He who laughs last
My lighthearted grandfather was in pain, and out of jokes. What could I do?
After 88 years, my grandfather had no more jokes to tell. The man who always made me laugh was dying, and there was nothing I could do to stop it.
He was flat on his back on his living room couch, shutting down after a multiyear battle with lung cancer. He held a damp face cloth over his irritated eyes, too frail to sit or stand or speak beyond a rasp. I watched him from across the room, feeling as helpless as he appeared. This was not the fun visit I had had in mind. He was supposed to be in his recliner, ribbing me for my unruly beard or messy car or a dozen other things. I was supposed to tease him back about his baldness. Easy. Then we were supposed to hug and make plans to razz each other again in a day or two.
I couldn’t bear the silence and the finality it signaled, so I decided to sneak out for some fresh air. I was almost at the door when he called for me. “Don’t leave,” he pleaded. “Don’t leave. Don’t leave.” All this time, I had thought he was asleep.
The words spilled out with my tears as I crouched at his side. “I’m not going anywhere,” I promised.
His eyes were closed, which was comforting to me. I didn’t want to see in them the fear and despair I knew he was feeling — and I didn’t want him to see the same in mine.
Next, I did what always seemed right when I needed to feel in control of this uncontrollable situation. I asked my grandfather, “Can I get you anything?”
His usual answer was a firm “no,” but I regularly ignored him and showed up at his door anyway, carrying a newspaper, a box of doughnuts, a cold drink — anything to make him feel that he still had access to the world outside his little ranch house. He would thank me, invite me to sit, and launch into a playful complaint about the people on his TV, volume on high. He told stories accented by wacky voices and faces, and occasionally he laughed so hard at one of his own jokes that he broke into a mini coughing fit.
Humor was a part of his identity and, I suspect, what got him through so many of the challenging times in his life: an explosion at sea during World War II that set him up for decades of pain; the loss of his equally funny wife, who gave him 55 years of marriage and two loving daughters; and, until this moment, lung cancer.
Seeing my grandfather’s broken, skeletal body on the couch, I realized that humor no longer served a purpose in this house.
Later, the man who helped raise me would somehow rise, shuffle to his recliner in the den, and surrender to a sleep from which he never fully woke. As he took his last breaths, his children and grandchildren surrounded him, each of us exhausted and devastated and relieved, our hands linked as we recited the Lord’s Prayer.
Afterward, strangers came to flush his pills and fill out paperwork and cart his body away. Then we reset the recliner, swept the floors, turned off the lights, and locked the door to his once-warm home, leaving it dark and silent and without soul.
My grandfather joined my grandmother in a slot high up in a mausoleum wall, a burial he preferred to the ground, he often said, because he didn’t want his feet to get wet.
His world would end this way, but not yet. Now, during what was perhaps his moment of greatest suffering, he was calling for me.
“Can I get you anything?”
At first, he was still.
I was desperate to make him comfortable. “Anything you want — just name it.”
He stirred. He opened his eyes. He smiled.
Then he whispered, “A million dollars.”