It was snowing the day we heard the news. The ringing of a phone call that altered the way my family worked had just finished reverberating through the room before my mom spoke. I could hear the quiet muffled voice of my grandmother on the other side, the usual conversation they had each day. It wasn’t important, so I went to my room to work on homework before the house became too loud.
My room was a mess, the blankets a haphazard pile, scattered across the top of my bed in my the haste to get ready for the day. Shoes were left where they had been toed-off after an exhausting day of school and rude classmates. The dresser was covered in papers and a few items such as discarded clothing and hairbrushes. Homework covered the bed in a off hand semi-circle as if it were in the middle of being sorted. The fan running in the corner caused a soft sound of white noise to fill the room.
The homework wasn’t very challenging, but math was a tougher subject and something that I had always struggled with. Always causing me to spend extra hours poring over it checking that it was correct and I hadn’t made a mistake. Down the hallway I could still hear my mom talking to my grandmother over the phone. The phone calls could last for hours they talked about nothing and everything.
Eventually the conversation seemed to die down, words becoming more sparse as they slowly hung up for the night. Before the phone call came to an end, my grandmother must have finally given the news to my mom, news about what was wrong with my grandfather. I didn’t hear her telling my mom, but after they hung up the house became silent again. After a few moments of silence my name was called from the other room. I put down my math, already feeling my heart sinking as soon as I stepped into the hallway and heard sniffles.
My mom stood in front of the front door, crying. Tears dripped slowly down her face, her eyes red and already puffy. The eyeliner she normally wore was smudged from her hand wiping away tears. Her breathing was erratic, sometimes they were deep breaths making her chest rise and fall in large amounts, it was her attempt to hold it together.
“Megan, it’s Pop-Pop,” she had said. Her voice shaky and filled with despair. “The results came back today,” there was a pause as she swallowed and I waited for her to continue. “He...he has cancer.”
In that moment it felt like the world was freezing thoughts raced through my head but I shoved them back. She started crying again but this time in front of me, there weren’t many times I had seen my mom cry. I wrapped my arms around her as she cried into my shoulder, my own tears swelling in my eyes, leaving small trail tracks down my check. The gray panelling of the living room wall seemed to close in around me as I stood there holding my mother, trying and failing not to cry. I stood, watching the snow fall through the crack between the curtain and the window. The small white puffs of snow continued to fall from the sky, oblivious to the pain surrounding it. I used to find comfort in the falling of snow. Winter wasn’t my favorite season but I still loved the beauty of it, the feeling of innocence.
The next few days passed in a blur. I continued doing everything that needed to be done, things that I always did... homework and chores. Things I usually complained about became the thing that kept my mind preoccupied. The things that helped keep thoughts out of my head of what was going to happen. I had known that everything would start to change, but I hadn’t known the time frame.
We started visiting more to be able to see him before things got worse. Slowly, over the weeks I could see the changes, or hear about them after mom got off the phone. I could see the weight loss, the baldness becoming more present. I saw his good days and some of his bad days. I was there on days when he was in too much pain to even get out of bed, and soon those days became all to frequent. I had known the chemo had stopped working as soon as we got the news that the cancer had spread, and then when it spread again but I still came over, even if my heart broke a little more each time.
The months continued to drag on and the pit growing in my stomach grew bigger and bigger. The winter had left long ago, but sometimes I still felt as if I was standing in the living room watching snowfall out the window. The hospital visits became more frequent, the smell of antiseptic cleaning spray always seemed to linger in the air even when we were home. Eventually the living room in my grandmothers' house was rearranged, a hospital bed was put in place of the second couch. The house I onced loved because of the laughter and jokes fell away. In its place was a house concerned about drugs being taken on time to help with the pain and when the hospice nurse was coming again. The grandfather I loved was a shell of the man he used to be, the belly rolling laughter was no longer present in the cold, somber atmosphere of the house.
It was easier to think about the days when nothing had changed, when life was better. Days when I was younger and so insistent growing up so soon and he would always remind me to slow down. The memory flashed through my head as if I was still sitting in the kitchen chair at my grandmother’s house. The wooden knobs of the chair pushing into my back, Star, my grandmother’s dog asleep at my feet under the table.
“I remember when you were still just a small baby.” He declared with a fond smile on his face, as if his own memories were splashing around in his head replaying details of my life that he had saw.
“Not so small anymore!” I replied back with a smug smile on my face.
“You’ll always be my little girl though.” He countered with an even bigger smile.
I gave him a smile back, not showing my teeth and letting out a small chuckle. “Yea, I guess that’s true Pop-Pop.”
Years later I sat by his side, as he laid in the bed unable to do anything besides breathe with the help of the oxygen chords. We were silent; talking wasn’t needed, the feeling of being close by was enough for both of us. The soft spoken conversations carried from the kitchen to the living room as I sat by his side. The tip tapping of dog toenails across wooden floors echoed from the hallway. My little cousin’s laughter could faintly be heard as he played in his bedroom with my younger brother. I watched the sky change colors over the little shed outback and the forest filled with evergreens. Streaks of purple and pink mixed with yellow and orange before giving away to the deep blue of the night sky. All too quickly, the day slipped into the quietness of nighttime. Caiden, my little cousin, was put to bed and the conversation started coming to a halt, but I still sat in the living room barely moving as I counted his slow breathing.
