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After

The first in a series about my dying grandfather. Death; it's something no writer can leave be.

The reason I was headed to Pennsylvania on a train was my grandfather, who is doped thoroughly on Morphine, and given two weeks to live by hospice workers. He lived many, many years more than anyone expected; we were sure he was dying last year, and he found a few months inside of himself to keep at it. It was good to have known him.

But still sad. He was always so sharp, and now he's smiling in slow motion and babbling about trout. He would have liked to have gone off like a shot, just dropped suddenly to the floor. Instead, the drug is the only option against pain; he was screaming before they put him on it. The upside is that the morphine, combined with hospice care, keeps him out of the hospital. He'll die at home, in his 60-year bedroom, among his books furniture, right by the window.

My eight-year-old nephew made him a get-well card. It was shaped like a heart, and read, "Dear Pop. Have a great time in heaven. Love, Billy."

I held his old hand, and saw how his body has long since digested its muscles, his burly little frame faded to sticks. From a catheter flowed a long yellow line of urine, into a bag on the floor, and the drugs came into his body through a much smaller tube, originating from a device that looked like a remote control.

"I can just zap him if he gets nervous," said my grandmother, pointing to a button. "It's another kind of narcotic, it calms him right down. I've done it twice." She's taking it well.

Hearing us talk, my grandfather said something unintelligible, then gave a huge, foolish grin. Two days before he went on morphine, he went out with his friend Jim, and even though he was on a liquid diet he put in his teeth and ate a large cheesesteak and fries. Later he was extremely ill, his stomach enraged with the sudden attack of cholesterol. He clutched his stomach, where a 400-volt defribulator already protruded. "It hurts, but Jesus, it was worth it," he said.

After an hour I was left in the room with him, so I said my goodbye. The next trip down will be for the funeral. I held his hand and burst into tears when I felt his palm, soft and old.

He recognized me, barely, and said, "hey, man," his voice a foggy echo of its old cranky tone. For a weeping moment, I held his hand, then said, "hey, Pop." He looked at me and smiled, eyes miles away.

"I love you, you know," I said. He heard that, and he looked me in the eye and said, "same here." It's what he always said; "love" as a word was kept out of his vocabulary.

For a second I saw--or imagined I saw--his real eyes behind that morphine fog, in a moment flashing a goodbye and apologizing for being so slow, so far away, so helpless. I bent over the metal railing on the motorized bed and touched his shoulder, still crying, splashing tears onto his nightgown. "I'll see you," I said.

"See you, buddy," he slurred, his hand dropping to his side. I waved a small, half-handed wave, turned, and walked out.

I took a minute in the bathroom, sopping at my eyes with tissue paper, sniffing. Then I went out to the kitchen, where my grandmother was working at a yellow pad.

"I think it's good for the grandkids to have practice for their parents with the grandfather," said my grandmother. "You get used to death through us." There was a quiet pause. "What your mother was saying," she continued, "is that you might want to take a crack at the obituary when I'm done with it, edit it and tighten it up."

I said, "Well, that's my job."


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About the author: I've been running this website from 1997. For a living I write stories and essays, program computers, edit things, and help people launch online publications. (LinkedIn). I wrote a novel. I was an editor at Harper's Magazine for five years; then I was a Contributing Editor; now I am a free agent. I was also on NPR's All Things Considered for a while. I still write for The Morning News, and some other places.

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