"Goodbye to G.P." ("Old Friends")
A salute to a magnificent grandfather and man of sterling character as he deals with the joys and sorrows, surprises and frustrations of the last six months of his life.
Philadelphia Inquirer Sunday Magazine
December 18, 1994
By Art Carey
MIDNIGHT. THE TELEPHONE JANGLES.
Is this The Call?
I pick up the receiver with panic swelling in my chest.
"This is a call for Art Carey. There is an emergency, possibly medical, at the home of Edward Lynch. "
It's a recorded message, triggered by a device my grandfather wears around his neck.
I throw on a jacket. "G.P. needs help," I yell to my wife as I dart out the door.
G.P. is his nickname, short for Grandpap. His house is around the corner.
I sprint more swiftly than I've run since high school. Is he gasping for breath? In pain? Is he crumpled and unconscious at the bottom of the stairs? My chest is heaving as I bound up the flagstone steps to his stone ranch house. Is he alive?
A chain holds the front door fast.
"G.P, are you OK? " I yell through the crack. "It's Artie. " Silence. "G.P., can you hear me? "
I run to the back door; it too is bound by a chain. I call out.
Oh God, not now. I never had a chance to say goodbye, to tell him, "I love you. "
I rush back to the front door.
"G.P., can you hear me? "
This time, I detect his voice, muffled and weak. "Artie, I'm in the bathroom. I fell. I need help. "
"I'm coming, G.P. Don't worry. I'll be there in a second. "
I brace my shoulder and ram the door. He's lying on the cold tile, dressed in a white terrycloth robe, his face flushed, his hair wild, pumping his bony legs.
I sweep him up and carry him like a baby to his bed. By now, the police and an ambulance crew have arrived.
G.P. lets the medical technicians examine him but refuses to go to the hospital. "Everything's jake," he says, laughing nervously.
Later, he confesses his terror. "What a terrible feeling, not being able to use your legs! " He shakes his head. "I got quite a scare. "
I fluff his pillows and tuck him in. On his night table, I spot his frayed copy of God's Minute and I read him a prayer.
"I'm staying with you tonight, G.P. I'll be sleeping in the bedroom next door. Call me if you need anything. "
"I'm lucky to have such a guardian angel. Good night, ol' dear. "
Exhausted, I climb into bed. Down the hall, the clock seems to toll the last moments of G.P.'s life.
It's happening too fast, not following the script - the perfect death of the perfect man at the perfect time. I've got to bring things under control.
Rustling sounds. Now G.P. is whistling. After the scare he's just had, is the old coot really going to get up and walk?
I listen, poised to rush to his rescue. I can hear the bedsprings squeak. Then scrabbling as he reaches for his hickory cane. Now his cane is knocking against furniture, the walls, the floor. Boards creak. The whistling grows louder. He's on the move.
There he is, outside my door. He peers in to see if I'm awake. He wants his triumph witnessed. I'm annoyed. But also amused. How fortunate to be descended
from such a magnificent fool! I pretend to be asleep, but I'm watching, hiding my face so he can't see my smile. Bathed in the hallway's bright light, in his royal robe of threadbare terrycloth, his white hair flying every which way, is my grandfather, Edward A. Lynch, once more upright, glorious, proud, defiant.
LAST YEAR, ABOUT 15,000 Americans died in their 97th year. My grandfather was one of them.
He was a businessman and inventor, amateur draftsman, carpenter, stonemason and philosopher. Otherwise, an ordinary man: He was born, went to school, worked hard, got married, had children, went to church, grew old, and died. He lived in a suburban tract house and drove a battered 1970 Oldsmobile. He was not rich, not famous, not powerful.
Yet he was also extraordinary. Extraordinary because he lived so long and grew so wise about what really matters.
During nearly a century, he experienced more than his share of disappointment and tragedy. Two houses burned to the ground. He outlived all four of his children. Two of his daughters killed themselves. Yet he was not bitter. His religious faith was deep. As his body failed, as his grandchildren fell to squabbling, he kept up his cheer, counting his blessings, bragging that he'd live his life all over again (and wouldn't change a thing), adhering to a steadfast principle: Deny the adverse.
