I walked from my parents' house across the snowed-over barley field to visit my Grandfather. He was almost dead. He had been living in room 64 of the Oak Villa nursing home for eleven years.
At the hospital desk sat Janice Kemper, my parents' neighbor. I said Hi Janice and she came out from behind the hospital counter and hugged me. I had known this woman for thirty years -- had played with her children for seventeen years before I went to college, baked soupy cakes in her oven, ate Chef Boyardee pizza on her plastic tablecloth, saw her hit Debbie across the jaw with a fly swatter, saw her bent over in the garden digging out potato roots with her hands, heard her laughing with my mother at card club. She had never put a hand on me or looked at me -- at me. She wrapped both her arms around me, heavier than they had been, and pulled me against her chest. I could tell it was against the rules but she was proud that she did it anyway.
I walked down the hall past Mrs. Hinnenkamp's room, past Mrs. Tool's room, past a lady who was hollering Help me help me in Swedish, Hjalpe mig, Hjalpe mig. I knocked on door 64. Who is it? my grandfather yelled. It's me, I said, Mary. Who? he yelled.
Mary, your grandchild, Beatrice's daughter.
Beatrice is dead, he said. He spoke half of everything in low German.
No, not yet, I answered. Can I come in?
Why not, he said. It's a free country. Sit on those things over there. He pointed.
I sat on the green plastic chair covered with five afghans crocheted for him each year for Christmas by my mother. He lay on his back in bed with his head propped up on a pillow watching As the World Turns on TV. He was pink and wrinkled and bald and reminded me of a larva. I had a quick memory of picking apples on his farm, climbing up the wooden ladder in the hot sun and running into his house to show him my bucketful. He'd called me a shithead in German because I'd picked the wrong tree. Scheisskopf, he yelled at me. I carried the memory around with me and sucked it like a pack of cigarettes to die on.
Merry Christmas, I said.
I'm listening to the TV, he said. He sounded annoyed but he always sounded annoyed. I tried to remember why I visited him every year -- it always made me feel like shit and like no one had ever loved me.
Yet I persisted. Did you have a nice Christmas?
Look at this, would you, look at this, he said. What a shithead that guy is. A nincompoop.
I stood up and walked over to the TV. I saw Santa Claus and he looked like Grandpa with pink cheeks, handing out presents to a little girl that looked like me. I got so excited I turned and gave him a hug. He struggled a bit, but I wrapped my arms around him and pulled him close to my chest. I rested my chin on the baldness of his head and pressed my lips to the dry skin.
I let him go and he was dead. His chest was still, his face was loose and white, his mouth hung slack. He looked like some sweet old man.
Nurse! I yelled. Nurse!
But she couldn't hear me because As the World Turns was blasting and the wind had started to push the snow against the window and the Swedish lady down the hall was singing for all her worth.
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