The front door was cracked open. I was hesitant to be the first one to go inside. What if I was the one to find him? Would I be the one calling 911 while my dad tried to wake him? It would be the logical thing to do. Pushing into the front entryway, I turned right into the living room. The TV was on, but Grandpa wasn’t there. I exhaled.
It was the same yellow house from my memories, but the paint was chipping. The furniture was where it had always been, and the big gold curtains were pulled back from the front window, letting the evening light in. I noticed a few chunks of foam Boo had pulled out from the ugly floral print couch sprawled over the burnt orange shag. Davenport, not couch, I corrected myself. It was Ugly Floral Davenport the Second, at least during my lifetime. In the past sixty-eight years he’s lived here, I’d bet he’s had a half dozen. The original Ugly Floral Davenport complemented the carpet, no doubt picked by Grandma. It was accented by her crocheted afghan, an alternating chevron pattern of orange, brown, white, red, and sage green. This new couch lacked the blanket.
I stared at the floral pattern. The print felt like a cheap replacement for the one that I used to pull the cushions off of and make a bed with on the floor. I never did get tall enough to need more than three of them. I glanced again for my afghan that wasn’t there and felt betrayed by its absence. The last time I spent a weekend here, Grandpa told me I was too old for sleeping on couch cushions and made me sleep in the guest bedroom with the creepy clown painting. Was it that long ago? Has it been almost ten years since I’ve stayed here? The guilt rushed over me as I had an urge to pull off the cushions and lay there without my afghan.
A layer of dust coated everything in the house. A plate of eggs and sausage sat on dining room table, untouched as if on display. My throat tightened as I saw the tiny glass fixtures on the shelf. When I was eight, the fastest way to them was by crawling under the table, and Grandma never stopped me. They’re tiny oil lamps… Identifying them was like pulling up the blinds, and I hated myself for it. I turned back to the cold breakfast. You need to check on him. I forgot to exhale.
Cutting through the kitchen, I turned right down the hallway, stopping out of eyesight. Breathe. I closed my eyes and prepared. Peeking around the corner, the bedroom door was open. Grandpa was laying on his side, still fully dressed in his jeans and flannel, facing me. My eyes stung as I watched him gently inhale in his sleep. Good. Mom had called me a few days before, telling me nothing was certain. Dad had to take his truck keys away. Don’t be surprised if he doesn’t recognize you. I returned to the living room. It was empty, but there didn’t seem to be a place for me. Unsure of what to do with myself, I fidgeted with my watch. Will he remember the last time I was here?
“The whole damn neighborhood has gone to hell,” Grandpa took in a french fry. “I wouldn’t send ya to walk down the street, ya might get shot.”
I raised an eyebrow as I noticed the neighbor’s kids playing across the street on their tricycles. “Mhmm,” I affirmed through my cheeseburger. If you wanted to bring him lunch, fast food was the only option. Anything costing more than “two bits” would get you grumbled at.
“Kids nowadays don’t know a damn thing. Can’t e’en figure out how to work a pencil.”
I smiled and listened contently. He’s crazy, but he’s my favorite. Eighty-six and diabetic, he usually keeps spare cake in the fridge in case he wakes up feeling his blood sugar is too low. Or for when it’s his birthday, then he eats cake with his beer. In the eighth grade, he dropped out of school after his principal told him he couldn’t skip class to go hunting. I think the words he used were, “Just watch me.”
I heard Mom walk in behind me. “Did you check on him?”
“He’s sleeping,” I responded, not turning around. She walked around me and into the kitchen. The squeak of the faucet and clattering told me she might be doing dishes for a while. I unfastened and refastened my watch as I heard my dad come in through the garage. Hushed tones as Mom relayed my update, then pounding steps into Grandpa’s bedroom.
Grandpa told me stories, a couple of which he repeated that afternoon. Most of them ended with me smiling and nodding and him saying, “Yep. I’ve lived a good life.” At 21, I was thinking the same thing. I wasn’t living my dreams, but I figured that was reserved for people who want to live longer than I did. I have stories; I’ve loved and been loved, lost and been lost, overcame and struggled. That was good enough. My phone screen lit up to remind me of my coffee plans after lunch, and I felt my pocket for my keys.
“I’m ready to go.”
He took the words from my mouth. I looked up at him, rocking gently in his recliner with his hands folded across his stomach. He watched the black screen of the TV.
