Blackbird – Chapter 9

Personal Crosses

IT WAS EASTER Monday when my grandfather checked in to the local hospital. It seemed like one of his routine visits, so I kept checking in on his progress to see what the medical staff had to say. Nothing looked out of the ordinary, and he was doing so well that my aunt and grandmother showed up with his things that Wednesday to bring him back home.

However, when they arrived that morning, his condition had changed dramatically overnight. The cancerous cells he continuously fought for so many years was taking over his aging body. The candle of hope they witnessed the day before was flickering underneath the quick breath of father time.

An unmistakable look of overwhelming fear greeted me outside his room when I finally got to the hospital that afternoon. More than a dozen family members restlessly waited for their chance to see my grandfather.

BlackbirdBefore I got to the curtained doorway, I could sense this wasn’t going to be a casual visit. I immediately filtered my way through the stricken crowd to find my place bedside. With my grandmother uncomfortably sitting to his right I reached out to grab his free hand and let him know I was with him.

In such an exhausted state he could barely keep his proud head tilted long enough for me to look into his hazel green eyes and reassure him everything was ok. I squeezed his hand and released my nervous grip a dozen times before he saw my familiar face. When he peered in my direction, I could see the look of worry accompanying his charming smile. I tried so hard to mask my widespread fear as our eyes meet.

When I looked around the bedroom and observed the tears forming in the eyes of the others, I knew the bag they packed might never return to the home we intended. I tried to project as much positive energy into the room as I could muster but the fictional character I was portraying couldn’t hide the hint of red behind my glassy eyes.

Finally, I let go of my grandfather’s shaky hand and went into the cluttered hallway to find out more information. The unspoken words I found on the other side of the dingy white curtain was like a horror story, and we all were supporting actors.

It was uncertain if he was going to leave under his own will. I looked for definitive answers but moving down the hallway all I found was confusion. From sons, daughters, grandchildren, and friends they all had a distinct look of fear and sadness. Hours before I was preparing to sit with him at his kitchen table, but now I question why I didn’t see him earlier.

Helpless I walked back into the room to grab his hand once again. I squeezed it even harder fighting off my emotions. My jaw was clenched so tight it felt wired shut as I tried to speak.

My first-born son was only months away from entering this world to carry on my grandfather’s name. There had to be some way to share my son’s birth with him before his spirit flew from his body. All we could do now was wait until the cancer team made their final judgment.

Arriving that morning, I didn’t find salvation but the outcome I feared as my head laid lifeless the night before. He wasn’t making it home this time, and the only option given to us was palliative care. The peaceful easy feeling I once had was now a distant memory. I became lost in my thoughts as I wandered the endless hallway looking for some sort of meaning behind this prognosis.

We decided to move him to a more private room so he could feel more comfortable. The flock of family members surrounding him was starting to grow, and every thought of desolation silently filtered throughout the fifth floor. When they moved him to his new room and placed him into his bed, I couldn’t help but think if this is where I would watch him take his dying breath.

When the impure thought passed through my closed mind, his eyes suddenly opened, and he made a gesture like he wanted to rise. We rushed to his side to help him from the slightly elevated bed. The feeling of desperate hope that encapsulated the room was invigorating. The light that was flickering moments before was now glowing in the eyes of a man who always knew how to fight.

It seemed like a medical miracle as he sat up with a smile directed towards my grandmother. We were all in shock as he found his plate of cold hospital food and lifted the fork to his quivering lips.

We were so excited because maybe he would defy the odds once again and come out of this like he always did before. It took a lot out of him to even lift his hand to find nourishment but watching him stand up in the valley of the shadow of death gave me hope.

When he lied back down to rest, and the room cleared I decided to mirror his strength. I was going to use the knowledge I had been bestowed to give him a little more time on this earth. I knew his earthly body couldn’t fight much longer, but I desperately wanted my grandfather to meet my unborn son.

With everyone standing outside the room I sat next to his bed with only one purpose. I was going to try and move a mountain and watch him rise from the impossible. I gently grabbed his right hand, closed my eyes and asked God to hear my prayer. I visualized the doctor walking into the room tapping his clipboard with his pen giving us good news.

I imagined my grandfather bouncing my newborn son on his knees while he kissed the top of his head. I visualized sitting at his kitchen table eating a feed of flipper pie. I projected myself into every scene like it was a reality. I could see my family looking in my direction but stayed focused on the seed I was purposely planting.

