The atheist letters: A death that led to life (Part 1)

by Don Hartness

A dimly lit bedroom in a rural country town.

I flop nonchalantly into an easy chair next to the bed. The heavy drapes, pulled tightly shut, help to hide the dark figure in the room.  He’s here. I can feel him. But I won’t acknowledge his presence. Why should I? He took his sweet-ass time getting here, after all.

“Hey grandpa,” I say softly.  “How ya doin?”

My grandfather, slouched against numerous layered pillows for maximum comfort,  turns his head ever so slightly. Seeing me out of the corner of his eye, he issues a barely audible grunt before returning his head to its forward position. The disease sapping his strength has made  speech almost impossible. Not that he needs words; there isn’t anything to say.

As he watches the muted television, I gaze over at his office in the corner of the spacious bedroom, wishing once more that I could watch him work.  I look at his old Crown typewriter and imagine him in front of it, clacking away on the keys with fingers of iron, hammering each keystroke with the appropriate force necessary for achieving a meaningful mark on the paper. At almost eighty words per minute, it was a sight to behold.

My attention turns to the amateur radio set over the typewriter…

It’s a device forever engrained in my memory. Each year, starting around Thanksgiving, and continuing into February, my grandparents would escape the cold of the Rockies for the warmth of  California.  I reminisce about the nights when he would fire up the old transistors, readying himself for check-in on the net.  As the operator moved methodically down the list of call-signs, I would sit on my grandpa’s knee, wiggling in anticipation for the letters I knew so well…

“W-0-L-A-E,” the announcer’s voice crackled with the letters in my grandpa’s call-sign. I eagerly leaned forward while my grandfather depressed the microphone switch.

“W-0-L-A-E, no traffic,”  I replied, while proudly beaming to my grandpa.

“Uh, Chuck?  Was that you?”

“No, no,” my grandfather would reply chuckling, while casting an adoring gaze towards me. “That was my grandson. I’m south for the winter, seeing the kids.”

“Chuck, you know you aren’t supposed to have kids on the net!” The yearly admonishment would just make my grandfather chortle all the more. He was a man of virtue and he knew the meaning of the phrase “spirit of the law”. It was one of many things he was loved for.

A rattling cough from my grandfather snaps me out of reminiscing.

I look over at this once impressively built man, with his broad shoulders and muscles now sagging from age and disease.  A second-generation Sicilian, his rock-hard jaw-line portrays a fierce sternness to everyone but those who know him.  A tuft of iron-gray hair fails to cover the multiple liver spots dotting his head, spots that are now sharply contrasted by another set of spots, considerably darker and bearing testimony to the final days of his life.

Seeing those spots reminds me once again of who else is with us in this room.

“Watcha watching grandpa?” I ask

My grandfather raises his arm and lowers it in a half-hearted wave of the hand.  He doesn’t know, and he doesn’t care.  The sights of the television are only for keeping him company.  We haven’t talked much this last few weeks, but it doesn’t matter. The mutually shared company is enough for both of us. We continue watching the television: my grandfather, myself, and the shadowy figure in the corner.

It’s hard to believe that this was the same man who, just a few years ago, would climb on the roof of our house and fix the antenna for his ham-radio (with my mother having a nervous-breakdown in the background).  A man with more energy that men half his age.  A man who would spend most of his winter vacation performing home-repairs for all of my elderly relatives.  A man who was adored and respected among so many people that keeping in correspondence with his friends was a full-time job during his retirement.

He did all of this while still taking care of my grandmother.

My grandmother hadn’t been herself since I was a little boy.  Arthritis had withered her hands into raven claws, more susceptible to plucking food than eating it with a utensil. Her strength  withered with her hands, so much that simply opening a jar, pouring the contents, and  cooking said contents, was far beyond her ability.  Regardless, there was nothing to worry about, because “Charlie” was there to take care of her.

Then the strokes started.  Unnoticeable at first, when my grandfather did start to notice that something was definitely wrong with his wife of almost sixty years, he didn’t tell anyone.  My grandfather, like so many others from “the greatest generation”, was no stranger to life’s challenges.  He had conquered those, and he could overcome this too.  For almost two years, my grandfather never let on about his gradually increasing burden.

One day, a phone call. The neighbor was taking care of my grandmother. My grandfather was missing. Panic ensured. While my mother called local hospitals searching for her father, my dad booked the next available flight to Colorado. Meeting my uncle flying in from Washington, they got the word from my mother: he was found, unconscious at a local hospital, the victim of black ice and a large tree while driving home from the local convenience store.

They could tell something was wrong when they talked to my grandmother.  Often disoriented, she would forget the details of a conversation from just an hour before. They repeatedly had to tell her where Charlie was.  Shrewd detective work revealed a telling sign: a stack of coupons, six inches high, all belonging to the convenience store he was returning from prior to the crash. My grandfather couldn’t leave my grandmother alone for more than a few moments.

The family made a decision.  My parents, with the help of my uncle, persuaded my grandfather to come to California and move in with them. My grandfather, once proud to the point of stubbornness, agreed without a whimper. The strokes continued, eventually requiring a new residence for my grandmother: a nursing home.

My grandmother’s new address didn’t faze my grandfather one bit:  he refused to give up on his beloved wife.  Day after day, with rare exception, my mother would drive my grandfather to the nursing home, where my grandfather would take the place of the nurse on duty.  Feeding, bathing, holding her hand, taking her outside; he would only ask for help when he needed to lift her or when fatigue prevented him from going any further that day.

My grandfather had taken care of my grandmother all of her life, and he wasn’t about to stop now. It seemed like unnecessary suffering to me but I didn’t dare question my grandfather’s decision. Some days, I couldn’t tell which one was suffering more: my wheel-chair bound grandmother, or my haggard looking grandfather.

Little did I know that I was about to get a profound lesson in suffering…