"G.P., why do you always whistle?" a great-grandson asked just weeks before he died. G.P. laughed. "I guess I'm just too dumb to be sad. "
It was a typical remark. The world is full of brilliant unhappy people, G.P. well knew. He was as canny as the best of them, but willing to trade self-absorption for contentment. Often, I asked him about the secret to his longevity. Exaggerating his Brooklyn accent, he'd say, "I don't hate nobody. "
He had only one complaint: Life's too short. "Time marches on," he often said, imitating an old newsreel. Part of him wanted to live forever, yet he wasn't afraid of death. "My bags are packed," he would announce. "I'm ready for the Great Adventure. "
This is the story of G.P.'s last six months on earth. I was privileged to watch him die. Yes, his dying was heartbreaking, but it was fascinating and inspiring. There was fear and anger, but also joy and love.
It was as common as birth, and just as special. G.P. was my best buddy. I wanted to give him the most comfortable and entertaining death possible. Instead, he taught me a humbling lesson:
No matter how strong the will, life always confounds our ability to control. The beginning of wisdom is realizing how much is beyond understanding.
ON NEW YEAR'S EVE, THREE DAYS after his fall, G.P. comes to our house, spirited and cocky. No, he hasn't been using the walker I fixed for him. No need to. You grandchildren are overreacting.
He says the fall happened three weeks ago. That I didn't find him on the floor; he greeted me at the door.
"I'm feeling fine," G.P. says. "In fact, I'm thinking of playing squash again. "
Now that's the G.P. I love. Clearly, the fall was a freak accident, I tell myself. G.P.'s confidence is infectious. I even imagine taking him to play squash so we can both thumb our noses at old age.
MY WIFE, TANYA, HAS A BRAINSTORM for our regular Sunday dinner. We'll dine by the fireplace, one of G.P.'s favorite spots. Our 8-year-old son, Teddy, makes a long banner advertising "Tanya's Restaurant" and we tape it up over the bookcase.
G.P. looks spiffy in a fresh white dress shirt, yellow silk tie, and tweed jacket. But he is frail and unsteady. Twice, he stumbles and I have to grab him.
G.P. is flattered by the attention, but during the meal he is addled and dispirited. He pokes at his food, and I have to work at conversation.
"How are you feeling these days, G.P.? " I ask. "It seems like you're getting out of bed later and later. "
"Yeah, I'm becoming a bum. I'm going to have to change my schedule. "
"Do you think you might have 'the blues'? "
"Could be," he says, curtly.
We talk about ways we can make his life more exciting, how he can take care of himself.
"I don't want to be put in a nursing home," G.P. declares. "That's just a warehouse for old fogies, full of people complaining about their rheumatism. "
I help clear the table. In the kitchen, Tanya looks at me, her eyes knowing and sad.
"This is the year," she says.
G.P. LOOKS FEEBLE AND PALE. It is Saturday night and we have brought cheesesteaks to surprise him. Normally, his face lights up when he sees us, but tonight, his mood is low.
He takes a few sips of beer but doesn't touch his sandwich. He seems detached and stares at me in an unfamiliar way.
What did you eat today? I ask him.
For breakfast: one can of Nutrament. For lunch: nothing. For supper: one can of Nutrament. About 700 calories in all.
"You're killing yourself," I scold. "Your body can't survive on that. You'll become so weak, you'll fall and break a bone and end up in a hospital bed, tied to IVs. "
G.P. listens sullenly, his face gaunt in the overhead light.
"What's going on, G.P? What's the matter with my buddy? "
"No ambish," he says flatly. No ambition.
"Are you trying to turn in your badge? "
He looks away, a weird, embarrassed smile on his face. Then shrugs.
I will not let him duck this. He's got to admit it.
"We've always had a great relationship," I say, a lump in my throat. "We've always been honest with each other. No sideways moves. Just straight on, direct. "
"Yes, we've always had a good relationship, and I hope it stays that way. "
"What's going on? " I press. "What are you thinking about? What are you trying to do? "
"I just don't have an appetite," he says testily. "It's just something that happens when you get to be my age. "
"There's been such a big change. Just in the past week or two. Like something's snapped. What's happened? "
He looks away again, abashed, resentful of my inquisition.
"You're tired, aren't you? " I say softly.
I stare into his eyes, challenging him, demanding a response.
"I mean, you're tired of it all, the whole thing. "
His face is startled and insolent. I've never seen him this way before. Resigned, remote, ancient.