“Okay, mom. We’re going to head out, it’s getting late but we’ll be back in a few days.” Mom told our grandmother, as she gave her a hug before walking over to my grandfather. Bending down she give him a light hug and a kiss on the forehead even though he hadn’t moved. “Love you dad.” She whispered before finally righting herself and walking to the front door.
She stood there next to my grandma as each one of us kids came over to give our grandmother a hug before looking at our grandfather one last time for the night. Before I left I walked over to my grandfather, going to give him a quick hug even though he was sleeping. I lightly draped an arm over him and softly whispered “Love you Pop-Pop.” More than you could ever know echoed through my mind. I felt a movement on my left side near my arm. The scratching sound of fabric against skin could be heard, everyone froze at the sound of movement. The reason for it was soon discovered as I felt a weight on my left elbow. My torn purple sweater covered my arm but there was no ignoring the weight of the hand that rested against it. As I slowly turned my head, I saw his pale, frail looking white hand resting against my dark purple sweater. The contrast was difficult to understand, his hands always used to be so tan and callused from work. A gentle squeeze was felt as his hand tightened over my elbow. I watched it for a second more before it fell limply next to my arm once more. Looking back at his face I saw his lips moving, even though no sound came out I knew he was whispering back that he loved me too. I gave him a gentle kiss on his check before getting up and walking out the door to the car.
We returned a few days later as promised, it was my sister’s 21st birthday. I hung out with her in the bedroom, seeing my grandfather filled me with more sadness than usual and my eyes would start to tear up. We talked about everything and nothing in the small bedroom. The bright yellow walls with the yellow duckling border seemed to grow even smaller as we talked about what we wanted when we died. It was a quick conversation and after it was filled with silence before I left the room. I sat back in the living room again watching and counting his breathing. They became slower and more shallow as the day dragged on.
Mom sat next to his bed again, her iPad in front of them as she played his favorite songs. Old country music played through the house they continued like that for hours. He didn’t move or even look at the screen since his eyes were closed and she sat there holding his hand. Earlier she had to help convince him to take his meds since he kept refusing when my grandmother asked. It took a while but finally we were able to and then he went back to sleep. The snow outside glistened in the sunlight, like millions of crystal diamonds reflecting. The trees were covered in snow from a previous snowstorm and swayed with the wind, occasionally the snow would fall off the branches, dropping to the ground below it with a small thud. Life outside the window still moved on even if mine felt like it was stopping.
Later in the day, I watched his breathing, never knowing if one of those would be his last until he took his next breath. I knew he was suffering and that each day he was in more pain, but I couldn’t help but wish that he would stay with us forever. There were plenty of bad people in the world who deserved to not live and yet some of the best people were taken to soon. I prayed that maybe some how the cancer would just disappear. That one day when I came over to my grandmothers' I would find him sitting in his chair healthy with his belly back in place, or baking cookies like he always did during Christmas time. Anything, just as long as he was back to being healthy again.
The sunset came once more and then darkness stole the light away. The sunset wasn’t as abstract as the one the night before. Barely any colors had decorated the sky, but the same process took over as we left for the night with processes to return soon. Before leaving I kissed his cheek and said my “I love you Pop-Pop” and then left after hugging my grandmother. The house was quieter than it had been on previous nights. Maybe it was the feeling of sadness that stayed in the house no matter how many times we tried to joke, the laughter would only last a minute or two before the sadness once again took over. The feeling of the unknown was never a good feeling, and in this case the feeling of never knowing when the clock would stop for someone so close was even harder to process.
It was later in my bedroom that my mom came in, she was crying, and I knew the reason why. It wasn’t because my grandfather had cancer, that had already been processed, but because I knew he no longer was alive. My room seemed too quiet now, the music that had previously rolled through the room had been paused. In its place was the sound of sniffling, and breaths that were taken in a way to prevent crying or to try to hold it off at the very least. She gave me a look that I knew the meaning of, even though I had known since she took a step into my room. Her hands shook and she pulled at the hem of her shirt bottom.
“He’s not in pain anymore.” She said her voice filled with sadness.
“I know.” I replied, unsure what to say. “He’s not in pain anymore.” It’s so cliche, how everyone says that after someone dies. She grabbed my hand as she sat down on the edge of the bed, giving it a squeeze.
“You okay? Do you need time to process?” she had asked.
“Yea, yea. I’m fine, I’ll be fine.” I whispered back, using my normal voice seemed too loud, so I decided to whisper instead.
“Okay.” She whispered in reply, then left the room.
I stayed in my room for the rest of the night, listening to music and writing. I wrote about anything and everything that crossed my mind. I wrote about my memories of him, things that I didn’t know before he was not longer with us.
Mostly, I wrote about everything he would miss. It was realizing he would never be at my high school graduation, that he would never see me before I left for college, would never be at my wedding, he would never see any future great-grandchildren from any of us, but most importantly I wouldn’t be able to go to my grandparents house and receive another hug from him, or hear another ‘I love you’, or ‘I love you too’ again.
I realized all of these things would never be a possibility for anyone in our family, it was the worst feeling. He hadn't even gotten to live a full life, a long one, a life that he deserved. It made me realize even more that life was unfair, every breath that is taken might be the last breath we ever take. It made me realize that photos are important and that you can never have too many. The story of his death started with snowfall and teardrops, and ended the same way, that night was spent staring out my window. Not in pain anymore. Snow fell, only able to be seen by the faint glow from the porch light that had been left on.