“C’mon now, Pop.”
“Look, there’s no reason to take death so seriously. People fear death for two reasons. One is regret, but regret is only something to fear if you have a future. I don’t have much of that left. And once you can accept your past, you can accept death. The other is ego and I’m far too aware of my own insignificance to believe that my dying should cause any kind of apprehension.”
This was the conversation I had with Harry a few months before the doctors diagnosed him with dementia. It was a rapid and sudden deterioration. Soon, he had lost the mental faculties to even relieve himself independently.
It had always been just Harry and me. My parents left me for unrelated but equally selfish reasons, though I was so young when they left that they existed only as unwelcome wraiths in my memory. So Harry, my grandfather, took on the burden of caring for me, but I found myself unable to return the favor when the opportunity arose.
He was angry, not at me for putting him in a home, but at Death for having deceived him. Harry had long accepted his own mortality and was prepared to go quietly with Death when the time came. Instead, Death chose to let him live, but with one foot out the door. Since Harry’s deterioration was purely of his mind – his body remained as strong as one would expect of a veteran Marine and former steelworker – he was left with the capability to live but not the capacity to do so.
The nursing home was sterile in its setting, but with the necessary facilities, the nurses impassive but effective. Paul, the man next door, was a frequent visitor, having mistaken Harry for his brother. Otherwise, the residents generally kept to themselves, though they gathered in the television room every afternoon for an hour of mandatory “community time” – all there, but none quite present.
Harry oscillated between madness and lucidity. Whenever I visited, which never seemed often enough, he assured me he knew who I was. I didn’t doubt that he recognized me as someone he knew, but I was never sure he could name me if I asked. I never asked. It was far more comforting to pretend that our bond transcended the constraints of biology.
He continued to tell stories, as he always had. In his moments of clarity, he spoke longingly of Abigail, the grandmother who passed before I was born, but whom I felt I knew intimately thanks to Harry. In those moments, it was as if nothing had changed when in fact, so much had. In his more absent states, he spoke incomprehensibly about the war to no one in particular.
“Have I ever told you about Margaret?”
“No Pop, I don’t believe you have.”
“She was the other woman. My one lasting regret. I spent my entire life trying to live without regret, so when I met her, I didn’t think I had a choice. I’d been married to your grandmother for almost ten years at that point. But, I thought that if I didn’t act on my feelings for Maggie, I would never properly love Abigail, that I would always wonder what could’ve been. I was wrong. When I realized it and came back home, your grandmother forgave me and took me back, of course. No one would’ve blamed her if she hadn’t. But she did. I never went astray after that, but I wish I had understood sooner that some desires are best left unexplored. Certain regrets are more unbearable than others.”
Harry had spoken too articulately for his story to have been a product of his dementia, but disbelief at the man to whom these types of weaknesses could not have seemed more remote was the natural reaction. As he stared out of his window, never having turned his head as he spoke, I realized Harry wasn’t looking for a response or forgiveness from me. Yet, here he was, confessing.
There was a long pause. Somehow, the buzzing of the fluorescent lights overhead enhanced the silence. They gave off an artificial white that seemed to penetrate the entirety of the nursing home. We were both sitting, facing the room’s double windows that looked out over the city park across the street. The heavy floral curtains swelled hesitantly as the air conditioning unit kicked on, letting out a grunt and whir.
“I wish you had met her, your grandmother,” he finally said, turning to me. “She would’ve doted on you like no one else could.” For the first time in a long while, Harry smiled.
Harry never mentioned Maggie again. I asked him once more about her, out of morbid curiosity, but he had no idea who I was talking about.
Soon he became more and more laconic and eventually the stories just stopped, both anecdotal and fantastical. The vast silence overwhelmed me with regret as I realized I’d already had my last conversation with him. But because of Harry, I had hope that that feeling would one day pass.
After Harry died, I spent most of my free time in the park where we had spent countless hours playing chess, neither of us having the heart to end the game. I watched the old people in their final stages of this existence, living out what remained of their lives in quiet mirth, patiently awaiting their turn to move on. I recognized their expression of contented acceptance and wondered if they’d realized, like Harry had too late, that the world was not black and white, not even in life and death.
Photograph by: Whitney Ott
Written by: James Mo