Photo/Writing Prompt: Play
(2 pictures because they are one moment together)
“Don’t forget to play.” Of all the things for my grandfather to say on his death bed, this was not what I expected.
I drove down from Detroit to see him one last time. The nurses said he would likely go in the next twenty-four hours. When I entered his room at the nursing home, pulled a chair up beside his bed, and waited for him to wake, I wondered what I could possibly say. Mom said he knew the end was around the corner. His clear mind was housed in a body exhausted to its limit. Grandpa was always full of advice and information. He could tell you something about everything while never claiming to know it all. My own mind was still blank when Grandpa’s eyes opened. They were watery and dim. Short, sparse gray hairs stood askew upon his head. Grandpa was a big man, tall, broad, and thick. Even in his diminished state, he filled the standard issue bed to its edges. He lifted a hand, gesturing for me to lean closer. I did and he planted a kiss with his dry lips on my cheek. That’s when I knew I wasn’t going to come up with anything worth saying. I didn’t have to though. Grandpa started right in.
“Patrick, I’m glad you’re here.”
I nodded. A lump was forming in my throat and I didn’t trust myself to speak.
“I was thinking about you and that little boy of yours. And the little boy you used to be.”
He reached for the plastic cup on his bedside table. I held it while he sipped water, the gurgle of air bubbles in the straw the only sound in the room.
“You were such a serious little one. Wanting to be older, wanting to be bigger, wanting to do important things.”
I chuckled quietly. “I was, wasn’t I?”
Grandpa had no smile though. He went on. “I know you’re frustrated at that job. Feels like less than what you should be doing.”
I ran a hand over my thinning hair. We’d had plenty of conversations on the topic.
“You are doing important things.” He narrowed his eyes when I began to shake my head. “That boy, he’s your important thing.”
He needed another drink. I could see the strain that it was for his neck to hold his head up from the pillow for those few seconds.
“When your Laurie died, I knew your son would be okay. I wasn’t so sure you would be okay, but I knew he would be. He’s your important thing and you’re doing it right. Can I give you just one bit of advice though?”
He hand engulfed mine. “Don’t forget to play.”
I’m sure the puzzlement was written on my face. “What do you mean, Grandpa?”
“Just that!” His deep voice rose urgently. “Don’t forget to play! You have so much on your shoulders, so much worry. I see it in you from every angle, Patrick. Your son needs to see you play. He needs to see you laugh and smile and enjoy yourself. When he’s older, he’ll understand without a doubt how hard you worked to provide for him. He’ll realize all the sacrifices you made. But don’t let him wonder if you enjoyed your years with him. Don’t let him question that.”
I smiled then, aware that of all the advice he could give me in this moment, this was exactly what I needed to hear.
Grandpa’s face relaxed and his eyes lost their focus on me. “You remember how we used to play, Patrick?”
“I do. I remember you teaching us baseball in the backyard. I remember sitting on your shoulders for half a mile to reach the river and filling my jar up with tadpoles. You used to carry me around upside down and I’d tell you what I saw that was different than when I was right side up.”
Tears were trickling onto his leathery cheeks but he was smiling so I continued.
“I remember you pretending to be a bear and chasing us around the field behind your house. There was one night we had a board game marathon and you tried to play Twister with us. We all laughed so hard that Grandma almost peed in her pants. I remember the whole family going camping out at Carter Lake. It was the only time all year we could count on Dad taking a couple days off from work. You and Dad taught us boys how to handle a canoe but our first time out alone we tipped it. I remember surfacing next to Greg and the two of you were up on the shore laughing at us.”
Grandpa nodded. I squeezed his hand and added, “It made me want to tip it a second time so I could hear you laugh that hard again.”
His eyes refocused on me, brighter than before. “So, you’ll remember to play?”
Grandpa died several hours later. My brother Greg and I were there beside him. My mother, too, but she had dozed in her chair. His passing was so quiet, so calm, that it was over before we realized she was sleeping through it.
After the funeral, the whole family went to Grandpa’s favorite restaurant. We had reserved most of the tables in there and still had trouble finding seats for all of us. Everyone swapped stories and memories, laughing and crying together. As we walked out to our cars later, my little boy squeezed in between my brother and me. Without a word we both grabbed his hands and swung him as high as we could manage. Giggles poured out of him and he shouted, “Again, Daddy, again!” I could hear my grandfather’s laugh in my ears as we lifted him again.