"For your information, I was born on June 6, 1897," he says coldly. "That was a long, long time ago. "
The following afternoon, I'm at him again. It's Super Bowl Sunday, a gorgeous day, and G.P. has promised to go for a walk. But now he complains of arthritic spasms in his left shoulder. "I'll have to take powder on the walk, Artie. "
"C'mon, G.P. You're not a quitter," I say, trying to shame him. "Let's go: Get your lazy bottom out of that chair. A walk will perk you up. You need to get out of this house and get some fresh air. "
"It's a fine idea, Artie, but I'm just not up to it. "
I give up and go home to watch the game, but I can't concentrate. During a
break, Tanya hands me a letter she's just written to G.P. Teddy asks me to read it.
"Do you remember when you cut the last rose of summer from your bush in the back yard, placed it in a vase, and left it at my doorstep?
"Do you remember the 90-degree heat and humidity of my graduation day, and all the steps you bravely climbed at Franklin Field? "
I stop, unable to continue. My chest begins to heave. Then tears erupt. I'm chagrined - and powerless to suppress this geyser of emotion.
You were doing so well, I berate myself. You were in line for an Oscar: Best Actor in a Family Drama, for your flawless performance as a manly man - unflinching, relentlessly buoyant and under control.
You really blew it.
Teddy is shocked. He's never seen his dad cry before. He runs to fetch Tanya.
TANYA CALLS ME AT WORK AND says G.P. wants to go to the hospital. I rush home.
"It's time to call it quits," G.P. tells me. He looks vanquished. "I'm afraid I'm at the point where I need some kind of institutional care. "
He's never spoken like this, and it's scary.
"Let's see if we can get through another night here," I say, hopefully. Still, I arrange a hospital admission for the next day.
After dinner, I return to G.P.'s house. His doctors have told us G.P. has prostate cancer, which may have spread to his lungs.
We talk about options: a "life care" facility, moving in with Tanya and me, hiring a nurse. G.P. has always cherished his independence and privacy. Now, he seems amenable to having someone come in.
I put G.P. to bed and retire to the adjoining bedroom. It's my third sleepless night in a row, worrying about G.P. and what life will be like without him.
At 6 a.m., I go into his room to wake him for the hospital. He's a changed man.
"Artie, I'm staying put, right here at good ol' 508 Parkview Drive. "
"All right, G.P.! That's the spirit. "
I pump my fist in a championship salute. G.P. copies the gesture.
He's back - but for how long?
TODAY THE NURSE ARRIVES. IF G.P. rejects her, I don't know what we'll do.
But she is friendly and soft-spoken, courteous and down-home, with a wide shy smile and eyes that sparkle. Her name is Silvia Little. She's 40 and lives in West Oak Lane. When I introduce her to my grandfather, he is sitting up in bed, expectant. Silvia greets him warmly, takes his hand and bends over to kiss him on the forehead. Within days Silvia is working a full shift, five days a week.
G.P. needs round-the-clock attention. He's not eating and has become bedridden. To cover him at night, my brother, David, organizes a rotation of sleepovers involving G.P.'s grandchildren. G.P. is grateful to have loved ones nearby.
G.P. LOOKS UNEARTHLY. HIS features droop, his skin is pallid, his eyes glassy. Once so dapper, he has abandoned all modesty. He wears nothing but a
dress shirt most days - no pants, no underwear. Like a baby, he is unashamed about his nakedness.
I stare at him, a stark skeleton draped with withered flesh. His lungs are clogged, and sometimes he coughs up blood. Yet he endures, a hideous testament to life's awesome force.
IN MY BACK YARD, I WRESTLE a heavy oak log onto the chopping stump. I brush off the snow, studying its grain, rehearsing where to land the blade.
Am I doing too much? Too little?
I stand, ready for combat. I grab the handle of the maul, lift it to shoulder height. Then I raise it over my head, extravagantly, so that the
maul's arc begins at the small of my back.
What if a few days in the hospital rally him? I could be killing him by not doing more.
With all my might I slam the maul into the heart of the oak.
Take that, God.
The oak reveals a gaping wound, but holds firm. I repeat the motion, again and again.
I want him to live forever. But doesn't he have the right to die?
The maul hits the fault line. A jagged fissure. A few more blows. The cleavage widens. Then the log splits in two, a sweet, sudden crack. He always said he wanted to go quickly. This is no life now. He's just existing.
Both halves tumble with a dull thump.
