He moved slowly from the hospital bed to the bathroom. I watched his agony. I looked over at my grandmother. She sat quietly, his pain reflected in her eyes. They had been married, my grandfather and grandmother, for over forty years, and had raised two daughters, my aunt and my mother. And now she watched him slowly die.
Life seemed ahead of me. I looked around the sallow room, uncomfortable. My grandfather’s time in the bathroom was excruciating. He shuffled back to his tormented bed, the agony hewed into his hard face by cancer’s implacable ax. I helped the withered body crawl back into its death bed.
Grandmother: Did you pee?
Grandfather: I tried.
Grandmother: You need to pee.
Grandfather: I know. I can’t.
My grandmother looked at me helplessly. She shook her head. I turned away. Through the streaked window, I stared across the exhaling vents of a forlorn rooftop. I thought, I don’t want to be here. The view was distressing. I sat down, glancing uneasily at my grandmother. She knew.
Grandmother: Why don’t you get something from the cafeteria?
I’m not hungry, I said.
Grandmother: How about an ice cream?
No, thank you.
I stood up and walked around the yellow room. My grandmother followed me with her watery eyes. She was fragile. I thought, maybe I should go down to the cafeteria.
Do you want anything? I asked my grandmother.
Grandmother: I can’t think of anything.
Maybe I will go down.
Grandmother: Do you need money?
No, I have some.
I glanced over my shoulder. My grandmother looked away, my grandfather stared back in twisted agony. I walked unsteadily down the bright corridor to the elevator. I held my breath against the stale air inside. The cafeteria was noisy, clattering dishes and stale talk. I ordered coffee and sat as far away as I could from the blue scrubs and clatter of visitors. The coffee was bitter and tepid, but I didn’t care. I felt alone. My grandmother, I knew, would be alone soon. This was no place for anyone.
I lingered, but finally felt compelled to leave the cluttered cafeteria. I found the stairs and walked up to the sixth floor. When I stepped into the bright corridor, I turned the wrong way. I walked past the nurse’s station. Someone asked if I needed help. No, I don’t think so. I turned around.
My grandmother sat alone. My grandfather was in the bathroom. The smell of stale death made me nauseous. My grandmother’s weary eyes pleaded with me to stay. I sat down. She smiled over at me. Anything? I asked her. She shook her head. The wide door opened. My grandfather faltered. In agony, he walked back to the narrow bed. I slid the rolling tray away to give him more room. He steadied himself on my arm.
Grandmother: You need to tell the nurse.
Grandfather: And she’s supposed to pee for me?
Grandmother: No, but maybe she can give you something.
Grandfather: I need to pee. What can she give me?
Cancer had destroyed his kidneys, and through the consuming pain, only the frustration to pee defeated him. I remembered him as a tall man. He was small now, wrinkled with pain. On the rolling tray beside his bed, his gold pocket watch lay next to yesterday’s newspaper. He looked up at me.
Grandfather: That was my father’s watch.
Grandmother: And his father’s father. That watch has seen three generations.
Cool, I said.
Grandfather: My grandfather helped put in the first railroad here, begun before the Civil War and completed many years before I was born.
What about your father? Did he work for the railroad?
Grandfather: No, he was a farmer. He farmed the same place I farmed after he died.
Grandmother: It’s where I met your grandfather. He was the most eligible bachelor in the county. Because he had the largest farm. It wasn’t much, really, but there were over two hundred acres free and clear.
Grandmother: I had to trick him into marrying me. He was a stubborn bachelor.
Grandfather: That’s just what she thinks.
He laughed, followed by a fit of coughing. The smile in his eyes faded. I looked over at my grandmother, her hands folded in her lap. She was helpless. My grandfather looked down at the watch.
Grandfather: I need to do something with that watch.
He looked at me. I looked away.
Grandmother: Why don’t you just give it to him? You want to, you know you do. It doesn’t do you any good.
My grandfather was worn-out. I turned away, staring out at the ugliness. It was an ugly hospital in an ugly town. Why would any railroad want to come here?
Grandfather: My fingers can’t wind it anymore.
I reached down and picked it up.
Grandfather: Make sure you don’t wind it too tight. The mainspring is strong but can be wound too tight. Wind it forward then backward. Forward then backward.
I held the watch in my left hand and wound the stem forward and then backward. It felt solid in my hand. I wound it until it wouldn’t wind anymore. I looked down: 11:56.
Grandfather: You did fine.
Thank you, I told him.
He smiled. There was something between us. He coughed and I helped him out of bed. He walked unsteadily to the bathroom and closed the wide door. I listened. There was nothing other than his unsteady scraping in front of the toilet. I looked down at the watch. For a minute, I heard the click, click, click. It had run through three generations, through the building of a railroad and a farm. I held it in my hand, unsteady. I looked up when the toilet flushed. My grandmother looked over at me, hopeful.
Grandmother: Did you pee?
Grandfather: A little. I still need to pee, but I can’t.
Grandmother: Well, a little is good. Better than nothing.
Grandfather: It isn’t good, it only encourages me to die more slowly.
Grandmother: You aren’t dying.
Grandfather: No? And what do you call it?
Grandmother: As long as I’ve known you, you’ve been stubborn.
Grandfather: I’m not being stubborn now. Death is.
I helped him back into the stained bed, the strong smell of ammonia bringing on my nausea. He needed to die, I knew. But death isn’t as easy as we think it is. Death held him in its unsteady grip.
My grandmother sat with her hands in her lap. There wasn’t anything to say. Unknowingly, I had slipped the watch into my pocket. When I looked down at the rolling tray I saw that it wasn’t there, quickly pulled it out of my pocket, and laid it down. My grandfather closed his weary eyes.
About the author
I am a writer living and working in Longmont, Colorado. After the suicides of my son and wife, I have devoted my life to the existential examinations of the fragile human psyche in the hope I might help others find the courage to go on.