77: Every Precious Minute

77: Every Precious Minute

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: Just for Preteens

Every Precious Minute

When someone you love becomes a memory, the memory becomes a treasure.

~Author Unknown

No one said it out loud, but I knew Grandpa was dying. He had been sick since I was four years old. By the time I was nine, I was used to the routine. I became a pro at waiting in doctors’ offices when Grandma or Mom took him to appointments. I had favorite magazines in each lobby and would read them again week after week. Words like “blood transfusion,” “valley fever,” and “myelofibrosis” seemed commonplace.

But when Mom would talk about such things, it was at a whisper. “What did the doctor say? He needs to go again next week? What time?”

Even more, I saw the changes in Grandpa every time I visited. His tall, lean body stooped in weariness. The already deep-tan skin of his forearms sprouted big, dark blotches and scabs. He loved his garden on the back patio, but some days he was too tired to walk five feet out the door to tend to his plants. Sometimes, he couldn’t even stand up to give me a farewell hug.

He was dying. I knew it. That knowledge terrified me. From overhearing Mom and Grandma, I learned that Grandpa was supposed to have lived only six months from the time he had been diagnosed. Years had passed, yet he was still alive. How much more time did he have?

I wanted to do something. Anything. I daydreamed about finding a cure, something that would make Grandpa well and everyone else happy again. But deep down, I knew I didn’t have that sort of power.

Other friends and family reacted in a different way. They were polite to Grandpa and Grandma, but would walk away quickly, whispering as if they were scared of him. I didn’t want to be like that. I wanted Grandpa to know that I loved him and that I was there for him.

During my summer break, I would reach for the phone. “Grandpa, can I come over?” I would ask. If he said yes, I ran for my bike. I rode the mile to my grandparents’ house.

“What can I do today?” I asked him.

“Well, you can water the plants,” he said.

I watered the plants on the patio. I brought him books off the shelf. I handed him the phone. If he felt up to it, he leaned against the kitchen counter and cooked me a hot dog on the stove. On really good days, we would take a bag of stale bread and walk a few blocks to the pond to feed the ducks. He always taught me to look for the slow duck. “Be sure to get some bread to that duck in back,” he would call. “Or the others will get fat while he starves.”

One day I biked over and found one of my uncles visiting as well. Uncle Tim didn’t seem too pleased at my arrival. He and Grandpa were looking over an ink drawing of a broken-down homestead with cracked windows, holes in the roof, and a ramshackle porch.

I peered over their shoulders. “I can draw that, too,” I said.

Uncle Tim opened his mouth, his face looking strange and almost angry.

Grandpa placed a hand on Tim’s arm. “It’s okay,” Grandpa said. “I want to see your drawing, Beth.”

Fifteen minutes later I presented my drawing to him. He praised it and told me to put it on the fridge where Grandma could see it when she arrived home. My chest puffed with pride. I thought my drawing was much better than the one Tim brought.

Months passed. Another school year came and went. Grandpa slowed down. Every other day contained a doctor’s appointment or blood test. When he was home, he stretched out in bed and dozed with the TV on. Finally, he couldn’t walk by himself at all.

“I want to push Grandpa’s wheelchair,” I said.

Mom’s expression was doubtful. “You have to be careful.”

Grandpa smiled at me. “Can you go really fast?”

“Sure!” I said, and grabbed the handles. He dubbed me his official chauffeur. We raced down the sidewalks as I made vroom-vroom noises and harsh squeals for the brakes. Grandpa laughed and added some engine sounds of his own.

A few weeks later, I came home from school. Mom seemed dazed and pale. “Grandpa’s in the hospital,” she said. “We’ll go see him in an hour.”

He returned home a few days later and died at peace in his own bed. Even though I had known it was coming, nothing can describe the hollowness that filled my chest. Grandpa was gone.

At his funeral, I took my seat in the front row. Memorial booklets were passed to us. I glanced down and gasped. There on the cover was the ink drawing of an old house, the same one that Grandpa and Uncle Tim had talked about almost two years before. Oh no. I treated it like an art competition, while all along they had been working on the preparations for Grandpa’s funeral. No wonder my uncle had been upset.

They should have told me when I butted in. I knew what was going on with Grandpa’s health. I wasn’t stupid.

I rubbed my fingers against the coarse paper of the booklet. No, it wasn’t about being smart or stupid. Grandpa knew that I knew. He wanted me there with him. He did protect me, but only to a degree. He just didn’t want me to be sad yet.

I stared at the shiny wood of the casket. I thought about how Grandpa would answer the phone without his dentures in and make me giggle. I remembered his love for his sweet basil plant, and how he would ask me to bring it close so he could smell the fragrant herb. All those days he probably felt so sick and awful he could barely move, but he still let me come over.

Those afternoons together — that was our time to water plants, watch TV, and brown hot dogs until they burst. We both knew he was ill. We both knew he was dying. When we were together, that didn’t matter. We were too busy making memories.

When it was time, my family stood up and filed alongside the closed casket. I blinked back tears. There were so many things I wanted to say to Grandpa if I could talk to him again, but only two words echoed in my mind: “Thank you.”

~Beth Cato

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