“Don’t you remember your grandson?”
Blue eyes. Vibrant against his bronze skin, innocent like always—the gleaming relics in a body secretly atrophying before us. Henerrush, he finally said. My name. A recognition to me, but the start of farewells for him.
Blue eyes. Opening for the last first time, my sister’s presence awakens him. Our bodies, kindly, know how to let us go, though. They rip apart, slowly but surely, allowing cracks for the good stuff to seep out. First goes the memory, the catalyst to the loss of cognition. The senses endure.
Jam i uritur. You can barely understand his pleas for food through the mask—a modern day torture device, blasting his airways to keep him alive while he begged for it all to stop. Half sepsis, half technology—the internal war in the body just made more room for him to keep slipping out.
My grandfather was always surrounded by women, from his first days to his last. Three daughters were enough to permanently emasculate the typical Albanian patriarch. But he was different from the others. Quiet, generous, and remarkably thoughtful. Always waiting patiently in his Ford hatchback at noon to pick me up from AM-kindergarten. But the attention faded, from forgetting how to drive the car at first to forgetting that his youngest child in Miami had ever existed.
But she came for the end, when they knew the infections had aggregated to a lethal level. My grandmother, mother, sister, and aunts watched. Waited. Left as the hospice representative injected the morphine, cleaned his body, shaved his face, and tucked him into his deathbed after undoing the webs of wires and tubes that had engulfed him.
A series of short breaths. A cycle of beeps. A final release.
I called my aunt that night. She didn’t answer on the first try, per usual. She called back a few minutes after, just as suspected. But it was different this time.
“Gjyshi… he’s passed.”
But hadn’t he been doing better? Wasn’t he going to leave the nursing home finally?
“We didn’t want to worry you. None of us knew until a few days ago.”
I could feel every section of my skin becoming hot and sweaty, my heartbeat increasing exponentially.
“You called the second he took his last breath. It’s like you knew you needed to be here.”
But I wasn’t there—I was propped up in my fluorescently-lit single at a college hundreds of miles away. I wasn’t there, because I was selfishly thinking about a summer job while my grandfather was literally suffocating under the creeping presence of death. I wasn’t there to hold the hand of my sister, someone barely older than I am, who watched something that would scar most people for a lifetime. I wasn’t there. I wasn’t there. I wasn’t there.
And then I was there. The ticket was booked, emails to professors sent, and before I knew it I was back in my cookie-cutter Ohio home. Pictures of my grandfather were scattered in every corner of the home. My favorite portrait of him, now housed in a new, sleek frame, stared back at us while we sat in the living room during cycles of silence and sniffles.
“You get your good looks from him. It’s good that you don’t look like your father,” my grandmother said facetiously. She’s wearing one of her new black outfits, part of the family bereavement shopping trip to pick out clothes for the funeral. She hasn’t worn color in almost a year now, and will likely not for the rest of her life.
His portrait followed us everywhere for the rest of the weekend. It stared back at me once again as I approached the casket.
Blue eyes, no more. I think that was when I finally understood. Two days before, I was in a desk looking down at a textbook. Now, I was looking down at death. I rested my hand on his chest and felt what should have been skin. But what was once a human was now the craftwork of the mortician, pumped with a slurry of formaldehyde and methanol and painted with chalky makeup. I almost wanted to crack open his eyelids to get one last peak at his humanity. But, of course, they were sewn shut. Just in case he decided to get one last look at life, I guess.
Roses on the coffin, soon to be descended into the ground and sealed into the vault for eternity. The priest arrived with his thurible of incense, melodically singing ancient script as we all waited in silence. The Bible closed, “the soul has risen.” It was all over. But everything felt incomplete.
We sat around the table with a mound of cash-stuffed envelopes in the middle. The Albanian tradition of giving money at a funeral, to help cover expenses, still fascinated me. It showed the character of a people who suffered so much, endured dictatorship and poverty, yet still behaved so generously in times of tragedy.
That entire weekend was filled with stories. Stories of the happy times with my grandpa, but also about the times of my family before America and our quotidian Midwestern lives. One of my favorites was about my grandmother. My grandfather worked as a truck driver, meaning he was often gone for days at a time transporting industrial goods to the country’s northern regions. My aunt remembered all the “man-jobs” my grandmother had to do as she operated as a fundamentally single parent.
The most memorable was the wood-chopping. Every evening, ax in hand, my grandmother would head down to the street and prepare fire wood for the furnace. My mom and aunts were so embarrassed by her, unabashedly performing this masculine task with her skirt bellowing in the wind. But now it reminded us of how strong she was.
Rather, how strong she is. A bank worker her whole life, my grandmother has a knack for counting money. I watched as she picked up each envelope, quickly counted and recorded the bills within, and moved onto the next. She was in her element. I imagined her back when she was young and doing the same work. A woman in her late twenties, her bob haircut and simple pearl necklace, sitting in an old oak room filled with cigarette smoke and the humid summer air.
And finally, I felt certainty again. Certainty that my grandmother, immoveable and clever, would be happy again despite her husband’s departure. Certainty that the women in my life would, like always, move mountains for the ones they loved. I was certain that we would continue to thrive. We’ve never had any other choice.
One symptom of my grandfather’s dementia was an obsession with pennies. We would place them around the house, and he would laugh like a child with joy when he found them.
I always get excited now when I see a penny on the street. Not for the potential luck, and of course not for the fiscal value. It’s because it reminds me of him. When I bend down and see that copper face, I don’t see Abe Lincoln—I see my gjyshi. A man of few words, but with character rich enough to be described by a million.