For hours, I'm absorbed in multiplying by dividing. In splitting wood, I become whole.
THE PRIEST AT ST. MARGARET'S Church in Narberth administers last rites. G.P. tells him he's feeling "real good" - then winks at me.
As the priest prepares for the ritual, I head for the door. "Artie, I want you to stay. "
G.P.'s request is a command. I turn back, stand at the foot of his bed, and bow my head.
The old guy just won't give up; he's still trying to convert me. He's still hoping there's time to change "the greatest disappointment" of his life.
As he receives the communion wafer, G.P. shuts his eyes. Suddenly, he is a little boy, innocent, trusting, at the mercy of his God.
As the priest reads, G.P. recites reverently. "Lord, have mercy . . . Our Father, who art in heaven . . . Hail Mary, full of grace. "
What if there is no God? What if you just live and you just die. What if you wake up, G.P., after your last breath, and there's . . . nothing? What if you and I and everybody else is all alone in the universe?
"I've had a great life," G.P. assures the priest. "There was some tough going during the Depression, but that was nothing. All in all, I've been very blessed. "
How can he overlook all the misery? How can he ignore what's happening to him now? Is this how God rewards those who love Him?
When my brother arrives to fix G.P. dinner, he finds a different man. G.P. is out of bed, walking around the house, laughing, jaunty, telling stories. My brother is flabbergasted. Maybe he was just dying of loneliness. David nicknames G.P. "the rubber band man. "
I AM GIVING G.P. A HOT SHAVE. His skin is furrowed and slack, but I manage to shave off all the gray stubble without nicking him. He even begins to doze; I'm flattered by how much he trusts me. Afterward, he thanks me profusely and I feel proud.
G.P. was never much for touching. His attempts at physical affection were awkward, usually quick chucks under the chin. Now we are in constant contact.
Because his pillows slip, G.P. slides down in his bed and I must prop him up again.
I climb on his bed and straddle him. I embrace his torso - nothing but a bony cage - and hoist him back toward the head of the bed, feeling his heart and the warmth of his body. He wraps his arms around my back. "Strong men are needed in Guatemala," he quips. He clings to me, and I imagine that I'm recharging him, giving him a transfusion of love and life.
G.P. SITS IN HIS BEDROOM, AS I take apart the lovely painted wooden bed he has slept in for decades. I've persuaded him he needs an adjustable hospital bed.
When the men arrive to assemble it, G.P. is skeptical and grumpy. Later, he can't understand the controls and grows frustrated. Because he keeps losing the remote, I go down to his garage workshop and begin knocking together a
Truth to tell, I want to escape.
I know he knew, knew that this cold, mechanical, metal bed was his last.
Think with your hands. Or don't think at all. No better place than here, in this sanctuary, surrounded by all these friends, all these beautiful tools.
How many hours have I spent at this workbench, a little boy watching, entranced, as his grandfather chisels curling strips of sweet-smelling pine
from a two-by-four, transforming it into the perfect hull of a toy sailboat?
Now the boy has grown up. Now he's using his teacher's tools to build . . . an accessory for his deathbed.
AFTER A FAMILY MEETING TO agree on a nightly rotation for the next month, we gather in G.P.'s bedroom for a belated celebration of St. Patrick's Day. We sing "For He's a Jolly Good Fellow" and "When Irish Eyes Are Smiling. " Enthroned in his bed, G.P. beams.
How wonderful! G.P. is cared for and everybody's pitching in and everything's working smoothly and harmoniously.
TANYA HAS INVITED THE FAMILY to an Easter banquet at G.P.'s house. She spends days preparing for an elegant occasion.
On Easter morning, G.P. informs Silvia that he's dreading the event. He has tears in his eyes. When Tanya learns, she is devastated. In trying to give him pleasure, she has caused him distress.
I decide to see if I can persuade G.P. to attend. When I stop by, he's petulant. A major sticking point is having to put on a pair of pants.
"What do you mean you don't want to wear any pants? " I chide. "What are you, some kind of exhibitionist? "
"Artie, I'm just not up to it, I just don't have the pep. "
Doesn't he have the right to do whatever he wants? Then again, maybe I should push him. Maybe he'll have a good time. Maybe I need to make him do something he thinks he won't like because I know he'll enjoy it and be grateful afterward.
