BEAUTIFUL COFFIN

BEAUTIFUL COFFIN

Harried and hassled, the doctor stood outside the locked double doors, blue cotton cap askew, eyes weary. “Do you know if he’s taking any medication?”

Shoving his hands into the deep pockets of his jeans, the boy shrugged his shoulders. “Don’t know. Sorry.”

“Is there anyone who does?”

Shaking his head, the boy’s voice cracked, “I couldn’t get a hold of anyone. I left messages.” With a nod, the physician pushed some buttons on a black keypad. Immediately, the double doors began to swing open. “I’ll let you know something as soon as I can, okay.”

Straining to see through the doors, the boy could only catch glimpses of drawn curtains, shiny machinery, and bustling nurses. Anxiously, he looked at the doctor, “Should I, um, I mean, can I stay with him?”

“Not yet,” the man told him, eyes on the young face, voice softer, “it’ll be fine. Don’t worry. You did good.”

Locking him out, the windowless doors clicked back into place, leaving him alone with a sense of helplessness he’d never known before. It wasn’t like playing a baseball game, behind by too many runs, losing a certainty no matter how hard you tried. It wasn’t like flying down the mountain, skis slipping out from under your body, snow spraying your face, landing in a tangled heap. Those kinds of things he knew, but this was different. Hands shaking, he balled them into fists, desperately trying to ignore the great hollow feeling that had formed in his gut. Slowly, he turned away from the doors, moving down the hall to the busy waiting room. A tension filled the place, overflowing from the other patient’s families, spilling into the stale, medicinal air. A solitary figure, the boy was surrounded by at least two dozen people, strangers to him yet recognizable by the palpable fear etched on their faces. Hunched over on the hard plastic chair, he struggled to block out the hospital sounds that rattled his nerves and sent his fingers twitching. Head between his hands, he mumbled a few words he hoped might pass for a prayer. How did this happen? He knew he should have offered to do more, but he was glad to beapart from it all, unconcerned and uninvolved. Still, the boy’s ability to remain detached had been wrenched from his control in a moment of spontaneity he regretted almost immediately.

“Go,” he’d told them, “go and have a good time. You deserve it.” And with those careless words, he was left to face the worst of it, alone in a smelly waiting room. It wasn’t part of the deal, was it?

Closing his eyes, his mind flew to the image of the gleaming coffin, the memory clear and satisfying, a welcome distraction from the present. He could still see the casket set up high on the altar, bathed in a yellowish spotlight, covered in white, pink, and orange flowers. Candles glowed on either side of the pulpit where the pastor had stood draped in purple and white robes, the faint odor of incense wafting through the air. Seated in the first row, between his mother and father, he’d remained quiet during the service, outwardly showing a reverence he did not feel or even understand. On the other side of his dad, his grandfather snapped his fingers, one hand three times and then the other, over and over again until the boy’s father stopped him, gently taking the gnarled hands in his own.

The pastor had spoken, reciting moving and inspiring words, but the boy daydreamed instead about an upcoming baseball game. Yet even as his mind wandered, his eyes had been drawn to the polished wood of the closed casket, remotely aware that his grandmother was lying inside, cold and lifeless. She had been the first of his relatives to die, at least that he could remember, his first real experience with loss. Having never seriously given any thought to death before, he only knew it wasn’t the way he thought it would be. After all, shouldn’t he have cried like his mother or shut himself in his room to be alone like his father? But he hadn’t done any of those things. He’d borrowed the car keys and gone to a movie with a friend.

At the gravesite, standing among the mourners, it was again the coffin that had held the boy’s attention. He’d watched, awed, as that beautiful casket was slowly lowered into the ground, covered by shovel after shovel of dirt, until the cherry colored wood was no longer visible. Around him, there were no sounds other than a few sniffles and the scritch, scritch of the shovel smoothing the pile of soil into a perfectly molded lump. Now, months later, in the waiting room of the ER, head in his hands, he could see it all again, so bloodless and so real.

