by Erin Glenn
My hand seemed so small in my grandfather’s as we walked down the beach. The gritty sand stuck to my feet and hands, and the salty wind blew my hair into my eyes. I looked into his strong, wrinkled face and smiled at him as I placed the new shell into the milk jug he was holding. When I got tired, he walked me to the ocean so I could rinse the sand off in the cool, clear water. In my six year old mind, this was heaven. The sky zoomed past me as I was swung into his strong arms and we started our journey back to the room.
The stark white walls were starting to form spots in front of my eyes, like when you stare at a light too long or look up at the sun. No matter where I went, the sterile smell of the hospital followed me. It was stuck to me like a brand, a scar even. I hadn’t seen him since he was admitted three days earlier. It had been three days but it seemed like an eternity. I had spent most of those days in that same room with its white walls, old, hard couches, and broken vending machines. It seemed like it had been so long since I had last seen his friendly, smiling face.
He looked fine the last day I saw him he just had a little cold, but everyone gets over those. My mom looked worried about him though. He was pale and extremely hot with a temperature as he sat there in his big blue chair. She wanted to take him to the emergency room so they could take a look at him and give us a second opinion. With a promise to be back as soon as they could, I was sent to my aunt’s house around the corner while they drove him to the hospital. My aunt’s house reeked of cigarette smoke and the couch was old and soft with age as I laid there and waited for them to come get me. Hours passed by and I finally fell asleep only to wake up in my bed back at home the next morning.
My parents told me he was kept overnight so the doctors could keep an eye on him to see if his condition changed. We went to visit him after I got home from school. The nurses were trying to find a room for him upstairs so they could keep him a few more days. The curtain was pulled around his tiny rolling bed so we could be left alone with him. I started playing in the drawers around the room, staring at all the silver glinting objects I came across. My mom made me a blow up elephant out of a latex glove to play with until I accidentally popped it on a scalpel. We talked and joked around; he seemed to be better already. The color had returned to his cheeks and there was a slight smile on his face, but something still wasn’t right.
He got worse that night. They moved him to ICU early the next morning and I wasn’t able to see him because of my age. I tried to fight the rules, saying I was eleven and that that should be old enough. It was almost a week before he had improved enough to be moved to a regular floor. My parents walked me down the warm, beige colored hallway to his room while I admired the soft water colors that hung on the walls. The plush carpet cushioned my feet and through the silence, I noticed the shallow beeps coming from the rooms on either side of the hallway.
He was asleep when I saw him. He looked so peaceful, almost too peaceful, like he was in a deep trance. The white sheet was pulled up near his neck, and his arms, the same arms that used to hold me, were down by his side, unmoving. His shallow breathing and heartbeat were monitored by various machines around the bed, and he had a kind of angelic look to him because of the soft lighting above his bed.
He was only awake one day out of the fourteen he was there. I only had one chance, although I didn’t know at the time, to tell him what he meant to me. I walked into the room that day after school, and saw him sitting there in the bed. He was eating lunch for the first time in over a week. I slowly walked over to him to give him a hug, scared that I was going to hurt him.
“There are bugs on the walls Erin, do you see them?” he whispered into my ear.
I smiled slightly, unsure of what to do and replied “It’s just the wallpaper, don’t worry, nothing’s going to get you.”
“The eyes are watching me please make them stop. It’s making me uncomfortable” he said quietly.
“It’s just the lights in the ceilings Lane. Stop saying things like that, you’re going to scare the children” my grandmother scolded.
I slowly backed away toward the comfort of my mother’s arms. He smiled at me and I gave him a shy smile but didn’t know what else to do. When it was time to leave, I gave him a hug and he told me goodbye, but I didn’t respond. I was too scared to say goodbye, too scared that it would be the last time. I wanted to tell him to get better, that we were all there for him, and that I loved him. I wanted to yell at God, scream at him, for doing this to me and my family, for doing this to someone like him. He didn’t deserve the pain he was in.
The funeral was a week later. It was a bright sunny day, the kind of day I should have been running around outside. The sun shone through the tall stained glass windows and hit the deep red of the roses on the casket. All around me I heard people sniffing and shuffling their feet. The American Flag rustled while it was being folded and handed to my grandmother and my heart jumped every time a rifle was shot for the twenty-one gun salute. He was gone.
Three weeks later we had our first Thanksgiving without him. No one could bring themselves to sit at the head of the table, my grandfather’s seat. My grandmother and other family members tried to force me to sit there instead. They pushed me toward the chair until tears started streaming down my face. My face was streaked and my mouth filled with the taste of my salty tears for the rest of dinner. It felt as if there was a boundary around the chair, like when you try to stick the ends of opposite magnets together. The closer I got to the chair, the more force there was against my body. My grandfather’s seat remained empty for almost a year before people dared to “take his place”.
Often, when I’m at the beach, I look for the shells my grandfather always liked. I take them to the water and rinse them off like he taught me so many years ago. As the cool water brushes across my hand and the salty winds blows through my hair, I feel him and I realize: this is how it is supposed to be. My grandfather is living through me.