|grandpa Jack and cousin Hannah, 2009|
This week my grandpa's progressing dementia steered him through a stroke. Mom told me Gramps was still a bit responsive, could at least still hear and seemed to recognize words expressed, and that we would be able to call and tell him goodbye. He would hear us.
Since his condition has been somewhat poor for months now, the expectation of his departure was clear, and so there's been a degree or two less heartache to see him get closer to that end. I pressed "call" with remarkable composure.
Tom answered, said things were as stable as they'd be for the next unknowable time. "He's just been waiting for your call." I know Gramps wasn't remembering people lately and how they're connected to him, and Tom was just saying what he said to say something, but it painted in my mind the possibility that though a stroke further immobilized Grandpa's body, perhaps it had unchained his mind, and perhaps he truly was waiting to be reconnected to family, to hear voices, and say goodbye.
Tom asked if I was ready, I said I guess so. I heard some movement, then from a distance Tom's voice said, "K, Em, he can hear you."
That's when I noticed another sound, one that had blended in with Tom's movement so I hadn't recognized it: the soft, uneven rasp of life's surviving breath.
It's a wonder sometimes how an old body sticks around so long when so much of its cognitive functioning has shut down. We take each breath, yet we hardly notice them. It's a perfectly automatic reaction to life. The breath of life. Our souls keep working the diaphragm, pulling, until they're called to another home. My own breath caught in my throat.
"Hey Grandpa. It's Emily. Big Em." I cleared the tightening in my throat with a laugh at my family's nickname to differentiate me from the other Emilys. But the laugh only tipped those inevitable emotions over the edge of my eyelids.
Strange thing, talking through phones. I was thinking about this the other day: sound travels millions-of-words-a-second fast from one mouth to another ear. We're miles apart yet we're instantly connected through sound.
But silence travels even faster. Knowing he was there, hearing me, but unable to respond . . . that communication transmitted directly, immediately to my heart. I muttered something about gratitude for history and legacy. I kept offering a silent moment ample enough for that warm voice to give even an incoherent reply. I said with a warbling whisper, "I love you, Grandpa."
And then I was quiet. I just listened. And wept. I wanted to tell him more, things going on in my life, but I had this feeling like, in a couple days, he'll be privy to it all, in ways inexpressible, and so the silence felt okay, felt right. It felt like goodbye.
I pictured the home phone resting near his ear, propped on a pillow. I projected myself there, phones connecting and disappearing, relaying more than sound, and I imagined my heart resting on his shoulder and I wrapped his still, breathing, unresponsive body in my love.
Tom picked up the phone and broke the illusory connection projecting through a cascade of tears. "Em, are ya done?"
"Yeah, I'm not really sure what to say, I guess." I was sitting in the hall at school, crying, watching walking people pass in front of me while my ear was linked to the echoes of North Benson Street, Union, Oregon.
I think it is possible to be in two places at once.