Monday, November 16, 2015
Gramma and I stood on opposite sides of the rented hospital bed each holding one of his hands. He took what I knew was his last breath. It was the least labored one he’d taken in a day. We stood there. Grampa lay there.
Gramma said, “I think he’s gone, David.”
It was absolutely silent. Except it wasn’t because the theme music from the movie Fargo was playing in a loop at full blast on the television.
My Grampa Pete and I watched movies together. Shoot ’em ups were our favorites. When I was a little kid, I loved sleeping over at Gramma and Grampa’s because Gramma would buy me a box of Lucky Charms and the three of us would sit in front of the television and watch the Death Wish and Lethal Weapon films, most movies starring Chuck Norris and anything with John Wayne in it.
When I was thirteen, they moved from Chicago to Mountain View, Arkansas onto a gorgeous chunk of land tucked in among the vast Ozarks, woods and creeks. Grampa had quickly amassed a sizable and eclectic collection of guns and other weapons like knives and one crossbow. He took up hunting because that’s what you do when you retire to the Arkansas hills.
When I visited them in the mountains, most often around Christmas, Grampa and I would go hunting. Squirrel, mostly. It had the longest season and was the easiest thing for me get away with killing and not having a license to do so. Hunting licenses were expensive and Grampa didn’t see the sense in paying all that money for just the few days I’d be down there. So squirrel it was. And I was fine with that. He showed me how to recognize a good kill—”Look at them underneath, see the size of his nuts? That’s a good one.”—and how to clean and prep the kill for dinner, which Gramma would prepare by frying them. Yes, just like chicken.
But mostly, Grampa and I laid up on our visits. He’d be in his big recliner that served as the helm of the house with his side table hosting various remote controls, small tools and pencils, sketches of construction projects he was working on, tattered pocket maps, a large cup of coffee, a bowl filled with small Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups, a bulk package of multi-colored Bic lighters and an ashtray for his non-filtered Chesterfield Kings. I’d be on the other side of the living room spread across the couch with a bowl of Lucky Charms on my chest. And we’d watch television. Lots of History Channel and Walker Texas Ranger and any of those true crime, who dunnit mystery shows.
Grampa and I were close. And it was a special kind of close because we weren’t blood. Pete was my grandmother’s second husband. They got hitched right before I was born. But from the start we liked each other. My first real words were asking Gramma, “Where’s Pete?” And she would tell me, “Pete’s at work.”
So when he got sick and they were unable to make the drive up to Chicago for Christmas, I flew down there to spend it with them. And when he got real sick, in the end, when he was no longer moving around and had lost all that muscle and mass that made him look like the most terrifying man on the planet, and the rented hospital bed was wheeled into the living room, positioned so he could watch television, Gramma called me.
“You need to come down here. And bring your black suit.”
I got on the earliest flight to Little Rock from Chicago. It was a Thursday. I was later told that Grampa, doing his best to be lucid and alive asked Gramma, “Where’s David?” And she told him, “He just landed. He’ll be here soon.”
Those were his last words. So similar to my first.
I got to the house and I talked with him. I guess he listened—I don’t know what happens to a person when the body starts to pack up. I sat with him all Thursday afternoon and into the night watching television. It was on MSNBC because in those last few days, that was all he had wanted to watch. I didn’t dare change it just in case he did have enough life left in him to make a fuss.
By the next morning, though, I couldn’t stand it anymore. One more promo for Rachel Maddow or Al Sharpton was going to drive me to smother my grandfather with a pillow just to end the constant parade of moronic bile that spewed from the mouths of those so-called television news journalists. I suggested that we watch a movie instead.
“What do you think, Grampa? What are you in the mood for?” I sorted through their vast collection of movies, mostly shoot ’em ups. There was a John Wayne box set, which I had bought him for Christmas a few years back. “How about The Duke?” He didn’t answer me, but as I was about to take one of the DVDs out, another film caught my eye.
Out of the DVD case and into the DVD player. I cranked up the volume because that had been how he’d preferred watching anything the last month or so. “Loud as hell,” Gramma called it. The menu came on. There’s the footage of someone being dragged through the snow—I think that’s what it is—and the theme music that plays for maybe thirty seconds then loops back to the beginning.
Before I could hit play and get comfortable, Grampa began to squirm. I knew what was happening. I’d seen this before. His body was packing up and he was, too. He tugged at his breathing tubes. I helped him get them out and off from around his head. He pushed out his dentures, which made me laugh and frightened me at once. He relaxed and began breathing calmly, steadily. He hadn’t done that since I arrived the day before. I called Gramma into the room.
And we took his hands. And he took that last breath. And the Fargo music blared through the house and down the bluff and probably across the entire mountain range.
Gramma said, “I think he’s gone, David.”
I knew he was but I didn’t want to be the one to say it. I put my head to my grandfather’s chest. If you’ve never listened to the chest of a dead man, try it sometime. It’s like putting your ear to a conch and hearing the ocean, but where you expect to hear a heartbeat lungs moving you get the emptiest quiet you’ll ever hear.
I lifted my head and looked at Gramma. I gently nodded, professionally as if I were a coroner making a confirmation. And we stood there with that Fargo DVD menu screen playing its menu screen music over and over and over.
The way Grampa died was sweet. I suppose he had waited until I got down there to be with him and to make sure that I’d take care of things and Gramma after he’d gone. I assume this with confidence because of his last words. And I wouldn’t have had it any other way. It was perfect.
Except for that goddamn Fargo music.
When Gramma eventually left the bedside, I stayed, still holding his hand. I might have cried a little but I’m sure that I kissed him on the forehead and told the husk of his body, “I love you.” And then I squeezed his hand and said, “If you didn’t want to watch Fargo, you should have just said something.”
I watch Fargo the television series every week. I loved the first season and I am enjoying this season equally as much, maybe more so. And each time it’s on, I think of Grampa Pete. And each time it’s over, I call both of my grandmothers just to be sure that my wanting to watch Fargo didn’t kill them, too.