I felt it when the reach of someone’s faint “I love you” got pulled away from me by a hangup that dial-toned us forever. I felt it when the sound of rubber gripping on the pavement unfiltered itself through my car window as I saw someone fly out of his. I felt it in passing a hallway of closed doors until an open one broke blessed repetition by taking us into what should have been someone’s greatest 9 months. I felt it when someone asked me how I was and fought sleep to wait for me to answer (had I known his battle to stay awake was because he would never wake up, I should’ve said more). He was sixteen. I felt it in the setting of the sun, on the freeway, remembering a promise I had no control over making but had to leave to faith because I had spoken it in the presence of a machine that simulated life by the rising and falling of someone’s chest. I felt it in the arms of someone who held me from the floor until I could salvage enough of myself to walk over to the dead-to-me man at the beside of his dying father to hold in forgiveness his mis-handling of my innocence. I felt it when I watched someone’s mouth move air into and out of until it didn’t.
All these memories of life exiting and I never would have known that I would be on the knowing end of someone NOT knowing they had less than a year to live. But I was…on the night we had to tell my grandfather that he had cancer.
One of my final living memories of my grandfather appears to me in flashes of slide-glances. He is being carried out our door and into the front seat of my dad’s car by my husband, then-boyfriend. I follow them out a few steps behind because the betrayal of the air that surrounds him makes me want to cry. Because, by this time, between cancer and chemo, there is only enough of my grandfather to glue one breath to his next. I remember my boyfriend having to thread my grandfather through into his seatbelt because his skin hurt. I remember hearing it click. And it wasn’t security I felt. It was desperation. A seatbelt? Like we had control when we don’t.
As my grandfather took his place on the couch, I had never felt more afraid of my own breath. A crowded room of lips held tight as if what we held back, in breaths, would add to his. We were absolutely not prepared for this. And then, the words, they came out with the crumbling of 20 people, strong. Sitting in his silence, we fell to pieces like a funeral – while he remained glued to his breaths, sharing air. This wall diminishing us. In our chaos. In HIS stillness.
I felt it watching my grandfather process the words, “You have cancer.” That vainglory in cancer to insist its formal introduction before it would work its way into my grandfather’s heart. But my grandfather did not give it his heart. This, he did, instead:
Eventually and cruelly, the cancer became the irony of a seatbelt and the pained expression from wearing his skin. But it did not reduce him.
My grandfather outlived his cancer. He loved until it turned our fear into courage. Until, it created a presence beyond what cancer makes us say goodbye to. And because he showed me that no goodbye is truly goodbye if goodbye is in the giving and not the finishing, I gave his love to help others fight cancer. Even in the without, his love is here.