"G.P, I'll tell you what: You can come to dinner without your pants, but you must wear a tie. Also, if you don't wear your pants, I won't, either. It's only fair. "
"All right, Salesman Sam. Invitation accepted. "
Six hours later, G.P. arrives in a crisp white shirt and colorful tie. Thanks to Silvia, he is freshly bathed and clean-shaven. He is also wearing pants.
G.P. makes a game effort to participate, but he is weak and out of it.
Everybody is trying so hard - the strained, toothy grins, the urgent laughter, the transparent attempts to engage a man who no longer has the energy to pretend. Already, we have lost him. His detachment mocks the feast.
After the main course, he goes back to his bed. There, he thanks Tanya and says he had a terrific time.
He's being polite; he's vastly relieved it's over.
I'M READING G.P. "MAUD MULLER" by John Greenleaf Whittier, with the lines he often quotes: "For of all sad words of tongue or pen, The saddest are these: 'It might have been! ' "
This brings up Maine - the vacation compound on Frenchman Bay across from Bar Harbor that he reluctantly sold after 15 years because his wife and children stopped coming up.
"Maine was a blasted dream, and when I say 'blasted,' I really mean explosive," G.P says.
"My daughters were jackasses, spoiled brats. Not only my daughters, but my wife was a spoiled brat. "
Wow! Where's this coming from?
"My daughters were smart, attractive girls. They had everything going for them, but all three of them married losers, and all three of them were failures. "
Finally, the anger and bitterness I always suspected. This is part of dying - coming to terms. He's human after all.
But I can't let him think that it's all been a waste, that he, too, is a failure.
"I think you're being too harsh, G.P. Your daughters were also full of life. They were givers. They made people happy; they were crazy and spontaneous and uninhibited, and they made people laugh and have fun. "
G.P. ponders a moment.
"Artie, you're so right. "
I scramble for more words.
"You know, G.P., you're a lucky man. Maine didn't turn out the way you wanted, but you had a piece of that dream. And so many other dreams did come true. Did you ever think, when I was 9, that you'd live to see me have a 9- year-old son? "
Keep blathering; beat back his despair.
"Dreams are something to strive for, and they're often better in the pursuing than the grasping. We need dreams; otherwise why go on? If you look at it clinically, we're all losers ultimately. What sustains us is the
illusion that we can beat the odds. What sustains us is our hopes, our dreams. "
G.P. is quiet.
"And faith," he says, shooting me a challenging look. Our eyes lock. A second passes, creeping like an hour.
Humor the old man.
"Yes," I say, "and faith. "
THE FAMILY GATHERS IN G.P.'S living room to plan next month's schedule. Some members are becoming restive and resentful. The nightwatch could go on indefinitely, the argument goes; it's too much of an imposition. Summer is coming.
Soon the meeting degenerates into angry shouts and venomous accusations. G.P. and I are the targets. He is denounced as selfish and manipulative; I am denounced for being his favorite. There is talk about his will, and grievances are dredged up from the past. Fortunately, G.P. is in his bedroom, though I'm sure he's aware of the distant thunder. I try to be calm and rational, even though I'm furious. My performance as statesman and martyr is superb. But sweat drenches my shirt.
Afterward, I am drained.
Why did this happen? Why didn't I see this coming?
I drag myself to bed, but sleep is impossible.
Everything seemed to be working so smoothly. Now all family cooperation has been blown to smithereens. Hah, the "Golden Boy" gets his comeuppance.
At dawn, my thoughts race between bewilderment and anger. G.P. doesn't deserve this. He's made mistakes, but he's also been kind and generous - to everyone.
Several hours later, I am under my jeep, straining to budge a locknut from a driveshaft. I pull on the socket wrench with all my might.
Something else is going on. This anger is too fierce and too toxic.
With a ferocious shout, I lunge backward, yanking on the wrench. The nut gives.
Maybe it's the rage we all feel because G.P. is dying. And because we're so afraid of the unthinkable: life without him.
I ASK SILVIA TO INCREASE HER hours, hire a family friend named Joyce Pitts, and seek out Cathy Coyle, a hospice social worker atLankenau Hospital.
In recent weeks, G.P.'s breathing has become more labored.
Should we administer powerful medications for G.P.'s pneumonia? To what end? So he can last long enough for his cancer to cause real pain?
