“I wish I’d tried harder ….” Gramps began. Then his voice gave out. When he could speak again, he continued, ” … to let people know I cared about them.”
That’s what Gramps told me from his deathbed. It was a depressing beginning to the last conversation we ever had. I was thirteen, getting ready to start out on what figured to be the best summer of my life. Then, out of nowhere, Gramps, who had raised me all by himself ever since I was six, had to go die on me.
“People know you care, Gramps. Everybody knows.” I didn’t know what Gramps was getting at. He had more friends than anybody I knew. Gramps treated everybody as if they were his best friend. I figured that just about everybody who knew Gramps well considered him their best friend.
“Some know,” Gramps said. “But not enough. Not nearly enough.” He closed his eyes and his lips tightened. I knew he was doing all he could to keep me from seeing his pain. The doctors had him drugged up pretty good, but I could see that those drugs couldn’t take all the pain away. After maybe half a minute he opened his eyes and gave a slight nod of his head toward the bedside table. If I hadn’t been looking right at him, I wouldn’t have noticed it.
I reached over for the water glass and put the straw to his lips.
I watched him take a sip, then slowly pulled the straw away. “Ahh,” he sighed. He ran his tongue across his bottom lip. “Thank you, Scott. In sixty-two years, I never knew until now just how good water can taste.”
“Do you want some more?” I asked.
His head moved just a fraction of an inch to the side.
I set the glass back on the table and thought of it in a new way. Water. Something I’d always taken for granted, but certainly not the drink of choice in our house. Milk and sodas. Sometimes orange juice at breakfast. For both Gramps and me. Throughout the day, both of us drank sodas to try to quench a thirst the sodas never completely took care of. We’d drink another soda and another, but the result was usually not the end of thirst but a brief postponement of it. I suppose if I had a mother or father living with us, or Gramps had a wife, maybe we wouldn’t drink so many sodas.
When sodas weren’t available, I’d drink water, of course, but I never really realized that the effect of water was much different from a soda. I wouldn’t get thirsty nearly as quickly after drinking water. I moved my eyes from the water glass and saw that Gramps was talking, though softly, very softly, and I’d missed his first words. What I heard must have been the end of a sentence. I don’t know what got me thinking about sodas when Gramps was maybe dying.
” … on a one-to-one basis,” he said. “Sure, I care about the people I know, and they know that. But what about strangers? I never gave enough of myself to strangers. I’d walk by sometimes without even making eye contact. Some people … ” He paused for a minute or two. I thought he might have fallen asleep. Then he said in a faint whisper, “All they might have needed … wanted … was a chance to connect. For the world … not to hate … or ignore them.”
He stopped and took a deep breath before he started again. “If I had just one more chance. If I could only live life again, knowing what I didn’t know the first time around.”
You’re going to live a long time yet, I wanted to say. But I couldn’t. Because I knew it was probably not true, and Gramps had taught me never to lie.
He said one more thing—left unfinished: “Let people … ”
I watched him sleep. As he lay there, weak and flushed, I thought about how just last week on our golf outing he looked ten years younger. Gramps and I go out together, just the two of us, quite a lot, and sometimes he lets me sub for one of the men in his regular foursome when they can’t be there. Last week in the foursome Gramps’ buddies shot 84 and 88. I had an 89. Gramps shot a 79. And with a bad knee. He’d ridden in a golf cart, of course. His knee wouldn’t allow him to walk eighteen holes. But he still had to make his way from cart to ball. He had to limp to all eighteen greens and chip and putt his ball. He even had to adjust his swing because of his knee hurting.
But when he finished he was beaming, “Seventy-nine. A good way to celebrate the last round I’ll have to play on this bad knee. After the surgery next week it won’t be long before I’ll be able to start walking the course again and get my game back to the low 70′ s where it belongs.”
And the surgery on the knee went well. It was some crazy bacterial infection that was draining the life from him. The doctors didn’t seem able to treat it. Stop it. It was their business to cure the infection. Why couldn’t they? They’d gone to school for years to become experts and they couldn’t even perform a simple knee operation without screwing up. Gramps was healthy and strong and just finished shooting a 79 on the most difficult golf course in our county and now he was dying?
