I held my grandfather’s hand, and looked into his eyes, filled as they were with pain and suffering. How many times had the doctors said, “He’s going to die,” and yet he’d lived another year, another five? Yet this time, I could not bring myself to believe that they were wrong. He laid his head back down, and closed his eyes to rest. I stared at him, and realized that I had barely known my grandfather.
Most of his life had passed him by before I was even born. What there was left of it, he ending up letting go in a puff of cigarette smoke. I rarely saw him without his surrounding cloud; when I was about ten, I criticized him for his poor habit. How painful it was, now, to learn that I was wrongfully pressuring him; he could not stop himself, it was an addiction like any other. And it ate away at him, until all that was left was this frail body before me, laboring for every breath.
I have so few fond memories of him that do not include a smoke cloud. But, when I was much younger, he would try to put out his smokes when we came. Instead, he would sit in his kitchen, in his underwear, and teach his six-year-old granddaughter to swear. This usually brought fire from my father. “You don’t need to teach her words like that!” He chastised his father as he shooed me away.
Grandpa had laughed at him, “Damn right I do! I watch the news; this damn world ain’t safe for wimmin no more. She gotta learn ta be tough! I’d teach her ta fight too, but I’m too damn old. What I can’t figure out is why you don’t.”
“Dad, she’s six. She’s perfectly safe. Adrian, why don’t you run along and play with some of the toys?” Grandpa always kept toys about, usually the odd, cheap buggers from Avon or another TV channel.
Of course, I had other targets in mind. I snuck into their bedroom, where I saw the small tower. It was one of those brown, shelving things that you sit on your dresser and fill with candy. Grandpa was smarter than that though.
There were three layers; one was always empty, one was always filled with fisherman’s cough drops, and the last was filled with–joy of joys–butter mints.
I snuck into his room to steal some of the mints; I’d been here last week, and I’d discovered them in the middle shelf, so–of course–that was the one I opened.
I heard him laughing behind me as I looked in it and saw–horror of horrors! Fisherman’s cough drops! What bigger let down is there for a six-year-old looking for candy than to come upon nasty cough drops where candy should be?
I turned to scowl at him. “Grandpa! You bastard, you switched them!” My father blanched at my language, and immediately set out to punish me.
“Don’t you dare, kiddo.” My father froze halfway to me, and Grandpa laughed again. “She’s learning to be tough, aren’t you my girl?” I flexed my puny muscles for him, and growled.
He laughed again, but it was a laugh that turned into a cough, and a cough that didn’t end…my father turned his worried face to his father, who shook his head, and smiled a little at me. He tried to make light of it by saying, “Better luck next time, Adrian!” It was too late to check another, so I went back out to their kitchen, and accepted a poor substitute in butterscotch disks. I didn’t always loose, but I rarely won. A few weeks later, Grandpa was taken to the hospital. His heart was beating too slowly, so they wanted to put in a pacemaker. But I was six, and only knew that my beloved Grandfather was ill. My father took me and my younger brother with him when he went to explain the procedure to his mother. My brother had never been on a butter mints raid, so I snuck him into the bedroom with me. I opened the middle shelf, but found cough drops, yet again. Confused, I went for the bottom shelf; Grandma and Dad were too busy talking to notice us in here. This one was empty, so I opened the top. It was empty too.
There were no more butter mints. I think that was the first time I realized that this vile darkness caused by his smoking would always be there. He would never be able to defeat it. It would always mutilate whatever happiness we had together, as its deadly clouds billowed about his head, like a pall. He was as much a prisoner of his smoking as anyone behind bars, and nothing, not the great strength of my Grandfather, let alone my meager strength. He would never be able to escape it, and he would never be able to help himself any more than any other addict.
A weak cough brought me back to reality. Smoking had done this to my Grandfather, who had moved the butter mints around, who had taught me how to swear. Thanks to his cigarettes, my grandfather’s life was cut so short.
He caught my somewhat preoccupied look, and squeezed my hand. I realized then that he knew. That was what was hurting us both worse than anything man can contrive. He knew he was going to die soon. “Rest, Grandpa.” He laid his head back down and continued watching the football game. New Year’s Eve is a rotten time to hold the hand of someone you love, and wait for them to die. The clock struck midnight, and it was officially 2003.
Grandpa began to roll his shoulders as if he were in pain. “Grandpa? Are you okay? What are you doing?”
He looked at me, shockingly lucid. “I’m spreading my angel wings.”He smiled at me, and I smiled back. For all that I had barely known him, I knew he was going to need his wings.
Two hours later, I noticed his hand growing cold. His eyes were closed, and my Grandfather was gone. Maybe I should have run down the hall and screamed for the nurses, but I knew he wanted to go. If there was a God, He had called my Grandfather, and Grandpa wasn’t coming back.
I sat in the front row of his funeral, and held my Grandmother’s hand this time. She sobbed constantly, and could not be consoled. She knew I was there when he went, so she had asked for me to be here for her, in the front. The pastor had to speak loudly to be heard over her sobs. “We all have fond memories of Robert. Who would like to share theirs?”
I stood, surprised at myself, but full of determination. “Most everyone here knew him as a strong man. He was just my Grandpa, and one thing will always remind me of him-butter mints.”