The sun soon fell behind the clouds, and we decided to take shifts. Unsure what the night would bring I asked if I could have the first shift by myself. I planned on spending the night in another imaginary world where the detailed picture I was painting would find this one. My mother didn’t want me to be alone, so she decided to come back in a few hours to sit with me.

Sitting alone with my grandfather I searched for a reason to believe. I turned on the Montreal Canadians game to drown out the silence that was becoming extremely frightening. Pushing my face up against the bottom of his wrinkled sheets I rubbed my cheek against his feet to feel the warmth of his body. Grabbing his foot with my right hand, I heard a voice.

“Are we winning?”

I quickly released my grip, lifted my head, and laughed in his direction.

It’s looking good.”

Watching Montreal games with my grandfather was one of my fondest memories as a kid. I would sit at the right hand of my grandfather and consume hours of hockey. If we couldn’t find his favorite team on the English station, we would turn down the volume and watch them on the French channel. We sat with our arms around each other chatting about the game and our chances of victory.

I felt like a child again sitting beside the only man I have ever called dad. I had the foresight to know that this was a scene I would remember for the rest of my life, so I tried not to think about the morning and appreciate the magical time of the moment.

Getting tired, he asked if he could lie down. Tucking him into his bed, I looked him in his eyes and told him I loved him. I had no idea that would be the last time he would ever hear me say those words in this world.

Over the next couple of days, his condition worsened, and his breathing was fading fast. I wasn’t getting much sleep as each day seemed like an eternity.

That Saturday night I tossed and turned on the couch for hours waiting for my phone to vibrate to the sound of the call I was afraid to answer.

With only a couple hours of broken sleep, I kissed my daughter on her forehead and decided to jump in my car and head to the hospital.

It was a little after four o’clock in the morning, and I couldn’t see a car in sight driving through the city at a frantic pace. My vehicle was shaking from the acceleration, but the landscape seemed so calm and peaceful as it anticipated the Sunday morning drivers passing through its beauty.

I was halfway to the hospital before I realized I was driving in silence. For some strange reason, my radio was turned off. Listening to music when I was behind the wheel was automatic so for it to be turned off made absolutely no sense. I quickly pushed the power button, and a song started to play that grabbed my heart from the inside.

The song was Forever Young by Rod Stewart. I could almost hear my grandfather’s calming voice surrounding the interior of the car as my blinding tears immediately overcame the silence.

I felt such a connection to the song that I slowed my acceleration and peacefully watched the natural landscape flying through my impending pain. His last days were upon him, but I felt him reaching to me from the space between.

The song was still playing in the back of my mind as I arrived and watched him struggle to breathe. He hadn’t said a mortal word in days, but as I gazed through his human body, I knew he was with me. I couldn’t hear him, but I felt his presence through the lasting words of a timeless song.

The day turned into night, and it was becoming apparent that time was running out. My eyes were a heavy blue as I tried to get a little sleep. I found a quiet place next to my mom down the corridor and moved around a few chairs to get comfortable. I constructed a makeshift bench and extended my arms in a perfect letter V as I fell into a dream like a state where I could find solitude.

Drifting away from the reality of the inevitable I quickly felt my foot shaking. It wasn’t a dream but my cousin grabbing my leg to tell me it was time. I kicked away the bottom half of the bench and rushed into my grandfather’s room. Struggling to take his final breath I stood over his frail body.

He wanted to stay, but his body was unwilling. The others stood sobbing, but I was emotionless. I couldn’t feel any tears approaching because I was so focused on his short quick breaths. I wondered if he knew this was the end? I was imagining watching my grandfather take his final breath for days, but as It was released, I felt nothing. It was as If my heart flew away as I stood motionless over his dead body.

I felt so stiff I could barely bend my knees to sit next to him and say my final goodbye. My temperature dropped as I held his hand one last time to say thank you for his wisdom and fatherly advice. It was the first time I ever felt a body without a soul.

I whispered my final words into the wind of change and the face of time. I realized the flesh I was touching was not my grandfather at all. It was only the human vessel his spirit used to experience this world.

When I exited the cold dark room for the last time, I felt something inside of me change. I felt numb driving away from the empty hospital parking lot. I was struggling to find meaning in his death and the purpose of my journey. The path I had been following didn’t have the power it once possessed. It was as if my dreams left my body the moment I released my father’s guiding hand.