Cathy is reassuring. G.P. is dying, she says. We are doing the right thing by letting go. Pneumonia can be gentle. G.P. could do far worse than quit breathing in his sleep.
Cathy gives me the courage to face what's happening. I'll stop trying to rally G.P. with artificial goals such as surviving to the next holiday or some family event.
I will no longer force him to live longer just so he can die later. I will let him go in peace.
NOTHING ELSE IS AS IMPORTANT as G.P. I spend the day working and the night tending to him. It is a weighty responsibility, but also a tremendous privilege - to prove my love and gratitude.
"You know, Artie, I don't fully appreciate the momentousness of what I'm going through, that I'm actually dying," G.P. announces one night.
I'd been afraid to talk about death.
"How do you feel about that? "
"I've got no real regrets and no fears. I've had a lot of blessings, and I have a lot of people rooting for me. As a matter of fact, I feel I'm hearing
from them right now. "
"Hearing from spirits? "
"Yes, from friends and family members who've already passed on. I think we all have intercessors, in one way or another. Why wouldn't I feel that way? How do you account for all the breaks I've gotten? "
"Are you afraid of dying? "
"No. I believe death is not the end but the beginning. I believe there is an afterlife of great glory and gratification when we will again be gathered together with our loved ones.
"I have great confidence in the justness of Almighty God. I think God will give me credit for having tried to lead a moral life. "
"G.P., I admire your faith. I wish I had it. "
"I think you do, Artie. You just haven't discovered it. Or you're using that fine mind of yours to fight it. "
"I do have religious yearnings, G.P., but I don't believe in a supreme being who takes a personal interest in my fate.
"As I see it, God is either a macromanager or a micromanager. If He's a macromanager, a guy who set off the Big Bang and fooled around with the
universe like a model train layout, which He then promptly lost interest in, then He's basically a dilettante and not worthy of my attention, let alone worship.
"If God's a micromanager, if He's really all-knowing and all-seeing, if He actually hears our prayers and personally directs what will happen in our lives, then He's mean and malicious.
"I don't understand why a God supposedly so loving and merciful would allow so many innocent people to suffer and die, why he would torture infants and children with famine and disease, why he would subject decent human beings - like your daughter and my mother - to hell on earth, and allow phonies and scoundrels to enjoy so much pleasure and prosperity. That God is cruel, unjust.
"I hate that God. "
I watch G.P.'s face to see if he's shocked. He is smiling.
All right, you want more?
"I know 'God works in mysterious ways,' " I try again. "But why is He such a tease? Why does so much of life seem like a crapshoot, with no more rhyme or reason than the spin of a roulette wheel? Why can't He cut us a break, for Christ's sake? It's been nearly 2,000 years. How about giving us a little sign? What kind of self-absorbed sadist is He anyway? "
G.P.'s eyes are full of affectionate pity.
Incredible! What does it take to faze this guy?
"Artie, the deeper the mystery, the deeper my faith. My faith is unshakable and sustaining. It is the bedrock of my life. Nothing happens, even the movement of a fly's wing, without God's knowledge. "
He says this with majestic resolve, brooking no argument or contradiction.
"G.P., let's call a truce. Nothing I say is going to change your mind, and nothing you say is going to change mine. I'm sorry, but I can't fake it, especially with you.
"Part of me envies you, and the strength you draw from your faith. I wish there were some way I could will it to happen, if only for your sake. I sincerely do. "
ON THIS DAY, 96 YEARS AGO, G.P. was born. Tanya and I bring over a cake, light the candles and sing "Happy Birthday. "
"You made it, G.P! " I say.
He looks as bright and shiny as a new penny.
"Sure did. Today I begin my 97th year. "
"Only four more years and you'll be 100. "
He laughs. "I'm not holding my breath. I'll take one year at a time. At this stage, every morning I open my eyes and see the sun is a gift, thank the dear Lord. "
"What's your birthday wish? "
"That I'll live another 96 years. "
"All right, G.P.! "
"Can you imagine any Irishman as crazy as that? "
That evening, I enter his bedroom and close the door. In my hand is a slip of paper. Once I begin speaking, I don't need it; I've been rehearsing for months, for years.
"G.P., I just wanted to say a few things to you privately. I think you already know this - I hope you already know this - but I wanted to thank you for all you've done for me.