When I was four, my parents were killed in a freak accident. They were cutting a tree in our yard and somehow it ended up falling on them. Gramps and Grandma took me in to live with them. I was six when Grandma was crushed between two cars while carrying a bag of groceries in a supermarket parking lot. It wasn’t until I was older that I wondered about how they could all die in such freak accidents. I even asked Gramps, “Is God mad at us?” He told me to not ever think that. So I never mentioned it again.
I never stopped thinking it, though.
Gramps raised me alone after Grandma died. But we weren’t really alone; we had the help of all Gramps’ friends. It always seemed that even strangers were nice to us, and Gramps was nice to them. So I really didn’t understand why Gramps thought he’d failed. What could he possibly have done to make a difference in the lives of total strangers? I really needed him to explain it to me.
But I never had a chance, because he never opened his eyes again. So when I left the hospital for the last time I had no one to turn to. I had only his last unfinished thought, “Let people…” to hang on to.
The day that Gramps died I spent the night with Hallie Donnelly. Or rather, she spent the night with me. She picked me up at the hospital and drove me back to our house, Gramps’ and mine, in her old Buick. She’d wanted me to come home with her, but I didn’t want to spend my first night without Gramps in a strange house. Hallie slept in our guest bedroom. Even though she’d been coming to our house at least twice a week for the last five or six years to clean our house and sometimes even prepare a meal for Gramps and me, she’d never slept over before.
She had a husband she always went home to. Yet she made us call her Hallie, never Mrs. Donnelly. Sometimes when I watched reruns of The Andy Griffith Show on TV, I fantasized about our being a real life counterpart of the show—me as Opie, Gramps as Andy, and Hallie as Aunt Bee. If she could just have stayed with us permanently, it would have been an almost perfect replica of Andy’s family.
Hallie was kind of built like Aunt Bee, short and plump. Actually, more stocky than plump. One difference between them was that she was younger than Gramps by maybe ten years, not older like Aunt Bee was. And her hair was red, like Opie’s. The funny thing was, as she got older her hair seemed to get an even brighter red instead of streaking with silver like you’d expect it to. Like Aunt Bee, Hallie was good-natured most of the time, smiling and joking and acting as if dusting and vacuuming and scrubbing our toilet was just about the most fun thing a person could do in life.
It was just after three in the morning when she came to my room. Maybe she’d seen the light from under my door. Or maybe she’d heard me crying. I don’t know which, but she knocked on my door and called out in a soft voice, “Scott? Can I come in?”
I told her she could.
I’d gone to my room right after we got home from the hospital a little after eight o’clock and tried to sleep. Several times during the next few hours I even had a few scattered minutes of sleep before always waking to the awful truth that I hadn’t been dreaming; Gramps was really dead. But the last time I woke up, about an hour before Hallie knocked on my door, I hadn’t been able to force myself back to sleep. So I ended up sitting at my desk with a scrapbook in front of me. It was actually a combination scrapbook/photo album that had been started by my parents and then continued by Grandma and finally by Gramps. It made me feel bad to see all the empty pages at the back of the book with nothing left to put on them.
When Hallie came in, the book was open to a page that had three photos on it: Gramps standing with Mom, who was wearing her blue graduation robe the day of her high school graduation; Grandma standing next to Mom while Mom held up her diploma and looked so happy I couldn’t hold back my tears; and the third photo, which was of Mom opening a brightly wrapped present. This page didn’t have a picture of the present, but I knew the next page would; I’d seen it before.
Hallie came over to me and put her hand on my shoulder. I knew of course it was Hallie touching me, yet I closed my eyes and tried to imagine it was my mom’s hand. I couldn’t really remember Mom’s touch, or Grandma’s. I hadn’t experienced that kind of touch, a woman’s touch, since I was just a little kid, almost too long ago to remember.