Arriving at my grandmother’s apartment to discuss the funeral arrangements I had so many mixed emotions. I wanted to cry, but nothing was coming. I just watched my family put together his obituary with a list of his children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren.

When my name came up, there was a question where it should go. On paper, I was his grandson, but in my heart, he was the only father I’ve ever known. I am the man I am today because of the kindness and love he brought to his family and all those who crossed his path. The fact that he told people he had eight children always meant so much to me.

From the times, we would push our tiny little fishing boat into the pond by my aunt’s house to the basketball net he cemented in our backyard. He was always there when I needed him, but I couldn’t shake the fact that when he needed me, I couldn’t lift him from the hand of death. I was looking for a light in his passing but became more confused by my concept of God.

We spent the remainder of the day at the funeral home getting things together for the wake. I’ve never arranged a funeral, so I just sat back with a glazed over look still trying to inject some meaning to his death.

When my wife and daughter went to bed that night, I sat outside for over an hour reliving the events of such a painful day. My thoughts were flying as I contemplated its deeper meaning. There were no benches situated on my deck, so I sat on the loosely connected wooden slats resting on the ground. There was a battle raging in my mind as my emotions and thoughts fought for territory.

With my knees resting an inch away from my face I decided to lay my weary head and wash away my thoughts with three long deep breaths. When the last breath was released, the battle was over.

I sat with my arms wrapped around my legs in a tightly packed ball. My body started to shake as the emotions unavailable earlier in the day made their way to the surface.

My knees became damp, but I refused to look up and face the reality of the new day presented. I asked God for help as I lifted my head and investigated the darkened sky. With nothing coming from above I told my grandfather I needed him to tell me he was still with me.

Placing my head back on my bended knee I instantly had an instinct to write. I had no idea what to compose, but as I went to search for my laptop, I felt I should write something to be read at his funeral.

It was after midnight, and I had no idea where to start when I decided to sit and let the words find me. The only light shining in my living room was coming from the blank page on the screen.

I remembered the last time I heard my grandfather speak to me from another world, so I broke the silence and fastened my loosely connected headphones. Looking for light through the darkness I found the beat and became lost in the rock and roll.

I put the song Forever Young on repeat to free my soul and feel the melodies behind my descriptive words. I drifted away into the world my grandfather now called home. I wanted him to know that I believed his life had a more significant meaning than the cold dark place that housed his body. I asked him to lean on me if there was anything he wanted to say before he lost his voice.

Then in an instant, I felt the urge to type. I had no idea what to write, but punching the keys, I found the poetic words I thought I lost as a young man. I was writing for an hour, but it felt like ten minutes.

I looked back at the screen and read what I had written. I realized I had written a poem as though it came from my grandfather’s strained voice. It was the first poem I wrote in almost twenty-one years, but I didn’t feel the words were mine. I titled the poem Love of Family.

The day of the funeral was an experience I don’t wish upon my dearest enemy. Having to lift my grandfather up the concrete steps of the church was tough. I couldn’t feel the entire weight of the casket because each beloved child held their share of the burden.

Placing him on the movable base, we made our way to the room situated in the back of the church. It was the same inconspicuous room I sat with my reverend a short while ago to ask her my questions about God.

I told her I didn’t want anyone to know I wrote the piece and to sign it anonymous. I wanted it to read as if my grandfather was present and still with us. She wanted my family to hear the poem before she read it at the ceremony, so we weren’t surprised by an anonymous reading.

After she read the poem and we made our way to the casket I took my grandmother aside and told her I was the author, but the words were not mine.

The rest of the family would soon find out I was the author, but standing in the front of the church, I knew I didn’t write it alone.

Arriving at the burial site and watching his body descend into the muddy earth was a somber experience. I felt buried in sadness with every inch he fell below the exposed surface. We were all given single flowers to place over his sealed casket, and when I set mine beside the others, I felt a piece of myself covered in the same dirt.

I didn’t say a word to my wife on the drive home because I thought I had nothing else to give. The dreams and artistic ambitions that gave me so much lingering hope were no longer present. I couldn’t feel the same spark that lifted my childish imagination. I questioned God and the power of my faith. I wondered if this was the end of my journey as I asked God to show me a sign that the path I was following was more than inevitable death.

Chapter 10

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