"It's no secret that you've been more to me than a grandfather. You've really been my father - a mentor, a guide, a counselor, a confessor, a hero, a friend. You've shown your love for me in a million different ways, in countless acts of kindness and generosity from the time I was a little boy. You've helped me become a man. You've done so much to develop my body and mind - and even though you don't think so, you've also succeeded in developing my soul, a work in progress, I promise.
"You loved me by paying attention, by being there to listen and watch and cheer. No matter what I do, no matter how I succeed or fail, I've always had one true fan rooting me on, and whenever life has knocked me down, I've always had a place to come to.
"Last but not least, we've also had a helluva lot of fun - great laughs, good times and fabulous memories. "
G.P. looks at me directly, his face beatific. My eyes begin tearing, my voice cracks.
"I just want you to know that I'll never forget you. Never. I'll always remember you. Every day I'm alive I'll think of you. Whatever good is inside me is a gift from you, and I'll always be grateful. I lo- I lo-"
Even now I can't say it. I grasp G.P.'s hand and squeeze.
G.P.'s smile seems to issue from his soul.
"Artie, a man couldn't ask for a finer tribute. Whatever I may have given you has come back to me a hundredfold. You have been one of the great joys of my life. "
Thank you, Somebody, for granting us this moment together.
EVERY 15 MINUTES OR SO, G.P. wakes up to clear his throat and lungs. He begins retching and hawking, making a terrible, rasping noise that pierces the stillness and claws the senses.
How much more can that ravaged body take? O God, if there is a God and You've got an ounce of compassion, don't put him through any more torture. Take him away. Let him die in peace.
I'm ashamed to hear myself praying for G.P.'s death. I go make sure he's all right. His face is drawn, his features sharp and bird-like, his skin translucent, stretched tight over his skull.
I could end this agony now. Place a pillow over his face. Push down firmly. His lungs are so weak he'd succumb in an instant. He'd never know.
Are you mad? How could you murder this man? Then again, what is more cruel? To wish that he die or that he remain alive?
In the morning, I bring G.P. the newspaper and a glass of orange juice. As usual, he greets me with a smile, as if he's had 12 hours of uninterrupted rest.
Amazing. He hardly ever complains. Where does he get the strength and spirit?
"G.P., do you ever wish you could flip the switch? "
"What's that, Artie? "
"Do you ever get tired of all this and wish you could just end it? "
"No, Artie, I'm in no pain as yet, no discomfort as yet. I'm perfectly willing to be in God's hands. "
G.P.'S EYES DART AROUND the room. "Who's that?" he says, gesturing at an armchair. When he dozes, he begins grasping the air, as though trying to embrace some figure. Sometimes, he mutters as if he's having a conversation in a tongue unknown to us mortals.
Today, while I'm chatting with him, he reaches out again, this time to the mirror over the bureau.
"What are you doing, G.P.? "
"Someone is beckoning me. Someone in the mirror. "
"Who is it? Is it anyone you recognize? "
"Sometimes I see my family, my wife and children. "
"What are they doing? "
"They are calling me, asking me to come join them. "
"Do you see them now? "
"Who do you see? "
"I see a figure bending over me, looking down on both of us. "
"What does the figure look like? "
"It's an impression or image, sometimes a man, sometimes a woman. Sometimes I see my father. Sometimes I see my mother. Sometimes I see the face of a friend long gone or a face I don't recognize. It's floating, liquid, always changing, like a kaleidoscope. I feel the figure is beckoning me, welcoming me. "
"Is the figure friendly? "
"Yes, the figure is full of goodness. "
"Do you think the figure could be God? "
"I hope so. "
SENSING THAT DEATH MAY BE just days, perhaps hours, away, I once again sit down with G.P. and review his life. It's a game we've been playing for several weeks: Name your happiest times, your saddest. Any regrets?
Up till now, G.P. has sidestepped this question. Tonight, I press him.
"I do have one regret," he begins haltingly. "I might have done better as a parent. I was perhaps not as understanding and loving to my boy as I should have been. He had his problems and was a difficult child, but those are the burdens God expects any parent to bear. "
His eyes well with tears. He looks down at his hands.
"That was my one great error. "
IT IS EARLY SATURDAY AFTERNOON and I've stopped by G.P.'s house to give Joyce her paycheck.
"How are you doing today, G.P.? "
He looks at me like I'm an idiot. I imagine his thoughts: What do you mean, 'How am I doing? ' I'm dying.
