The first dead person I ever knew was my grandfather. That is, I knew him when he was alive and then he was dead, and the reality of that transition was something new to me. I didn’t live my life in complete oblivion. I knew of other people who had died, in that vague sense that they were no longer there—classmates, an assistant principal—but I never went to the counseling sessions they offered at school because none of those people were people I knew; I only knew of them. I didn’t cry. I felt the heaviness of other people’s sadness around me and that was enough. I was touched by others’ grief because I knew it might one day touch me, but that’s as far as it got. That was the closest to death I’d ever wandered until I was twenty.
In the hospital, my grandfather already looked more like a corpse than a person. He sunk into the bed like a bags of beans and his teeth were gray and worn. And then the nurses came to shift him and drew the curtain to preserve some dignity and I burst into tears and my sister burst into tears and our grandmother said, come on, girls, none of that.
When the cousins came the next day, my sister and I were pros at soothing the sick. We sat calmly by him as they shed tears, and I held his hand, which was slick and sweaty. After a while, he shook my hand and reached for my grandmother’s, which hurt only for a second. I watched the oxygen mask slip down his nose. It would get adjusted from time to time. The skin was raw from the wet plastic and I wished someone could fix it, that one thing.
He could only suck on a sponge stick dipped in sugar water. When he could speak a little, my grandfather told me that water was his favorite drink. I tried to laugh and said that surely it was beer, and he gave me wide eyes and said no, it was water. This was a man who loved food, but hated garlic passionately. Who ate the same brand of cereal every morning because my grandmother insisted it was his favorite kind. Who was British to the bone and loved tea like any good Englishman. But when we die, we forget quickly the frivolities of life. And I can no longer drink water without getting existential about it.
When people die, we like to make small meanings of everything. It comforts us. My grandfather died in the morning, five minutes after my grandmother arrived at the hospital. My dad was supposed to be taking over from my aunt but my grandmother insisted she wanted to go. So they said he waited for her. But I always think about the morning they were packing from visiting us in New York, and leaning over the stair railing to hear my grandfather say, I can pack my own damn socks.
My grandfather was always old. Even when I used to swing by his arms and propel myself up his knees and do a flip onto the carpet, even when we sat on his lap and squished his cheeks together and made him say oy oy oy again and again, he had that old man smell. Except it’s not really old man smell, more like aftershave. And sometimes when I lean in to kiss my boyfriend, he smells just like my grandfather. And it’s not creepy, but comforting, the way hugging a teddy bear when you’re way too old to hug one is comforting.
My grandfather taught me to play whist. And rummy. But the game we loved best was Canasta, and he always knew how to keep cards in his hand and how to pull out a pair at just the right time when the pack was frozen. In Canasta, you build points by putting same-numbered cards together with a partner. There are wild cards and different cards have different values, but the highest valued card is a red three. If you got all four red threes in one hand, they counted for double. My grandfather once dealt himself all four red threes at the beginning of the game and we teased him of cheating, but there’s no one who would cheat less than my grandfather; though perhaps that’s too idyllic. We still play Canasta when the family’s all together—my parents, my sisters, and me, because there are times when family traditions are more than just patterns of behavior. Like how my sister has the score sheet from the last game she ever played with him hanging on the fridge still.
My grandfather was a quiet man. He was the type of person who only ever spoke when he had something to say. He whispered to my aunt on his deathbed and she told us in the pub after he was gone, when we all sat around with our beer and no water and said she’d like to think the words were, I am dying. That he was self-aware and could make some final declaration of truth even as his lungs filled with fluid and slowly drowned. But I can’t help but feel his words were, am I dying? A yearning to gain some final piece of knowledge, not give it. To me, that’s more scientific. More truthful.
I did not go to my grandfather’s funeral. He died in the hospital and by the time funeral arrangements were made, I was back in America. My father offered a last-minute plane ticket back, but I knew my grief could only be counseled by falling back into routine. That’s how it’d always been—a student dies, everyone mourns, but we all continue our daily schedules, we all go on and on until the next one goes.
I wish I could say that I had some great insight into life or death from this. But many people have had their grandfathers die. Many people have known far more people to die than I have. I once worked for a woman in her mid-seventies, who complained when she was invited to a funeral because she didn’t want to go to another one. But that doesn’t make my grandfather’s death any less. Grief is something we hold in us, each little piece hoping to give us some greater understanding.
I remember once in school, we watched a movie during which one of the characters dies. I can’t remember the movie, only that the young girl finds out that the person has died and runs crying. I remember it because when I watched it, I laughed. The girl’s sudden onset of distress felt like an absurd distance from anything I’d experienced. The absurdity is what made me laugh, not the dead person.
At twenty years old, my grandfather died. An inevitability that finally caught up with me. It was with a sad excitement that it happened, because I could finally join in with everyone else’s grief and say silently, yes, I know some of what you feel. That connectedness within the disconnection from someone we love.
E. Pashley earned her MFA in creative writing from Emerson College. More of her writing can be found on her blog, alcoholcats.com, where she writes about shelter cats.