My grandfather died because of me, my grandmother needed me to understand. It was because of my greed that he ventured out into a snowstorm, then slipped and hit his head as he made his way home through the snow and wind with my cookies.
Even as a young child, I knew it was a bad idea for him to go out but there was nothing I could do to stop him. I'd clung to his legs in desperation, but out the door he went with a shrug, despite my pleas and cries of despair. Perhaps he did not want to be a frail old man.
My grandmother leered at me as she watched him leave but for the time he was gone, she acted like she did not notice his absence. I stared out the window as the snow continued to fall, haunted by the fear that something bad would happen as it inevitably seemed to in our life. A draft blew through the cracks in the pane and I trembled. My dog, Bozo, seemed to tremble as well. The waiting was unbearable to me. Relief warmed me as I heard the downstairs door close, but it was not the challenged sound of my grandfather's footsteps climbing the stairs, but my neighbor, Bethany, arrived to announce that my grandfather lay in the street bleeding. An image flashed through my mind of my grandfather enveloped in a shroud of snow and without hesitation, I tumbled down the stairs and straight into the snow. It was only as my feet touched the ground that I remembered that I was barefoot and in a nightgown, but it was too late to turn back. I searched for my grandfather as if my life depended on it because in many ways it did.
The visibility was only a few feet in front of my eyes, and as I turned the corner toward the market, I was disoriented. I didn't see my grandfather in the street. Where was he? Perhaps she was wrong and he'd gotten up and resumed his trip to the market. A tug on my arm and I was broken from my trance. Bethany had followed me out. "He's over there," she said, then pointed. I nodded, then braced myself against the strong wind as I plowed forward through the accumulating snow.
My next steps confirmed my fears. I saw a depression in the snow. I moved too quickly toward him and landed on my belly just a few feet from his twitching body. I clasped his hand and screamed for help and even though houses surrounded me on all sides, no one opened a door. Bethany had also walked away. I sat with my helplessness as my grandfather's blood saturated the snow, deepening in shade by the minute, in the way a snowcone colors as the flavor is poured.
My grandfather looked so fragile lying there, defenseless and exposed. I knew not to move him and instead placed my hands on grandfather's face and began to talk to him. He didn't respond to me when I said his name, but I could feel a whisper of breath on his lips. The decay that had crept over his body the past years was more evident as he lay unmoving beside me. The years of drink and cigarettes, a turn in the war, poor diet, even worse medical care, and the stress and strain of life with my grandmother had aged him immeasurably.
"I know that you love me," I told him. "And that you have tried to please me, and give me what I need. You're strong Grandpa. You can get up if you try just like you did when you stopped drinking for me."
It pained my grandmother to say that my grandfather would not stop drinking for her, only for me, and yet she stated it over and over, her anger growing with each telling. "Only for you, never for me, kid." I had seen my grandfather drunk throughout my first years of life, each week carried up the stairs to our apartment and left on the floor to sleep it off. I'm not sure now what made the last time the final straw for me but I remember shouting to him that I hated him and would never talk with him again. I'd kicked him the legs several times, the sore legs that moved my grandfather along with more of a shuffle than a stride.
"I'll give you one chance, grandpa. No more drinking." And he'd shown me his resolve and never took another drink until his death.
But in this storm, my grandfather showed no strength, no sign that he'd even heard me. My grandfather was a quiet man, too quiet for me and my grandmother. He'd sit in his same torn brown chair each night and read his newspaper and fall asleep and I'd watch over him as he reclined in his dirty clothes, the cigarette always beside him no matter how much he coughed. He knew he had emphysema even then, they both did, and smoked anyway. It seemed to be one of the only things they had in common. My grandmother saw my grandfather as the provider and told me she would collect his checks on pay day and hide them so that he wouldn't drink them away. Even after he'd quit the drink, she wanted that money to tuck away just in case. As I warmed my grandfather's face with my hands, I wondered if my grandmother would even come out to check on him. I wasn't certain if hearing of his condition was enough to summon her.
No cars had passed since I'd found him in the near blizzard conditions. It was just the two of us, the snow our shared coccoon. The light from the street and the moon cast a spotlight on our predicament--an old injured man and a small child. I shut my eyes and let my breath flow out as the hushed menace of the wind isolated us further. These would be our final moments together on this street where we had lived my short life. How much I would miss seeing him waiting for me on the porch or coming home with a paper in his hands.
I turned my attention back to my grandfather. His glasses had fallen off his face. I didn't see them in the snow. I brought my hands to the wound on his head and pressed with as much force as I could gather. Blood seeped through my fingers which ached more and more from the cold. As he began to twitch more consistently, I considered that I might need to drag him home. I tried to stand but fell forward, my feet nearly frozen from the cold. It struck me at this moment that he might die beside me, the two of us alone, and I panicked. I gripped his shoulders, wasted and drawn, and started to pull backward.
Before we'd even moved a foot, the sirens blared down Market Street and with them emerged my grandmother. As the ambulance approached, I released the weight of my grandfather and leaned over him to check tfor that same rhythmic breath. My grandmother's presence took me by surprise. As soon as I turned to face her, she struck me.
"You needed those cookies, you stupid little shit? You've killed him. What are we going to do?" She looked down at my feet then her moist eyes met mine again. Another slap. "What do you want to be dead too?"
Everything moved quickly in the moonlit scene. The technicians prepared my grandfather to leave, placing him on the stretcher and loading him into the ambulance. "Are you coming along or will you follow us?" one of the technicians asked.
"I don't drive," my grandmother answered.
"So get in."
I moved toward the truck, but my grandmother pushed me back. "You ain't going anywhere barefoot and with blood all over you."
I looked down at my nightgown. Until that moment, I hadn't realized I was covered in my grandfather's blood.
"Are you hurt?" one of the EMT's asked me.
"No, just dumb," my grandmother answered. "Go inside, and get dressed and wait until I call."
"Will he be okay?" I called out as my grandmother climbed into the ambulance.
"He's hit his head. He's unconscious but he's breathing. We just need to get him to the hospital. Be a good girl and go inside and get warm."
My grandmother would shed no tears in front of me, just vanish. I stood in the snow and watched them drive off, the flashing lights soon dimmed by the snow. On my hands and knees I plunged into the snow and found the bag of cookies but not his glasses. I wanted to be able to give my grandfather his glasses when he woke up. Would he wake up? He always kept them in the pocket of his shirt when he wasn't wearing them. Perhaps they were safe. I heard voices in the wind and looked up to find people up and down the street standing on their porches watching me search through the snow. No one came forward to offer help. Instead they pointed and observed as I carried the wet paper bag toward my house.
Exhausted and terrified by the night's events, each step was more difficult than the last. I could barely place my feet as I reached the stairs. I dragged myself up to the top and crawled into Bozo's bed in the hallway beside our phone table. He licked at my feet, then poked at the bag. Together we waited all night for the call that did not come.
I hadn't planned to begin my search into my childhood with my grandfather. I imagined I would go back to the time of my birth and try to piece together my history from there as a continuation of the narrative I've been writing about my mother's life. But I've been thinking a great deal about my grandfather this past month as it has been 30 years since his death. This is what came when I sat down to write tonight. So here's to weaving in and out of time...