I never was very close to him as a kid. I recall he visited our house every now and then, but he seemed ill at ease away from his chair, floundering for a foundation upon which to build his bully-pulpit or rest his visceral vision. The chair was faded green from sunlight and seasons of wear. It reigned over his musty living room, Eldorado smoke and bacon grease in the air, his ashtray at his left hand, a footstool always waiting for his worn black Red Wing shoes.
That's how I remember Grandpa. I was just a kid, but Grandpa was a god, holding court from his throne, questioning with furrowed face, stabbing with deep brown eyes, thrusting a twisted finger into the air to make a point. I never knew much what he bantered about or why he bantered.
I only paid homage every so often, the way a pauper bows dumb before the king. Grandpa knew my name and my heritage, but not my soul nor my will for tomorrow. Or so I thought. I sat, listening, Grandpa pressing his long fingers together at the tips to form a tent with his hands, tangling his legs on his footstool, admonishing me to "Grow up."
But then the years became tangled. I got older and saw Grandpa less and less. He got older, counting the long days, clicking the television, crumbing toast between his crooked teeth, slurping sugar-coffee. After a few years, his questioning stopped. Grandpa slept most days in his chair, head propped slightly to his left side, sometimes nodding in rhythm to his own breathing.
I was visiting my own father one night when the call came. Grandpa had flopped from his chair, dumb to the carpet, waiting for death. Grandma couldn't move him. He was on the floor and wouldn't move.
But death didn't come to him that night. My Dad and I stooped to the mass of flesh curled like an infant on the floor and boosted Grandpa to his feet. His head sagged, chin to chest, and his chest heaved up and down, sucking air. I put his flailing right arm around my shoulder; my Dad put his flailing left arm his shoulder, and we hobbled with him to the toilet. It was the first time Grandpa and I had ever touched. His chair was empty.
He never went back to it. The next day a hospital bed was wheeled into the home and positioned near his chair. Grandpa became a baby, his own children spooning warm oatmeal to his parched lips, changing his rank diapers, running fingers through his grey-matted hair during the dark hours.
On Saturday, he rallied. His eyes opened, his mouth muttered syllables. Then his hands turned blue, his sallow face sank and his heaving chest collapsed. The tangled years had choked the final breath from him.
The next time I saw Grandpa he was in a coffin, one small bouquet of Spring flowers across his folded hands. During the eulogy, his nephew, a clergy, likened him to Nicodemus.
When the service ended, friends and relatives went to Grandpa's house, and to the chair. Someone sat in it that day, while two miles away a sexton scraped cold dirt into the earth's wound, the gaping hole where his vault was lowered.
But when I close my eyes, I see Grandpa, even now. I smell the cigar smoke and the bacon grease, I see the shawl on his outstretched legs, I hear his gruff voice asking which one of sons begat me - and why. It is then that I touch him as I came to know him, flailing right arm around my shoulder, hobbling to the bathroom. We touched that day, his dying body against my youth, and I realize now that we knew more about one another than what either of us ever said. He left his throne to experience my own tomorrow.
Through his death, we became family.