Somewhere across this mountain range, he’s lying in a hospital bed. He could be injecting himself with a poison to end his life at this very moment. I’m driving as fast as I can in ice and snow, listening to a Tiësto trance remix to help keep my head. Not even an hour ago, I finished a video game where I killed myself to save my friends and loved ones. Five minutes later, I got the call that grandpa wanted to die.
Upset and near exhaustion, I barely gathered enough of myself to send an email to my professors and pack a bag. When I sat down in my car, all emotional strength left me. Tears were impossible to hold back. Grandpa wasn’t dead yet, but I was already grieving for him. I’d managed to more or less hold it together for two years, but I feel like I’m approaching my limits.
I went back to college two years ago to finish my degree, but for as long as I’ve been at school, my family has been falling ill. I’ve driven across this mountain pass at midnight dozens of times in the past 18 months. My oldest sister Katie had a baby, nearly died from lupus, and then her boyfriend was hit by a car, left with broken legs and back. My second oldest sister Jenny tore ligaments in her knee and shattered two bones in her leg. My mother had tumors which caused life-crippling ulcers that burned holes so large in her stomach, she was periodically drained of blood. My grandmother died in her sleep, which set my grandfather on a downward spiral, and a year later he is suffering from failing kidneys, liver and heart valve. Not necessarily in that order.
My dad’s really been at the center of everything. He started a halfway house for infirm Klouses. With my little sister, Brittney, graduating from college last summer and Jenny’s broken leg, last fall there were seven adults and a baby living in a house built for two adults and four children. Oh, the looks I got when co-workers asked me when I was coming back from Thanksgiving, and I replied, “Friday.” Or the look on her face when my boss asked me when I was going home for Christmas and I answered, “Christmas morning.” My room at home, the futon in the family room, and even the couches in the living room were occupied. I just didn’t want to sleep on the floor. While taking care of everyone, Dad went through the death of his mother and now his father is passing.
Just a few years ago, a stiff breeze would send me into a spiraling depression. Navigating the conflict of my gender identity had devastated my confidence and destroyed my relationships with most of my friends. It took every ounce of willpower to appear at the dinner table in those days. My success in school changed all that. I have good grades, good professors, good friends. Now with confidence and a feeling of self-worth, I find the ability to meet challenges. Barring unforeseen academic obstacles, I graduate in a few months. Incredibly, I might even manage a magna cum laude next to my name.
I’ve only got to make it a few more hours so I can tell Grandpa all the things I need to tell him. How stupid is it that we keep a list of things we can’t possibly tell anyone until they’re on their deathbed? Maybe more fucked up than stupid. In the moments they can least understand it, and are most disabled from offering a back pat or strong shoulder, we pour out our secrets. I swear never to make that mistake again – I’ll tell him my name is Jamie, not James. I’m tired of lies and half-truths, couched comments and smiles with lead weights clinging to mouth corners.
When I enter the hospital room, Uncle Jim stands beside the bed with tears in his eyes. The family is taking turns seeing Grandpa, one at a time. Uncle Jim sees me at the door, nods, puts a clenched fist to his mouth and exits the room. An eternity passes as I stand in silence at the edge of Grandpa’s bed before he stirs and sees me there.
“James,” he says and then closes his eyes again and breathes heavily. James – my name at birth, but the name of the identity I left behind.
“I love you Grandpa, I’m here.”
“You always were,” he says. I wasn’t. I was always across the state. I was always in another city. I was always a phone call away, but never on the phone.
“I wanted to be here for you.” I wanted to tell him all those secrets.
He nods weakly and groans an acknowledgement.
I mumble, “I want to tell you…”
His eyes open just a crack.
“I … am so glad to have known you.” He never knew me because I never let him.
“You have always guided me, and I have always admired you.” I can’t tell him. What difference would it make now to start discussing the finer points of Queer Theory? He could die tonight, and what difference would it make? Why should I force him to consider such a complex topic when he should just focus on finding peace?
“You gave me so much,” I continue. “You taught me how to be compassionate. You taught me to love unconditionally. You taught me that forgiveness and seeking understanding is better than hating in ignorance.” I amaze myself that I was able to recite what was only supposed to be a sentimental backup plan that I’d practiced in the car.
“Yes, good,” he says and puts his hand on the rail alongside the bed. I put my hand on his and my face feels like it will explode as pressure builds up and pushes tears from my eyes.
“I love you Grandpa.”
He moves his hand on top of mine and squeezes it, “I love you too, Jamie.”
He was always more intelligent than I gave him credit for.