I opened my eyes and saw through my tears the photos of Mom and Grandma and I saw their hands, felt one of those hands touching my shoulder now. I wished. I wished it was one of those hands, but I knew of course it wasn’t.
“Why?” I said, still staring at the page of photos. “It isn’t fair.”
“I know,” Hallie whispered. “I know.”
I closed the book and stood and turned toward her. I don’t know which of us reached out first. We hugged each other, and I don’t know if she was crying but if she wasn’t, I was doing enough for both of us.
Even though I was a few inches taller, I rested my head on Hallie’s shoulder. She ran her hand through my hair and started humming. Maybe a lullaby, I’m not sure. But I thought I remembered something: a moment from at least ten years earlier when Mom was singing me a bedtime song and holding me to her. That moment must have happened; it seemed too real to be a dream, and I thought how very cold and lonely the world must be for those people who don’t have someone to hold them close, to hug them, to hum lullabies to them in both the darkest and brightest moments of their life—someone who cares enough about friends or strangers to make a difference.
After a few minutes, Hallie said, “I’ll stay here in your room until morning, if you’d like me to. I can sit at your desk while you try to get some sleep. I know how hard night can be, especially a night like this.”
“I’m okay,” I said. “I’m getting tired. I’ll be able to sleep now.”
“I’ll be right down the hall. If morning doesn’t come fast enough, just wake me up.”
“Thanks, Hallie, but I’ll be okay. I’ll be able to sleep now.”
I lay and stared into the darkness for a long time. Finally I turned on my TV. I hit the mute button so the noise wouldn’t carry down the hall and disturb Hallie. I surfed the channels, trying to find an Andy Griffith rerun. When I couldn’t, I finally settled on an old black-and-white Western and watched men chasing each other on horses, saw noiseless pistols puffing clouds of smoke, saw horses falling and bouncing back up without their riders, and it was starting to get light outside when sleep finally came.
I dreamed of Gramps. I saw him first on the golf course, pumping his fist after making a twenty-foot putt. I saw him clapping when one of his playing partners holed out from a sand trap. Then, without even a commercial, the scene changed. Gramps was wearing a uniform. Army. Maybe Marines. I couldn’t tell. But he was crawling on the ground, shells exploding around him.
When the shelling stopped, Gramps stood weaponless amidst a cloud of smoke. When the smoke cleared, he was standing maybe forty feet from an enemy soldier. The enemy soldier had his rifle pointed directly at Gramps.
Then I heard Gramps’ voice, but not a battlefield voice. I heard the voice from the hospital bed, the one that said, “All they might have needed was a chance to connect.” Gramps and the enemy soldier exchanged looks. They made eye contact. Gramps smiled. As they drew closer, neither took his eyes from the other. They the enemy soldier bent down and lay his rifle on the ground. He stood and he and Gramps embraced.
The sunlight woke me. It took a moment to shake the details of the dream away. It had been a stupid dream. In reality, Gramps would have been shot or taken prisoner. One can’t change the world by making eye contact with the enemy, or by smiling, especially if the enemy has a rifle pointed at you. At thirteen, I was old enough to know that much.
I thought of Hallie corning to my room and embracing me. But she had been a friend to me already; nothing was strange or unexpected about that. It couldn’t be compared to the embracing of an enemy soldier. The world I had known my whole life was a confusing blend of death and joy, of friendships and loss, of meeting new people. Of growing close to others. And Gramps had taught me love. What I knew of hate I had learned elsewhere.
I wished with a deep ache that Gramps were still alive. And not only because I loved him and missed him.
There was so much I still needed to learn from him, so much wisdom he had taken with him to the grave. I wanted to be the kind of person Gramps was, somebody who cared about others. Without him to guide me, I didn’t know how I could. I needed desperately to learn the secret of his unfinished “Let people . . .” and I wasn’t at all certain I could learn it on my own.
I closed my eyes and fell back into sleep. I dreamed again. Surprisingly, the same dream I’d had earlier, the one with Gramps and the enemy soldier.
When I awoke, I tried as hard as I could to remember Gramps’ lesson.