A nurse tapped him on his shoulder, saying his name softly. “The doctor says you can go in now.”

Rising stiffly, he stretched his legs, suddenly aware that he had been sitting in the same hunched position for more than an hour. As he followed the woman, she gave him instructions from the doctor. “He’ll be in to talk with you as soon as he’s done with another patient but he said you could sit with your grandfather if you want.”

“Is he going to be all right?”

“All his vitals look good but,” she paused, “well, there are some issues I’d better let the doctor explain. Your grandfather is still not conscious but he is resting comfortably. If he wakes up, just call for a nurse.” She pressed the buttons on the black keypad allowing him through the double doors. Keeping his eyes on her back, he looked straight ahead. “He’s in here,” she told him, pulling back the blue flowered curtain.

Frozen, the boy stood outside. A heart machine, like one he’d seen on TV, was hooked up near the bed, grandpa’s heart rate pulsing across the screen. A plastic bag with a clear liquid was hanging from a metal pole, a dangling tube feeding from the bag to the old man and, finally, disappearing into his arm.

She looked at him oddly, “You can go in.”

Swallowing, he took a few steps closer to the bed. Yanking the curtain back in place, the nurse left him with his unconscious grandfather. Sitting in the only available chair, fingers tapping, the boy stared at the man’s pale skin and shrunken body. So much had changed in such a short time.

“Hey, Grandpa, it’s me, your grandson.” His voice sounded high and squeaky and he made an effort to speak a little slower, a little clearer. “Uh, I just wanted to let you know that I’m here if you need anything. I know you’d rather have Dad but, uh, I’ll try to fill in ‘til he can get here.” The blip on the heart monitor was small but steady and the boy looked from it to the ashen man on the bed. Fearing no response, yet just as afraid of getting one, the boy kept talking. For no reason at all, he recalled grandma’s funeral, recounting the day their lives had been irrevocably changed, for better or worse.

“You were sitting on the couch with Dad, Grandpa. After everything, you know. Do you remember?” The words were soft, tentative, growing stronger the more he talked. “People were leaving and it was only us left. Remember?” The elderly man remained still, showing no sign of consciousness.

Sighing, the boy kept up the recollection, seamlessly slipping from the present to the past, reliving the day that burned in his memory. On the sofa, his father, speaking quietly, had fed grandpa one cocktail shrimp after another, pausing only to hand him a paper napkin when cocktail sauce dribbled from the corner of his mouth. The boy had sought out his mother, finding her in the kitchen, weeping quietly, hugging an aunt he barely knew. Frowning, he’d been unable to decide if he was more baffled by his mother’s intense emotions or his own lack of them. It wasn’t as though Grandma was her mother or like they were even that close, were they?

His dad had approached. “Would you sit with your grandpa for a minute? I need to speak to Uncle Dan about something.”

“Well, I was kinda gonna get something to eat,” he started, stopping abruptly when he saw his father’s expression, “but, sure, I guess, if you want.”

Laying his big hand on the boy’s narrow shoulder, he gave him an encouraging smile, “Thanks, Son.”

Glancing toward the sofa, he’d eyed his grandfather warily. The old man just sat, staring at some fixed point in space, slightly stooped in his navy blue suit. Thick glasses stood at the end of his long nose, making his eyes appear larger and more bloodshot. Wisps of white hair covered the perimeter of his head, framing his heavily lined face. Tufts of silver and white fuzz protruded from giant ears, reminding the boy that he certainly did not intend to get old and gross. When he sat down, keeping a small distance between them, the elderly man began snapping his fingers, just as he had at the church. Three times on the left hand, three times on the right, back to the left, and so on. The rhythm never varied, just the monotonous sound of snapping.

“Uh, Grandpa,” he ventured, “why are you doing that?”

It stopped momentarily, his grandfather turning to face him.

“Uh, I asked why you were snapping your fingers. Why were you doing that?”