"I'm sorry," I say. "That was a stupid question. I hope you're feeling all right today. "
A few minutes later, I'm sitting at his desk writing the check.
"Art, you better come quick. "
Joyce and Silvia are there, along with my cousin Betty Jane. G.P. is sitting next to his bed. Joyce is trying to support his torso. His eyes are
closed, his head slumping, his jaw slack. I rush in, grab his arms and shake him.
"G.P., G.P., can you hear me? It's Artie. "
I hold his head upright, then stroke his arms.
"G.P.! G.P.! It's Artie. "
Suddenly, his chest heaves and shudders, his head falls to the side and his mouth drops open.
"G.P., don't go! Come back. Can you hear me? It's Artie. "
Call to him. Call harder. Don't let this happen. You're losing him.
"Come back, G.P. Don't leave me. "
I lift him up and lay his body gently on his bed. Joyce and Silvia straighten and caress his legs. I hug his torso, my ear to his heart, listening for a beat.
"I love you, G.P."
Betty Jane takes his arm and says she feels a pulse. I bend to his chest again. No sound. No breathing. What should I do? Call an ambulance? Let him go?
I hug him again. Still no pulse, no breathing. His hands and fingers are cold. His arm drops lifelessly. He is gone.
I feel utterly defeated, heartbroken.
Also relieved and thankful. I was there for the final moment.
Silvia smiles tearfully at me from across the room.
"It was beautiful, Artie. Just the way it should be. He died in the arms of his main man. "
THE SPANGLED MIDNIGHT SKY above Frenchman Bay in Maine is vanishing behind clouds. Here I spent an idyllic month with G.P. when I was 9. This is where he taught me how to shape wood, build boats, drive a jeep, shoot a rifle, track animals, catch lobsters, spot the constellations, meditate, and appreciate the sweet strains of Victor Herbert. I am here to mourn.
As I stumble along the rocky beach, my mind swirls with memories: how handsome he looked at his funeral, dressed in his wedding outfit; how just as he was buried it began showering and the raindrops stained the priest's
prayerbook, and how my grandfather would have been tickled because he wasn't much for ceremony and he loved rain ("There's no bad weather," he'd say, "just different kinds of good weather").
I think about how I wanted to go back to the cemetery that night, to dig him up and bring him home, how I'd wait for him, in the eerie darkness of his study, daring his ghost to return.
I think about how he managed to be so strong to the very end, about the "Six Rules for Gloriously Abundant Life" I found pasted inside his prayer book a few days after his death: "Deny the adverse; Affirm the positive; Decree the good; Forget the unpleasant past; Visualize your whole being as strong and well; Love God, love people, love life. "
I think about the list of resolutions I discovered in his wallet: "I will try to be pleasant. I will not get perturbed or lose my poise. I will not envy. I will not worry. I will not be bitter or resentful. I will get rid of old prejudices. I will be enthusiastic. I will get outdoor exercise. I will laugh at myself. I will do new and different things. "
Now I climb a gnarly spine of granite that juts into Raccoon Cove. A gentle breeze breaks the reflected moon into sparkles of light, dispatching small waves to shore, where they play a timeless tidal lullaby. A loon cries, but otherwise the silence thrums with the echoing vastness of the cosmos. The solitude is exquisite. Here, surely, God can hear me.
I am talking to God again. While G.P. was alive, he gave me the gift of love. While he was dying, he gave me the gift of time, precious time to face the reality of death, my own as well as his; time to say thank you, in word and deed, and many fond goodbyes.
Over the past six months, he also gave me something else: faith. Now I have someone I can believe in, someone I can call to for help, someone who will hear my prayers. The universe is no longer so lonely, and God is no longer impersonal and remote, because G.P. has given God a face.
I watch the lights twinkle on far-off Cadillac Mountain. I look up. The moon is encircled by a brilliant halo.
No, light flowing through mist, perfectly explainable by the laws of physics.
Then again. . . .
I cup my hands around my mouth and fill my lungs with air. With all my might, with grief and anguish and gratitude, I shout.
It is a shout so powerful that my prayer travels across Frenchman Bay to Bar Harbor and Mount Desert Island and the top of Cadillac Mountain, then across the ocean and around the world and out to the farthest reaches of the
universe, and beyond, until it reaches Him.
"Thank you, G.P.," I shout. "I love you."