure, if you take the implication that women are weak and men are strong. And I thought about it a lot. I knew that women were entirely capable of opening doors! I’d seen them do it.
I worked on the problem in my head. And I watched him, and I saw that he helped everybody. From the volunteer fire department to the cemetery association to the swimming pool to the church — to his family and friends and everyone — he was the guy who helped. Every day.
If there was a real-life Doctor Who for that small town, he was it. (A Doctor who falls asleep at night watching the Phillies game.)
And so I turned that little thing — opening the door for women, and why we do it — into something else, as simple, and non-sexist, as this: it’s my duty to help anyone, any time, if I can. Even when it means sacrifice.
That’s my entire ethical basis, and I owe it to him.
* * *
I’m good at staying up late. Oh so good. I’d been practicing my entire life so that I could stay up late with my grandfather that night.
I thought I’d get over being in the room in a week or two. It’s a hard, hard thing, even when it’s as peaceful as one could possibly hope.
I didn’t get over it. A little bit, sure. But it’s damage. It’s heartbreak.
If I close my eyes and think about it, I’m right back there. It’s a vivid night and I feel it all again.
* * *
Detail: he was in a coma, and his lips were drying out, and so we put some petroleum jelly on a Q-tip and applied that to his lips every couple hours.
You don’t imagine that kind of thing in advance, and at first I felt like I was interfering with his dignity. But I did it anyway, because he needed it. I was able to stop my hands from shaking. I helped.
* * *
Dawn came. I didn’t want the family — his wife and daughters and grandchildren and nieces — to have to keep going through this.
I told him that the women were coming soon. Those were the last words he heard. He performed his last gallant act.
* * *
Pop-pop. That’s what we kids called him. Pronounced like Pup-up.
* * *
Another thing you don’t imagine, having been in the room once, is that you’ll be in the room again.
This year — just a couple months ago — I was. Another family member, another great man who was here on this earth to help. This time there were a few of us staying up with him every night.
It took me six years to be able to write about my grandfather. Pop-pop. It will take another six years for this.
* * *
It just never occurred to me that I’d be in the room again. Now I know. If it can happen once, it can happen again and again.
The heartbreak is daily. There’s no getting over it.
* * *
Well, maybe I shouldn’t end so bleakly. There’s damage, and not all of it heals — how could it? — but you learn how to live with it. And the good thing that lives on is just that you have to help people.
This is my story, and everybody has their own story of heartbreak. Each person walks around with some amount of damage — and it’s more every day — and all we can do is try to help.