“Humph,” the man grunted, “I’m not snapping my fingers.”

Irritated, the boy mumbled, “Whatever you say.”

Eyes scanning the room, he sighed, disappointed neither of his parents were nearby to rescue him from the couch. This was definitely not cool. Here he was, miles from his friends and baseball practice, stuck next to his grandfather who’d just lost his wife of who knew how many years. What was he supposed to say? Finally, awkwardly, he blurted out the only thing that popped into his head.

“It was a beautiful coffin, wasn’t it?” Stammering, he added quickly, “And a really nice service, too.”

Snapping his fingers again, the old man did not acknowledge the question.

Had he upset him? Been insensitive? Had Grandpa even heard him? Was he one of those old guys who was hard of hearing but too stubborn to wear a hearing aid? The boy didn’t know but cursed under his breath, nervously loosening the necktie he’d borrowed from his dad.

“Do you want me to get some more shrimp or something else if you want?”

The bug eyes widened, focusing on the boy’s youthful face for the first time, taking in the gray-green eyes, so like his mother’s, and the light brown hair grown long to cover the pink blemishes on his forehead.

“Who are you?” the old man croaked.

“It’s me, Grandpa, your grandson.”

The heavy white brows furrowed. “Grandson? I haven’t got any grandson.”

“Sure you do, it’s me,” he said again, trying to smile, “your grandson. I mean, I know I haven’t seen you in a while and I’m a lot taller now but it’s still me.”

“No grandson.”

A red flush spread from his neck to his cheeks. Stuttering, the young man told him, “I-I’m seventeen now. You probably just don’t t recognize me because I haven’t been here in a while.” His grandfather was silent, lips pressed into a thin line, three snaps of the fingers on his left hand and three snaps on the right. “I’m sorry I haven’t visited lately but most of my school breaks I have baseball tournaments, or workouts, or training, or something….” his voice trailed off.

Three more snaps and a pause. “No grandson,” the old man said flatly. “Two sons, no grandson.”

Dumbfounded, the boy couldn’t believe it. How could he say he had no grandsons, as though he didn’t even exist? Wasn’t his dad always telling him how proud Grandma and Grandpa were of him? But it sure didn’t seem like that now. In fact, the way the old man stared at him, as though he were a complete stranger, it kind of creeped him out. Where was his dad?

Gripping the coffee table, his grandfather pulled himself unsteadily to his feet. The boy jumped up, too, unsure what he was supposed to do. Towering over the old man, it occurred to him how much he had grown and how small Grandpa seemed in comparison. Before, when he was just a kid and his grandfather would take him down to the river, the older man seemed so big and strong. Now, their sizes were reversed.

“Uh, do you need any help?” he offered.

“Of course not,” the man snapped. “I just need to go to the bathroom.”

Backing away, both palms raised in the air, the boy found himself apologizing. “Sorry. I was just trying to help.”

“Well, don’t,” Grandpa retorted.

Shuffling away toward the dining room, the old man went past the long walnut table, covered with half empty platters and bowls, hesitating at the entrance to the kitchen. Turning around, he came back, stopping midway. The boy knew the bathroom was in the hall, directly opposite the living room, but his grandfather stood, eyes searching, as though he wasn’t exactly sure where he was or why he was there. The white brows were creased and his cheeks looked pinched. By his side, his fingers absently snapped in their own rhythm of threes. He knew he should help, but the boy was tired of the man who’d been nothing more than a royal pain in the ass. His grandmother had never been like that, never been short with him or superior. For one split second, he missed her, missed her warmth and her kind smile. But it wasn’t enough and he stayed where he was, letting his grandfather pace from one end of the room to the other, snapping incessantly.

Then his dad came up beside him, voice tinged with reproach, “Where is Grandpa going? I thought you were watching him.”

“I was,” the boy protested, his words instantly defensive, “but he wouldn’t let me help. Anyway, he’s just looking for the bathroom.”