“I’ve lived a good life. More than most. I’m ready to go.”
I shook myself out of the memory. Not now, I thought. I can’t think about this right now. I followed the sound of the dishes. The flooring in the kitchen was so worn down I couldn’t remember what it used to be. There were piles of mail on the breakfast table, and a half-empty package of cookies, most likely from the Dollar Tree. The antique Frigidaire caught my eye and my hand began to reach out to open it. My heart kept screaming that if I opened it, I would find a whole bag of Reese’s peanut butter cups and a box of strawberry kiwi Capri Suns in the bottom left drawer, because Grandpa always kept them for me, no matter what. They were always there, just for me. My vision clouded. I don’t know how long that drawer had been empty, but I couldn’t bear to see it. I turned my back against the fridge and allowed something else to hold me up for a minute.
Dad and Grandpa became audible as they began arguing over the cable box. Maybe he’s better than we thought. I heard the faucet squeak off, and my mom glanced at me. I was still clinging to nonexistent candy and juice as she exited. Walking towards the debate, I finally followed my mom down the hallway. Grandpa didn’t look up as I rounded the corner. Will he remember me? Will he remember the last time I was here? Leaning against the wall, I folded my arms and waited quietly. Clearly tired of the petty fight, Dad changed the subject. “Did you see who’s here?”
Grandpa turned his face towards me. It lit up. “Well hey there, shorty,” he said weakly.
My heart leaped and I smiled. He knows me. “Hey, Grandpa.”
“It’s been good,” My throat clenched, and Dad decided it was time to jump back into arguing. As the topic changed to moving Grandpa from his bed to his chair, Dad asked Mom and me to take the dog on a walk. I knew both Grandpa and I preferred not to see him like that.
Boo heeled at my side, attentive as always, and we started walking down the trail alongside the house. The habit was still so natural, I didn’t think twice about the route until Mom asked where we were going. After all these years, I couldn’t believe she had never walked to the park from Grandpa’s. She had never kept the heels of every bread loaf and walked to the pond to feed the ducks, or seen the playground, or the creek as it filled with leaves in autumn. It felt unfair to show her, like she didn’t deserve to witness it all. It was sacred. Mumbling something about the heat, I turned the dog back towards the house. We talked about how other family friends were doing and what they were up to, as if the information was urgent compared to our situation. As if we were fine, and this was normal.
“Don’t let them put me nowhere else,” he begged. Pointing to the carpet in front of me, he demanded, “When I die, I wanna die right here on this living room floor.” He choked on the last word and his eyes welled.
I stood there, speechless. The last time I saw Grandpa cry was Grandma’s funeral, and ten-year-old me focused as hard as I could on counting daisies. There were no daisies for me here. Nodding mutely, hot tears began to pour down my face.
“I’ve lived a good life and now it’s my time to go.”
My mouth was useless to me as a man I treasured so dearly in my life spoke many of the words I had thought to myself the last few months. I was so afraid to say them aloud, and hearing them from him tore me apart at the seams.
“Okay,” the word came out distorted and I coughed. “Okay… I have to go.” There was nothing left in me to give. Adrenaline was bursting through me, telling me to flee from whatever this danger was.
“I love you.”
“I love you, too.” I tried not to think too hard about the last time we made that exchange.
Head tilted back in his recliner, Grandpa sat with his eyes closed. It felt wrong that he was too weak to rock his chair. Mom and I watched Two Broke Girls, on what was apparently the only channel available, in silence. Dad tried over and over again to make Grandpa drink and take his medication with minimal success. Every time the studio audience laughed I wanted to chuck the TV out the front door. Boo slept peacefully at my feet, blissfully unaware. When my parents gave my dog to Grandpa I was upset, knowing that meant my favorite part about visiting home was gone. At that moment, though, it felt right to have him there. When Ginger passed a couple of years ago, he was devastated. The old man wasn’t complete without his chubby Golden Retriever who used to steal the neighbor’s recycling on garbage night. I was glad he had my dog with him afterward.
After an hour, Dad decided Grandpa had drunk enough for the night. He looked back and forth between me and Mom. “Are you two ready?”
“We’re going to take off, and I’ll come back in the morning,” He announced. Grandpa, eyes closed, nodded and waved him on. He coughed.
“Do you want to say goodbye?”
His eyes opened a sliver and fixed on me. “Take care, little one,” he whispered to me.
With humility and no more mascara,