I am sitting in a chair in a semi-private hospital room, waiting for my grandfather to die. Not waiting in the sense of wanting, but in the sense of having accepted what a couple of years of bodily deteriorations have reduced him to, and so simply attending the end. And, yes, often I do want him to die, only because he seems to be in so much discomfort. I want him to have a bit of peace.
“Hey, Billy, how ya doin?” I ask.
He says nothing, maybe because he simply does not hear me—his hearing has been bad for the last ten or fifteen years and he wears his hearing-aid reluctantly—but maybe because there isn’t much to say anyway. In happier times, before the sequestering in a nursing home and finally the hospital, his answer would be “Waitin for the time to die,” and now when that answer is literally appropriate—well, I am glad he doesn’t hear me, and doesn’t answer. A nurse enters the room.
She nods at me and then scrunches up her face into something approximating a smile. She walks over to the side of my grandfather’s bed.
“And how are we doing today, Mr. Albertson?” she asks him.
He doesn’t answer but just lies there. She lifts him up a little, adjusts him. She sets some pills on his nightstand and tells him she’ll be back later to give them to him.
“Now don’t you fall asleep on me, you hear,” she says. “I don’t want to have to wake you up and make it all harder than it should be for both of us.”
Billy says nothing. When the nurse leaves the room I go over to his bed.
“Hey, Billy,” I say quietly. I rub my hand over his short white hair, and the backs of my fingers along the stubble on his cheeks and chin. When he used to be more alert I’d tease him about his facial hair.
“Not gonna shave today, Billy?”
And his answer was always the same: “The world shaves me every day.”
The nurse returns about a half hour later.
“Time for your pills, Mr. Albertson.”
I help her sit him up in bed and I take the cup of water and the pills from her when I see her roll her eyes.
“Make sure he doesn’t just spit them back into the cup,” she says, and walks out.
Billy is trying to lie on his side.
“No, Billy, let’s take your pills first and then you can lie back and take a nice long nap.”
He looks at me. I offer the pills and he takes them from my hand. As he drinks, water drips down his chin and onto the hospital garb, like an ellipsis.
He hands me back the cup, and I see the pasty remnants of half-chewed pills at the bottom. It hardly seems to matter.
“OK, Billy, that’s OK. That’s good.”
I tell myself that I will make sure that he has them in his food the next time, crushed over some ice cream or dissolved in his beloved lime soda, but I find it hard to be as adamant as the nurse about the regimen. The man is dying. Why do his last years, or months or days, have to include badgering about medication of dubious effectiveness?
I throw the cup in the trash and settle him in for the night: maneuver him into a position about half-way between being on his back and being on his side; make sure his pajamas are not cinching him; make sure that he is covered up.
He has changed physically since arriving in the hospital. The most noticeable change is in his face, which is now sunken and gaunt. He looks like he is starving, shriveling.
He has undergone quite a divestment on his way to this place. He’s been removed from his comfortable little existence of domestic rituals in his daughter’s (my mother’s) home. Life used to consist of light meals, sweet milky tea, sitting in his armchair at the living room window, and naps. He seemed content even though he never really did anything. We would often arrive home to find him at the kitchen table, playing with a bit of thread, or coloring. The coloring bothered me at first because it seemed like such a blatant regression, but my mother convinced me that, as she put it, “it helps him pass the time.” The coloring books were filled out with no attention to representation or verisimilitude. They were populated with green horses with pink heads and orange hooves. Some of the people were completely blue—face, hands, hair, clothing, everything—as if someone had thrown a can of paint over them. The sky was rich purple and the sun shone brown.
As soon as he arrived at the hospital he was stripped of the meager possessions he did have—his watch, his ring. He was relegated to skim milk in his tea, which reduced it to a greenish liquid which was also rarely hot enough. Meals were part of what the nurse called the Senior Plan but what Billy referred to as “mang”: healthful but bland. No fat, no salt. The first words out of his mouth after the tray has been set in front of him are: “What’s this ole mang?”
I often sneak in bad food to him. When the nurse leaves, I put the tray of good food to the side on his night table and start removing from my pockets the alternative Senior Plan: a couple of pieces of fried chicken, still warm in its tin foil wrapping, some hard candy. He devours them.
“Any tea?” he asks, and I take the thermos from my knapsack and pour him a cup the way he really likes it, with whole milk and lots of sugar. And by the time the nurse comes back, that’s what he and I are doing: the tin foil is scrunched up in my pocket with the candy wrappers, Billy’s mouth is cleaned off, and we are sipping tea in seeming innocence.
“He didn’t eat?” she asks, and I shake my head as seriously as I can and say that he doesn’t have much of an appetite tonight.
She leaves us and we just sit there in silence. He tries to turn himself on his side, but he’s weak and can’t manage it.
“Sam,” he says. “Sam, turn me over.”
I get up and turn him and he grunts a little as he settles into the new position.
“Good night, Billy.”
He’s half-asleep already. I go around the bed to the side he’s facing and ensure that he’s tucked in, that he’s not crimped or trapped beneath the sheets. Everything is fine. There are pictures on the night-table, mostly old ones of children and grandchildren, most of them in cheap frames lacking the glass. He’s got little pictures tucked in all corners of the frames, nearly obscuring the original picture. His beaten-up old wallet is there, too, all fat and ready to fall apart with pictures. Snaps, he calls them. “Sam, where’s my snaps? The nurses took my snaps.” I take the wallet back to my chair. I remove the pictures. Again, they’re his children and grandchildren, most of them in pretty battered condition. On the backs of some of them he has scrawled a date or some other annotation. The thing is that since he can’t read the writing is sometimes incomprehensible (“I can’t read, but I can spell hard words” is the way he puts it). On the back of a picture of me, he’s written “Samm” in a rough script that looks like it was done by a child or by a person with a nervous hand. There’s one of Wade, marked “Arn 280,” and one of our mother marked “Karno Bruck.”
There are notes and phone numbers in the wallet, too. Some change, no credit cards, no paper bills. I put all the pictures back in, and put it back on his night-table. I check him one more time, make sure that he is as comfortable as he can be. I touch him on the loose rough skin of his hand. I bend down and kiss him on the cheek.
“Good night, Billy.”