Uncle Dan and his father exchanged glances.

“Okay, Dan will take care of it.” Nodding, his uncle walked away, taking Grandpa by the elbow, steering him in the right direction.

The boy shook his head, looking up into the face of his father, “Dad, something is kinda weird about Grandpa. I mean, I know Grandma just died and everything, but still, he said he didn’t even have a grandson! Two sons, he said, no grandsons. Can you believe that?”

Glancing toward the hall bathroom, his dad half grinned. “Yes, I can actually.”

“It’s not funny, Dad. I think he’s mad at me or something.” One of his father’s brows shot up. “‘Cause I haven’t visited, you know. But it’s not like I didn’t want to. I had stuff going on with baseball and everything. I tried to tell him.”

“Stuff going on,” his father repeated, a pained expression in his eyes. “Listen, Son, you and I need to talk about something. It’s kind of important.” He led the boy to a small library where the warm sunlight streamed through large windows and dust particles floated through the stagnant air. Facing his son, the man sat forward, bent at the waist, legs splayed out, hands folded between his knees. “The thing is, Son,” he started, voice low, “the reason Grandpa is acting a little strange is because he’s got Alzheimer’s. Do you know what that is?”

Mildly surprised, the boy thought it made some sense. “Sort of. Is that why Grandpa didn’t recognize me?”

Nodding, his father tried to explain. “Sometimes he remembers everything and sometimes he doesn’t. He has some good days and some bad days, but you never know what you’re getting. Today, he remembers that he has two sons but he’s thinking of us as young men, before we had children of our own.”

“Is that why he’s so cranky?”

“Yes,” his dad chuckled, “he can be that. Growing serious again, he said, “On one level, he’s fully aware that his mind is no longer whole, less than it used to be, and it upsets him. Sometimes he lashes out, can get a little testy. But he doesn’t mean it. You can’t take it personally.”

“Now you tell me,” the boy groaned. “How long has he had it, Dad?”

“I’m not totally sure. Your grandmother,” he paused, the older man’s tone becoming choked and distant, “she hid the illness from us for a long time. I should have suspected something. She always said dad was too busy to talk when I called, he was out for a walk, working in the garden, one excuse after another. And she would write us faithfully, every week, great letters about what they were up to, making it sound like nothing was out of the ordinary. But when she didn’t want to come for Christmas this year, I should have known. But I was busy, too, and whether it was conscious or not, I ignored the signs.” Slumping, his father‘s words grew stilted, punctuated by frequent pauses, filled with emotion. “Anyway, your grandmother just loved him so much, she thought it would be easier on him if we didn’t know. But a month ago, when she knew she wasn’t going to live much longer, she confessed the truth to Dan. I guess she got worried about what would happen to Dad without her.” Blinking back tears, his father whispered, “Now, she’s gone and he’s all alone.”

Shifting in his seat, the boy looked away. Why was everyone around him so upset and he could barely get worked up over the loss of this grandmother? Even the news of his grandfather’s Alzheimer’s felt distant and unreal. Yes, he’d witnessed it firsthand but once he was home again, he was sure to forget all about it. But he did feel for his father, a man he admired in spite of his parental dorkiness, although he’d never admit it to any of his friends.

“Dad, I know I haven’t t said anything but I’m really sorry about Grandma,” he offered, laying his hand on his father’s.

“Thanks, Son, but there’s another reason why I wanted to talk to you. Your grandfather is alone now and he’s not really capable of taking care of himself anymore.” Unsure he liked where this was going, the boy sucked in his breath, saying nothing. “So, Uncle Dan and I have been talking and we’ve decided he’s going to sell their house for them and take care of all the paperwork, his bank accounts, and all of that stuff.” His father glanced over at him, forehead creased. “We’ve also decided that Grandpa should come back and live with us.”

The breath whooshed out. Feeling slightly unsteady, the boy sat back on the sunlit couch.

“You’re unhappy about that?” the older man worried.

