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MHS's WORD Literary Magazine

Happy Birthday

Grace Layer

Tuesday, July 1, 2014 • 1:34pm

This is the third in a series of pieces from Millburn High School's award-winning literary magazine, WORD, that will be published on TAP Into Millburn once a week. The author, Grace Layer, is a sophomore at Millburn High.

Happy Birthday

Grace Layer

     I skid down the staircase, already smelling the bright aroma of blueberry pancakes sizzling on the stovetop. Swinging around the corner of the last stair, I see my grandfather, in his customary spot on the couch, staring ahead into space. I say my obligatory hello and turn towards my breakfast, yet as I do so, he clears his throat and begins to stand. I move to help him up, as I have done for the past two months, but he makes it with surprising agility. He turns towards me and smiles.

     “Happy birthday!”

     His memory has aided him for one of the last times.

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     “He’s not like he used to be. He’s much thinner. And he might not respond, because it’s hard for him to talk.” I am warned, but still shocked when I walk into his room. That can’t be my grandfather; he’s too thin. It’s not a body but a skeleton attached to an oxygen mask. His eyes are closed, and as we walk in he tries to open them. But they only flicker. We stand next to his bed, and my mother smooths his hair, over and over. Earlier, she did it because she said that the nurses parted his hair wrong, and that he didn’t like it that way. Now, I think she does it because it helps her in some way. She asks him if he is in any pain, and he responds with a weak no, but she is worried that he is. She doesn’t know what else to say to him. What do you say to a person that you know is going to die soon? It becomes a sort of tradition, every few minutes: a smooth of the hair, a whispered question. Sometimes there is a response.

     When I went and visited him, just a few short weeks ago, nurses were in his room, talking to my mother. Telling her how the physical therapy was going, saying how he took a couple of steps yesterday, how recovery seemed very possible. And she told him about his friend at the memory care clinic he had to leave, Betty, and how he had to get better so he could see her again. We told him about the latest golf game, and about our dog, and how everyone missed him, so he had to try his hardest to get better as soon as he could.

     But now there are no nurses. The physical therapy has stopped, and we know he won’t be going anywhere, that golf doesn’t matter anymore. There is not much to say, not much he will respond to. There are no new steps to take. My mom tells him that his granddaughter is here to visit him, and he smiles a little. Her voice is almost happy; I don’t understand how she can do that, while I can barely speak. I say hello, but he doesn’t respond. I stroke his hand, lightly. My mother and I stand in silence, next to his bed, next to the whirling machines. I love you, grandpa. I say it over and over again, because I am not sure he hears me. Not sure if he is awake or not. I want him to know that, if only that. I want him to remember that, just like he remembered my birthday seven months ago, when he was still living with us, before the memory care clinic or the hospitals or now this, a nursing home, the only place that would take him in his condition.

     I love you, I love you. I touch his hair, his hand. My mother asks if I want to go but I don’t say anything. This can’t be my grandfather. He’s found another box of Oreos, and he’s watching a game of golf at our house, and I’m annoyed because I want to watch something else. Why couldn’t I have watched one game? Just one stupid game. I could have done at least that, couldn’t I? I could have spent more time with him. But I didn’t. And that’s what matters now. Not that I could have, but that I didn’t

     I am petrified. Petrified between his every wheezing breath, thinking that it will be his last. Why are there such long pauses between them? Even with the oxygen mask, he is having trouble. I hate seeing that on him. I want to leave the nursing home. I can’t stand being in this room, with all of the machines, just listening to him breathe. Will this be his last? Will he breathe again? My heart stops between every break. I cannot breathe while he does not; I hate myself for still being able to fill my lungs with no difficulty, while he struggles so much.

     My mother tells me that we should leave. But now I don’t want to go, because I feel that I will not see him again. I know that this is the last time I’ll see his chest expand with air, his hands flutter slightly, the part in his hair be combed the wrong way. The last time I’ll see his filmy blue eyes crinkle. I don’t want to leave him behind, all alone in his room. He shouldn’t have to be alone, not now. I want to make up for all the times that I didn’t stay around him. I can’t go, not when I don’t utterly have to. But my mother is already walking out. Tears prick my eyes, and I try to calm myself down, but I can’t until I’m silently crying. I love you, grandpa. I love you so much.

     Then we’re leaving his room, leaving him behind as we move through the nursing home, and I turn my face to the ground because I don’t want anyone to see me cry, especially my mother. She already cries so much. And by the time we get out, by the time we get to the car, she’s crying again. We sit in the car in silence for a few minutes, and then we begin the long ride home.

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     Four days later, I hear the phone ringing. For four days, I have had nightmares about this moment. It’s six in the morning, and I pretend I don’t hear the phone, and I continue lying in my bed. But it’s hopeless. I can’t go to sleep, and I’m already crying by the time I walk down stairs to the second floor, where I find my mother sobbing in the bathroom. And then I know that he’s gone. And the only thing I have to cling on to is the happy birthdays of the past.

 

     The Millburn High School Literary Magazine, Word, is a juried publication that showcases the extraordinary talents of this school's writers, artists, photographers, craftspeople and illustrators. The editors and staff take the process of creating the magazine very seriously. We hold regular open meetings from September to February to read submissions and to identify potential pieces for inclusion in the next volume. Then we choose selections that exemplify the diversity and strength of our student body and spend several months working on a unifying theme, on layout and production. Since we are constantly amazed by the abilities of our peers, we consider the magazine a tribute to the virtuosity, skill and creativity of our student body.

 

The Millburn High School Literary Magazine, Word, is a juried publication that showcases the extraordinary talents of this school's writers, artists, photographers, craftspeople and illustrators. The editors and staff take the process of creating the magazine very seriously. We hold regular open meetings from September to February to read submissions and to identify potential pieces for inclusion in the next volume. Then we choose selections that exemplify the diversity and strength of our student body and spend several months working on a unifying theme, on layout and production. Since we are constantly amazed by the abilities of our peers, we consider the magazine a tribute to the virtuosity, skill and creativity of our student body.

To download the 2014 edition, click here.

The opinions expressed herein are the writer's alone, and do not reflect the opinions of TheAlternativePress.com or anyone who works for TheAlternativePress.com. TheAlternativePress.com is not responsible for the accuracy of any of the information supplied by the writer.

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