"Gotta go someday," my grandpa said last night. "Any time now!"
This is a sad statement if you don't know that when my grandpa's deep-as-a-whale's voice rises to a tenor's pitch, he is telling his best jokes.
I've been waiting for my grandpa to die for years. In 2004 he suffered a pair of small strokes, and that's when I first felt the rupture of realization that yes, someday he will die. But it's probably been my whole life that I've been waiting.
He's been more and more immobile ever since I was a kid. The earliest I remember, he would fall asleep reclined all the way in his plaid chair while us kids continued to watch TV. Then, awakened eventually by the television, he would rock his chair forward and back, still reclined, before launching himself to standing. There he would pause, steadying, before shuffling through the kitchen and off to bed.
Last night, he sat in his wheelchair at the end of the table, the end that is proud in any household. He sat with his "Don't Forget My Senior Citizen Discount" sweatshirt on, dinner's crumbs and some salad dressing dribbled all over it. He eats like a baby, singularly focused on the event.
"Dad, you've got some dressing there on your chin," my uncle said. My grandpa picked up his napkin and wiped away half of the ranch dressing that had run down the side of his mouth. He used to do this more self-consciously. These days, he does it absently, perfunctorily, so he can get back to eating.
After dinner, he launched into his act for his audience. Sometimes his jokes can still kill, like when he came back from senior citizen's daycare a couple months ago and told us that all the ladies had been after him.
"They are all so old!" he said then. "I kept telling them I'm married!"
Last night, his jokes weren't so lucid. Our laughter was nervous. At one point he was aghast when he thought my grandma said they had to pay to use the downstairs bathroom. My grandparents don't have a downstairs bathroom.
Usually, as dinner ends, the others run to the kitchen to clean up while he and I are still eating. Then I take our plates, give them to the dish washers, and return to the table so he's not alone.
One dinner -- it may have even been for the birthday I share with my grandma -- our dessert consisted of everything I was avoiding. I had decided that eating as purely as I could would cure my vulvodynia, and dessert was never pure. But there were strawberries that dessert. Someone set the strawberries out before the other things, and my grandpa and I each took one.
Suddenly, I felt like my life was being stripped from me. First it was chronic pain and now I had so little left to eat. I turned my eyes down so my grandpa couldn't see them. No matter his degree of presence, he still picks up on others' emotions.
Then I remembered the Buddhist fable about a monk who falls off a cliff and grabs a branch on the way down. Above is the tiger that chased him off the cliff. Below, waiting for him to fall, is another tiger. He knows he is going to die. Then he sees a strawberry on the branch. He plucks it and eats it, and it is the sweetest strawberry he's ever tasted.
Sitting there eating strawberries with my grandpa, whose death I had been awaiting forever, that was the sweetest strawberry I had ever tasted.
Last night we had pound cake, which I again abstained from. My uncle -- the birthday honoree -- was dishing out the cake with a smattering of berries and whipped cream. Grandpa got the first plate, which he started into immediately. The other plates came one at a time, mine with blueberries and strawberries alone topped with whipped cream. They were delicious, perfect. They made me think twice about whether it is winter.
After dessert is when grandpa told us he is going "any time now." And he is. It is a luxury to have been waiting all this time. It makes every moment with him sweet.
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