“I don’t really know how I feel,” he lied, already sure he did not want to live with an ornery grandfather who didn’t even remember that he existed, a man who couldn’t find his way to the bathroom, or wipe cocktail sauce off his own mouth.

But when the boy could not meet his eyes, the older man knew the truth, quickly masking his disappointment. “It’s okay, Son. Don’t feel bad about it. I haven’t gotten used to the idea yet either. It won’t be easy. In fact, it’ll probably be pretty damn hard. It,” he hesitated, “it kind of changes everything.”

The boy couldn’t help himself. “Then why, Dad? Why have Grandpa move in with us? Aren’t there nursing homes or something that take care of old people?”

Broad shoulders sagging, as though a heavy burden had been placed upon his back a long time ago, he appraised the boy seated in front of him. “I don’t think you would ask that if you knew Grandpa better, if you knew what a great man he is, what a great father he was. I want him to be with people who love him, who will look after him because they want to, not because they’re getting paid.”

Pink spots appeared on the boy’s cheeks.

“I don’t blame you for asking though, I blame myself.”

“Dad, I didn’t-“ he objected but his father cut him off.

“Yes, you did, and it’s okay.” The sunlight, beginning to fade, cast shadows around the library. A silence settled over them. Rising, his father switched on the desk lamp.

“Did you cry when Grandma died?”

“Yes,” his father told him.

“I didn’t,” the boy confessed, tiny indentations between the brows of his unlined face.

Reaching over, the man laid his hand on his son’s, no measure of judgment in his eyes, only affection.  “We hadn’t seen much of Grandma or Grandpa in the last few years. She made sure of that. In protecting him, she kept him apart, and herself from a family that loved them. I blame myself for not insisting but, as your mother says, we can’t go back, we can only go forward.”

Remaining silent, the boy had recognized his father’s words as a convenient excuse for his son’s behavior. But even knowing that, he had done nothing, said nothing, to accept any responsibility other than what was thrust upon him. He was not asked if he wanted his life to change, if he wanted an old man with Alzheimer’s to live in his house, if he was willing to share in caring for him. Instead, his fate was set by his parents and his grandfather’s illness. Squelching his resentment early, reluctantly accepting the inevitable, he went along with it, but only doing as little as possible.

After that, the days had slipped into weeks and finally, months, until his grandfather’s presence had become less of a nuisance, more a fact of life, sometimes unpleasant, sometimes okay. When the old man was particularly forgetful and his crusty manner verged on the cruel, the boy wished he was somewhere else. But other times, seated side by side on the couch in front of a Braves game, they would follow each inning closely, his grandfather cheering enthusiastically, smiling from ear to ear when his team won. Without even trying, the boy had learned that the old man loved potato salad and sour pickles, talk radio, bird watching, and walks in the park. And the snapping, three times on one hand and then the other, only happened when he was nervous or scared or lost.

Reaching out, he touched the old man’s hand, the skin cool and clammy. Slipping his fingers around the frail hand, the boy squeezed. “Uh, Grandpa,” the boy whispered, a vague tightness in his chest, “I’m sorry I haven’t been a very good grandson. I don’t know why really, I…” Unable to finish, the words caught in his throat. A prickly feeling behind his eyes stung and he swiped at it, amazed to discover a tear threatening to fall. Sniffling, he bowed his head, letting the wetness trail down his cheeks.

A weak voice stunned him out of his reverie, causing the boy to lift his head sharply. “William?” the old man strained to focus without his thick glasses.

“Yes, Grandpa,” he answered quickly, leaning in.

“Did I ever tell you,” his grandfather asked, the words coming slowly, voice barely audible, “that you were right? It was a beautiful coffin. A beautiful coffin.”

The young man nodded, a smile creeping across his tear-stained face. “Yes, Grandpa, it was. It really was.”

The End

This short story is the property of Kellie Larsen Murphy and may not be used or reprinted without her permission.

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