Breathing

“Krista,” came mom’s shaking voice and warm breath. “Grandpa Arlie’s very sick. We, uh,” she wiped a tear, “we have to go home today.” Without questions or answers, I put on shorts and a t-shirt and gathered up my vacation souvenirs.

Three hours later, we pulled up to the downtown hospital. I had been there with Grandma and Grandpa lots of times for their routine tests and doctor appointments. But something felt different. Maybe it was just strange ending vacation in the florescent halls of the ICU. My little brother, Brad, and I played with our vacation toys in a cold waiting room with quiet adults blankly watching us.

When we got home later that evening, our blonde cocki-poo puppy greeted us by jumping up to lick our hands. Grandma had taken good care of her while we were gone – until Grandpa’s stroke. I skipped up the steps to my attic bedroom and was arranging stuffed animals and trinkets when I heard a knock on the backdoor. It was Stefanie, my friend from across the street. I bounded down the steps and ushered her out to the patio. It hadn’t hit me yet. But as we sat on the grey concrete, the summer sun slipping closer to the horizon, I told her about vacation, then Grandpa Arlie.

“You never, like, really realize how much you love someone until it’s like they might not be there anymore.” Stefanie stared down the gravel driveway just wanting to ride bikes or play Super Mario. But for the first time, something whispered to me that Grandpa could die, would die. I rubbed the scar on my left hand and remembered.

***

“What’cha doin’, Grandpa?” I asked.

“I’m whittlin’,” he answered without looking up.

I giggled. “What’s whittlin’?”

“Come ‘ere an’ I’ll show ya.”

I hopped down from the porch railing I’d perched myself on and skipped to him. Down on one knee, he showed me how the chipped brown bark gave way to smooth blonde wood. He carved off more bark and formed a point at the tip.

“Can I try?” I asked.

“Oh, I don’t know,” he answered standing up. “I s’pose if yer real careful, we can let you whittle a bit.” Together, we scanned the yard for a stick.

Grandpa found a thick branch and, down on his knee again, he instructed me. “Be real careful. No rinky-dink business. Hold the knife like this. And point it away from you. There you go,” he said as I took the pocketknife and sliced off a bit of bark.

On my next attempt, the blade came too close to my fist. Before Grandpa could grab my right hand or shout, “No! Stop!” the knife sliced into my left hand. Where the index finger meets the palm, blood gushed and Grandpa turned white.

“June, June!” He jumped up. “Get out here, quick.”

Grandma June ran out, saw the blood, ran back inside, and returned with a washcloth. Then, she wrapped my finger, picked me up, and slid into the passenger side of their Buick with me on her lap. As we sped to the emergency room, I looked at Grandpa. Tears streaked his face.

***

Forgetting that my friend had come to play, I traced my scar.

The next day, I dressed up in a polka-dot outfit and went to the hospital. Whispers and beeping filled Grandpa’s room. Mom and Brad were hushed and nearly invisible; mom crying and Brad too young to know. Dad guided me to Grandpa’s bed and said I could tell him about the Cardinals’ game and what I won at Six Flags.

“He can hear you, even if he doesn’t show it,” dad smiled.

I reached toward Grandpa’s hand, but the needle in his vein scared me. I pulled back and stayed close to dad. Eye-level with the bedside railing, I let my fingers touch Grandpa’s arm and took a deep breath.

“Uh, I, um, got a new stuffed animal puppy named Maxie at Union Station. And the Cardinals…” I couldn’t remember the game.

“Tell him about Ozzie,” dad coaxed.

“Oh, yeah. Uh, Ozzie, Ozzie Smith did a backflip and…”

“And what did you do at Six Flags?” dad urged.

“Um, oh yeah, I got to ride the Screamin’ Eagle. But I didn’t – I didn’t really like it. And…”

I couldn’t ignore Grandpa’s gently closed eyes and the tube breathing for him. I looked up at dad.

“It’s okay,” he sighed.

I let my hand fall away from Grandpa’s arm and looked at him for the last time.

The wind whipped and whistled outside that night. The house had settled and was quiet with mom and dad at the hospital and my cousin asleep on the couch. I slept on the floor in Brad’s room, the whelming dark driving me from my lonely bedroom. Succumbing to silence and night, I finally shut my eyes. Bmm, bmm. Bmm, bmm. My heart, loud and strong, sounded like it was pulsing outside of my body. You’re alive, you’re alive, it echoed. But that wasn’t enough to quiet my confusion and fear. My awareness. I knew Grandpa would be dead in the morning and I couldn’t stop thinking.

Then I heard Brad. With eyes shut, I listened to his rhythmic inhale and exhale. And that was it. His whispering breath, my lullaby.

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