By Nick Billone
I took a week off of school to spend every day in my grandparent’s house in Bedford Park. I always loved Bedford Park—the feel of that small south Chicago suburb, where houses seem locked in each other’s arms. It’s the kind of place where children still ride bikes to places, and the fenced-in public parks are stockpiled with children running wildly and screaming like a low-financed zombie movie. All of the glorious summer scenes were tethered to a single gray strand, wrapped tightly, and sucked dry from the inside. In its place was the moment I stepped into the car and the moment my feet reached the concrete of my grandparents’ driveway.
Their home was a one-story home with a basement peeking slightly above the ground. The back door, which we entered, opened to the middle of a staircase. We never spent much time upstairs. Downstairs was for company; it was where the television was, the big kitchen table, where the negligible dinnerware was. Little light seeped in from the small rectangular windows where the wall met the ceiling. It entered almost as an afterthought, gently shedding pale light on a few areas. At the edge of the space, huddled in the furthest corner, was a television, a small couch, and two reclining chairs—all red with little indecipherable golden emblems in a checkered pattern. It was where the men (including myself, being a little man but still a man) watched the Cubs games. Upstairs was a slim hallway leading to different rooms beginning with a small dining table which led to a small peninsula counter top with overhanging cabinets. The peninsula, in turn, led to a small curve of a kitchen. A doorway adjacent led to a small bedroom containing a couch and a beige recliner sure to break. This would be where Papa lay in his final days. It would be where he would take that final breath, ensuring the belief that the world is full of ephemeral qualities. Beyond that door was a bathroom still fashioned in light blue floral tiles throughout and time colored yellow countertops. To the left was a bedroom, the door was always shut. I only have a fractional image of their large bed with a perfectly laid out white comforter spread across and a black and white photo within a bulky brown wood frame. It was from their wedding. Even in black and white it seemed discolored with age. Papa was poised, stiff, but gallant. All of the pictures of him held such a heroic quality—as if he had just defeated his foe, just dove atop of the grenade ready to explode, just pulled his sword from the dragon’s dense scales.
Even Beowulf grows old when enough pages turn.
It seemed everyday Papa was becoming weaker in some unspeakable way. He looked the same each day. The jaundice had already turned piss-yellow any part of his dark skin and all the white of his eyes. He rarely stood and when he did it was only for a minute to stretch himself. He moved in such calculated and mechanical ways, like inside his body was an assortment of gears all jammed and rusted. None of this changed that week. He wasn’t becoming any better or worse. His limbs always moved in the same stiff manner. His skin maintained the same golden hue. But somewhere we all saw the pain and fatigue takeover the will. Something from within him was faintly oozing into the atmosphere. His strength was depleting.
And so each morning I would wake up and sit next to my mother at the kitchen table. Only the first couple days did I have to argue about missing school. By the third day, the bus rolled on down the road, and we didn’t say a word as the hum of the engine dissipated. I needed to be there to watch him go. I needed to be, and she understood that more than I ever could.
“Beautiful day,” my mother said.
My aunt and I rested on the concrete slab, which encased a small mound of dirt and some colorful flowers that had just began to bloom. My mother sat on the steps. We ate our sub sandwiches in silence as my grandmother cried, yelling Italian phrases to an invisible audience. We had known she was losing her memory. Alzheimer’s was slowly mashing her mind into a gray lump of putty. As her husband lay in the room, all alone, blinking each slow and exaggerated blink between life and death, it succeeded in liquefying her brain. There was nothing we could do but sit on the front porch, taking small tasteless bites from our sandwiches, praying for this moment to end.
“It is,” I said, after swallowing. “It is.”
My aunt was turned towards the screen door, watching her mother pace back and forth in the front room, dressed in black slacks and a black sweater even as the heat beat on incessantly. Her white hair, usually curled back and well-kempt, was matted down and lumpy. He fingers fiddled on an imaginary task, almost as if she were sewing.
“It’s alright Dawn,” my mother said from the steps. We could hear her attempting to hide her running nose. “It’s alright.”
“No. No. No. No.”
“It’s alright. Listen, it’s alright.”
They continued on this way until my aunt hunched over and hid her face in her hands.
I ran my hand through my hair and sighed heavily. Tears soaked my eyes, but I kept looking forward, to the rows of roofs along the sky, wondering what tragedies occurred under those roofs. Who was dying? Who was living? Who couldn’t pay their rent or their medical bills? Who didn’t know when their next meal would come or whether or not their husband will come home pissed-off and drunk or just drunk? I tried to think of all the horrific stories that could be told beneath those roofs and how they were stories I wouldn’t have to tell.
The priest’s car pulled into the driveway. I was surprised when he emerged wearing a blue polo, khaki pants, and white sneakers. I don’t know why I expected him to come in the same season-accentuated colored robes I had forever seen priests wear on the altar, but I felt it would have been appropriate.
“Hello,” he said. He smiled politely. He was energetic and joyful. He did not speak but sang the words without effort. We responded at different times, with various versions of greetings, with our own variant tones and pitches. We were a broken choir.
My grandfather now lay in a hospital bed in the very same room. He slept most of the time, and when awake, he attempted to speak of dreadful things, never with enough strength to finish any of the thoughts. He would look on to us, halfway through a sentence, clutching our hands on the guardrail, tilting his head back and starring upside down at a framed picture of Jesus. I remember that picture of Jesus most. His hands were pressed together in prayer. He, as my grandfather did, looked upwards beyond the frame, towards the ceiling. The look of Jesus’ face was of pure vulnerability. There was gentleness and grace countered by a slight sense of sorrow deep in the eyes, which perturbed me. Even cast in the backdrop of golden light, warmed in God’s love I myself had never felt, there was still sorrow in Jesus’ own eyes.
