My grandfather is dying again. I know because my mom called. And she knows because Aunty Cathy called her. This is the fourth time in two years my mom has called me with this news; the fourth time, she got the call from Aunty Cathy.
He’s not well – there’s no doubt about that. Papa’s battled just about every kind of cancer and has come out the victor each time. He’s tough. Small, but tough. Everyone in my family is small. Papa’s 5’1″, like me. My dad, the giant, is a mere 5’6″.
But not all of us are as tough as Papa. When I close my eyes and say his name I see us sitting at the kitchen table in the house that my dad grew up in, that Nana and Papa still live in. Papa’s holding his fists up in front of his face and kind of grunting. He wants me to do the same. I’m six. I raise my hands like his, my little knuckles sticking out like the tiniest mountain range.
“No, not like that,” he says releasing his stance to fix mine. “Here, higher. This is your shield. This keeps you safe. ”
I follow his lead, elevating my fist until he’s satisfied and resumes his stance. “Good. Now punch me.”
I look at him cockeyed. He answers before I ask, “C’mon, do it. You won’t hurt me, I’ll show you. C’mon. When I was a boxer in the army I could block anything.”
So I do it. I let one fly. A quick shot with my . . .
“Left! What are you throwing your left for?” he says as he blocks my slow motion punch. “Are you a lefty? Dot!” he shouts to my grandmother who’s only a few steps away at the stove, stirring sauce or something. “Dot, I think Jonathan’s a lefty.”
He’s laughing at me and I’m not sure why but he tells me its okay. He can teach a lefty to fight. He takes a swig of beer, Budweiser then and now, and resumes my lesson.
Papa was never a boxer in the army. This came out some years later. Nor did he see any action in World War II. The round scars on his stomach and chest that he said were bullet holes were not. Burns from working all those years at the naval shipyard, but not bullet holes.
He used to draw ninjas. This is a skill he told me he picked up from drawing the real thing, when he was stationed in Asia – which, of course, he wasn’t. But he could draw them well. Masks with slits for the eyes and bandanas waving in the breeze. He could draw long sharp kitana blades that gleamed with the light of a distant sun. I tell this to my wife as we drive through Boston to visit him in the hospital.
“How did he know what a ninja looked like, then?” Steph asks as we drive. I don’t know.
When we get there, Steph leads the way. I hate hospitals, but she was working with the elderly at the time. We make our way to the third floor where my mom told us we would find him. Room 313. We peek around the corner of the doorway to see him sitting up with one of those trays-on-wheels set over his legs. He has a plate full of food in front of him but he’s only eating yogurt.
“Yogurt as an appetizer?” I ask, assuming his food has just arrived.
“No.” He answers without looking up. “As dinner.” And finally his eyes lift from the nearly empty cup he’s been scraping with a plastic spoon. “Paul,” he calls out to me.
“Ah…” Is all I get out before he says, “Jonathan. I mean Jonathan.” And to himself, “Why did I call you Paul?”
He urges us to sit and so we do, I directly below the television and Steph beside his bed, nearer to him. We ask him how he’s feeling, how they’ve been treating him in the hospital. He answers that he’s not feeling so great but the hospital staff is nice. He tells us about a nurse that’s been taking care of him. He’s convinced she has a thing for him. I don’t doubt it; he’s a charmer.
There’s a side of Papa that resembles your typical Irish-American – think the characters of Frank McCourt or, more regionally accurate, Dennis Lehane or James Carroll. One of our family’s favorite stories involves beer, whiskey, and a bar fight between my dad and Papa. And he probably would have been that stereotype to a tee, if it weren’t for my grandmother. For all his Irish-ness, she’s every bit Italian, bubbling with emotion and energy and, over the years, her passion for life has leaked through the cracks in his old Irish skin. When they got married in 1940s Boston, theirs was considered an inter-racial marriage.
Sitting with Papa in the gray light of his hospital room, I suddenly become painfully aware that, despite all appearances, this is the same man who tried to teach me to fight all those years ago at the kitchen table. I stare at him. He’s small now. Not the same muscle-bound, beer-bellied man I remember. He looks like the skin of that man – the skin of a once great, although not actual, boxer in the army. The skin of that man is hanging on a smaller man’s frame, like mine, perhaps.
Steph jumps in to fill the awkward silence. “So who has come to visit you, Papa?” She calls him Papa. I don’t remember he or I ever inviting her to do so, but she does. And I love that.
“Oh, they’ve all been here,” he says. “Jane, and Jilly. Jilly comes often. Jennifer’s been here…” These are my sisters. He says their names first, making sure I know I’m the last to come. I’m about to say something when he realizes what he, consciously or subconsciously, has done. “But they don’t have so far to travel as you do,” he says to me in the way of consolation.
“Dolly and Sean, Eddie, Kristen, and the kids.” My cousins and their families. “Your father’s come down a few times.” I had hoped he wasn’t actually keeping count, but it seems clear now that he was.
I change the topic and though I’m not sure how we get there, suddenly we’re talking about his mother and brothers. We’re talking about Ireland and the plot of land he signed away years ago, sitting at that kitchen table at his house in Roxbury, to cousins in Ireland after his father passed away.
“Jonathan, whenever we went there and saw what I blindly gave up,” he looks, for a moment, regretful. “Ahh, we could never live there. Boston’s our home.”
When it’s time to leave we tell him that we’ll see him soon, but hopefully at home. He looks doubtful. He looks, in fact, like he’s thinking we won’t actually see him again. He kisses Steph on the cheek and tells me how beautiful she is. He says goodbye and calls me Paul again.