Saturday, December 31, 2005


My great-grandmother used to go into hospital every six or seven years, crash, get resucitated, crash again, and then when an astonishing brood of kids, grandkids, great-grandkids, and cousins of all removals gathered at the bed of the matriarch, she'd wink and pull through. This was her way of getting the family together from time to time. She died I think 6 or 7 times the last twenty years of her life. She died two times at age 85 but didn't cash in her final chips until her mid-nineties (she'd kill me for the gambling metaphor--once she berated me because I was learning magic tricks with a card deck. "The devil's in them there cards," she intoned.).

Today my grandfather, aged 85, had an 'episode' after breakfast. I got a call at 10am that I needed to get to Gettysburg Hospital ASAP--my Mom was on the way and word was he was going fast after a week of growing incoherence. My uncle from Florida came in, Gramps' last remaining brother and his whole clan, my sister and her kids, trailerpark cousins I hadn't seen in 20 years--there were 30 or 40 people headed in. Gramps was cold, he was pooling blood in his legs, his fingers were purple and the nails blue, he wasn't responding, and we were told he wouldn't last through the evening. I told him I loved him and kissed him, and we all took turns talking to him. The nurses changed his IV bandage and pulled a great quantity of armhair out--"Mercy Hallelujah!" he shouted in pain (he's never had a drink of alcohol, a smoke, nor has he uttered a swear in 85 years. That's as close as he'll come). "I'm sorry," the nurse said. "You don't sound like it," he replied. Though he wasn't responsive outside of this outburst for another three hours, I could tell from that smart-alec remark that he was still in there, trying to decide if he had any fight left. He declined all afternoon and we were assured the news was grim. Stroke and infection were suspected. We made peace with the inevitable. I remember opening the window of his room when everyone else had gone off to cry in the lobby--the sun was out and a flock of robins were bopping around the bare hospital grounds, gearing up to head south I suppose. I was ready.

Then, around 4pm, he opened his eyes and started talking. For the first time in two weeks he knew everyone around him, and he was joking and reminiscing like old times. My sister said "Do you know who I am?" and Gramps replied "Pushy Wushy," winking at me. My Mom said "How about me? Do you know me?" "I think I oughta," he said with a smile. I'd seen him Monday at the nursing home and he couldn't remember who I was, but knew my wife--he, like everyone else, has a crush on her. But now he remembered everything, including the time after my parents' divorce when we lived with him for two years and he was basically my Dad and Grandpa. "It's the Final Rally," we all said, whispering in the hall outside his room. "They do this when the time comes." The Final Rally lasted six hours, and he got more chipper and happier as the evening wore on. I fed him applesauce and a vanilla shake with a spoon, and he told me right before I left at 10pm that he'd really enjoyed this night. "That's the biggest crowd I ever got together," he said, a twinkle in his eye. He told me how his father got his hand caught in the thresher and lost it--afterward he wore a wooden hand which proved peculiarly effective when banged on the pulpit at Church. I pinched him and kissed him again--and I'm off to BWI now to pick up uncles from California and Kentucky, then I'm headed back to Gettysburg at 3am. Maybe this is the Final Rally.

But I have my suspicions...

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