I was in the room with my grandfather when the priest finished talking with my aunt. They had such jovial chatter before he stood in the doorframe in his beige khakis and blue polo, with that same smile I thought on the porch as polite, I could only now in my grandfather’s dying room see as smug.
“Hello! Giuseppe!” he exclaimed, holding the steel bar of the bed while leaning over my grandfather’s face. He quickly peered over to me, smiled, nodded, and said before turning back to my grandfather, “How are we feeling today?”
“I hurt.” Papa said like a child huddled under the blankets with the flu. He had never hurt before.
I knew very well he was not some magical superhero. He was a regular human being, with a third grade education and who spoke broken English and repaired broken furniture, who only on great occasion drank a little homemade wine, who served in the Italian army during World War II as a clerk in an office, who helped hide Nana’s Alzheimer’s by watching over her in the kitchen no matter how much she yelled for him to “Get outta ‘ere!”, whose fingers had been smashed so many times over the years that he had hardly any nails left on his hands, and who hurt in an unfathomable, indescribable, and unparalleled way. Still…I had never heard him say he hurt. Never even heard him say he was sore or uneasy. Like the picture on his dresser, he constantly maintained such relentless strength. It would be a lie if I said he maintained it until he died. I don’t see weakness in that. I won’t see weakness in that. I refuse it.
He passed away the next day while I waited in line at a Taco Bell. I decided to stop for lunch before I arrived on the last morning of Papa’s life. It was all I wanted, to be there, to say goodbye.
I sat on the porch. The plastic bag with my lunch slapped as hot wind blew by. There was a sort of tension surrounding me that smoking cigarettes could not relieve even as I lit one after another. I could hear muffled cries and short waves of comforting phrases through the screen door behind me. They spoke of God and Papa’s journey, my mother and father, Nana, my brother and sister, my aunt and uncle and two cousins. They had all arrived, held his hand, and kissed his forehead. They told his body they loved him. They wept in each other’s arms. I had a row of crumpled cigarette butts and half a mind to tell them all to stop touching him. That wasn’t my grandfather—not anymore. I wouldn’t dare let myself recognize the shell of a man who was something more than what was left behind. What lay so eerily still in the hospital bed wasn’t even a fraction of my grandfather. It was the crisp snakeskin left to rot in the desert.
And yet I held his hand so terribly tight in mine as he lay in his coffin. He was surrounded in dark wood and plush white satin cushions. His face was relaxed, like in a soft, dreamless sleep. I squeezed his flat hand until my own hand turned red and my bones became sore, repeating to myself that he had died and this was his body and he wasn’t far away from us…just gone. He had traveled anywhere, and he hadn’t a soul. This wasn’t him and wouldn’t ever be him again. I told myself again and again “Papa is dead. He is dead,” and it was the first time I listened.
I damned the sun. In the secret conversation I had in my head, I damned the sun. How could it shine like an enormous interrogation lamp? How dare fate, or God, or the world presume it to be appropriate for a bright, sunny day; where people mulled around on street corners, children ran down sidewalks and played in the park, and an elderly couple just moseyed in the church after my Grandfather’s funeral? Nothing seemed to care. The funeral procession of a meager sixteen cars sauntered along the road in the sunshine, and I damned the heavens for foregoing the musty smell of rain and bitter cold for this exhibition of happiness in living and breathing. Alone in my car with that orange banner glued to my windshield reminding me and everyone else of my position, I damned the entire world for seeming to care less about the man who lay so frigidly cold in the hearse four cars ahead of me.
It was decided we’d take Nana out of her home. The Alzheimer’s wouldn’t allow her to live by herself. My Aunt and Uncle took her one week, and we would take her the other. So a few days after the funeral, when the few sets of clean black pants and black shirts my Nana was wearing ran out, we decided to go back to their home and pick up a few things.
After five minutes, Nana started screaming, “Dis is my housa. I go no place,” and I found myself alone with the black marks of my previously stubbed cigarettes on the front porch. After the first one, I realized I was swinging the keys to my mother’s car around my finger. I lit another as I backed the car from the driveway.
I ended up at a park I had never been to. I don’t remember how or how long it took. It wasn’t a parking lot to the park, but rather the end of a street that looked to the park without any means of entrance. A fence, thick summertime weeds, and grass cut the park off from the street. Kids ran all over woodchips and others hung from monkey bars. One walked across the top of the monkey bars from one side to the other and when he was about halfway across his mother ran over to him and screamed, “You gunna break your neck!” But he didn’t care what she had to say. He finished the journey. He laughed and ran off, grabbing onto a long yellow pole that connected to the ground. He slid down it.
That stifling tension Bedford Park assumed since my grandfather died, remained. I found it difficult to breathe, difficult to move, to think. The one potential thought was, I lost my Papa, and it occurred so frequently here that it appeared to be purposeful, as if it was an important part of cracking a riddle. It was then, as I surveyed the liveliness of the park, that I had begun referring to him as my Papa. Only now did I call him my Papa. Only now did I feel a sense of ownership or entitlement to him. Now, as he no longer continued to breathe, did I recognize him as some integral part of my life.
And there, in my mother’s Malibu, I recognized the imperceptible power of language as I thoughts ran through my mind such as no longer, had, used, missed.
My phone rang. It was my mother.
“Peachy,” I said.
“Where are you?”
“Some park, a little ways down the road.”
I thought about it for a minute. I was okay. It was all starting to make a little sense.
“You coming back?”
“Putting it in reverse right now. See you in a few.”
“Sure you’re okay?”
“Meh. Getting along, I’m sure,” I replied.
“Okay hunny. I love you,” she said, and hung up the phone.