My grandfather spent a lot of time in the hospital. At least, that’s how I remember it.
I remember him as an old man who liked to smoke a pipe--a passion he shared with C. S. Lewis.
At Christmas I would buy him a pouch of tobacco or a new pipe. Giving tobacco as a gift seems like such a strange choice from where I sit now, but at the time, it was a treat for me to go to the Sav-On Drug Store, pick out a pipe or an exotic-looking pouch, wrap them up in candy-cane paper and give it to him. He seemed to really enjoy smoking his pipe and as a boy, I was fascinated to watch him light one of his wooden matched and draw the flame into the bowl of the pipe where he packed the right amount of tobacco. The smell of it seemed like a welcome and happy part of visiting my grandparents.
We visited them a lot. I would go over to their home and cut their grass with a rotary push mower. We would go grocery shopping for them. If they needed something moved from one room to the other, we would go and help. These were tasks I shared with others in the family; we took turns making sure the yard looked nice or getting food for them to eat. And the walls inside the house were adorned with paintings from artists in the family and photos of children, grandchildren and great grandchildren.
Back to their yard, my grandmother seemed especially proud of the passion fruit vine that grew along their fence that faced the alleyway. One of my aunts told me about how the passion flower told the story of Jesus’s death and resurrection. She explained it to me. The apostles, the crown of thorns, the nails that nailed him to the cross and more—all part of the flower. It was a little too complicated for me, but it was a pretty flower and I loved the juice once the flower gave way to fruit. Still, if either of them did any gardening, it was my grandmother or my aunts and uncles or mom and dad or me.
With all of those visits, and the big and little things we did for them, I never wondered why my grandfather didn’t mow his own lawn or do other about-the-house chores. All I remember was him sitting in his chair, smoking his pipe. This was just life. I thought of him as capable. It never occurred to me to wonder why he wasn’t more, well, active. It was all good from my boyhood’s perspective. And he was just great as he was.
Now, looking back, I realize that he was not well. He had heart problems.
This was before the surgeries and procedures and replacements that we have today. When the phone at our home rang at odd times of the night, I began to wonder, as others did, was this the call. If it wasn’t the heart, then there was the even more ominous shadow of a stroke that could leave him paralyzed or, as some of the grown-ups whispered, turn him into a vegetable. My young imagination started to have bad dreams.
As these episodes took place and multiplied, so did our night-time and weekend trips to the hospital.
I stated to feel comfortable at Memorial Hospital. I wasn’t usually allowed into his room, but I got to know the waiting room pretty well. I watched the nurses and the doctors. I read Highlights magazine—or rather, played the games and puzzles that were printed in the magazine. There was a television. And I got to watch the nurses and doctors make rounds, deliver food and medicine, and spend time with my aunts, uncles, cousins.
Usually the visits were in shifts so as not to overwhelm the waiting room or the room he shared with two other patients or the beloved patient himself. But one time, everyone thought that this was the end for him. He must have had a heart attack. Everyone came. The family took up about 70 percent of the waiting room.
Things looked so bad that they even allowed us children go in and see Grandpa. They didn’t exactly tell us, but it was to give us a chance to say good bye. Otherwise they wouldn’t have permitted us to go in. But since no one told us, none of us kids thought of it quite that way. He didn’t look that bad to me. I told him that I loved him, squeezed his hand (he squeezed back), and then it was time for me to step out.
We went back into the waiting room, which had become a makeshift family reunion, a couple of my aunts started to laugh. To appreciate this laughter, I need to explain. The women in my family have loud joyous laughs. My mom had it. Her sisters have it. My sisters have it. And, my wife does, too. So when I say that my mom and my aunts started to laugh in the emergency room, understand that theirs were full-throated, life-embracing and heartfelt laughs that couldn’t contain themselves.
It was contagious. Others joined in the laughter. Then everything anyone said became hilarious. And they couldn’t stop. We couldn’t stop.
The few people not in our family who were in the waiting room looked shocked. What’s wrong with them, their faces asked. They are in here for a person in much worse shape than ours, and they’re laughing.
Some of us felt embarrassed by this display. Afterwards a family member said it was just nerves—they weren’t crying, so they laughed. There was probably something to that, but I look back at that incident as emblematic of a feast in the joy of life…remembering it and hearing at the same time the laughter of my mom, her sisters, my sisters and my wife.
My Grandpa pulled through that crisis. I like to think that was partly because he heard his family’s joyous laughter. And if he heard, though silent, I think in his heart, he was laughing, too.
All the days of the afflicted are evil,
but the cheerful of heart has a continual feast.