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Last Day

October 13, 2008 by · 1 comment

David Snell

Photo: A.

“Ronnie Lee?”

Mentally, the boy winced at the name his mother still called him. He was 17, after all. He’d told his mother and father and sister and any one else who’d listen that he was now “Ron.” It was cool and simple, not buttoned-down like “Ronald,” his given name.

He turned in the hospital room to face the two women.

His mother continued. “Honey, your Aunt Sarah and I need to get something to eat. Can you stay and watch Granddaddy?”

Nothing had prepared him to be around someone seriously ill. Certainly not someone like Henry L. Abbott.

“It’ll only be for a little while,” his mother said to his pause. She wore a navy-blue dress with small, while designs and a sharp, pressed collar. Severe for her, more like the formal, humorless aunt standing next to her. But the sight of his mother’s earnest, beseeching eyes shamed his hesitation.

Ronnie Abbott swallowed and nodded.

His mother hugged him quickly and turned to go. “Get the nurse if you need anything. Oh, and we might drop by Granny’s to check on her.”

He bit his lip and turned his attention to the still mound of sheets in the bed. The fact of a private room reminded Ronnie that his grandparents had money.

His grandfather moaned. Ronnie stood still, clammy in a room whose white walls were yellowed by muted afternoon sun. Whose window unit fought the late May heat to a draw.

Another moan. “Somebody?” The plaintive cry, a weak resemblance of the last time he’d heard his grandfather speak, caused the boy’s face to burn.

“I’m…I’m here,” he said in a loud whisper as he made his way to the bed.

It had been two or three weeks since Ronnie had seen the old man. He was shocked at the pale, bald head and sunken cheeks. Moist eyes peered out of chalk-rimmed sockets.

“That you…Ronnie Lee, honey?”
“Honey?” This from Henry L.?

“Yes, sir. Granddaddy, it’s me.” He took the liver-spotted hand that came out from the matted sheets. They were the same farmer’s hands his father had—broad, meaty, but smooth and un-calloused. Ronnie wondered if they were the only things on his granddaddy’s body not shrunken.

The other hand remained covered. Ronnie noticed the long, thin transparent tubes that ran from the other side of the bed heap to bags hanging on a chrome-colored pole.

His grandfather was saying something else. “Bathroom. I need to go.”
The boy looked down at the prone figure and twisted toward the door. He pivoted this way again. “I’ll get someone.”

“Miss Jones.” And another moan.
“The nurse,” the old man said, faintly.

Ronnie’s long legs led him through the door, and his breathing came easily, as if he’d stepped out of a cave on a windy hill. He saw several women in white at a counter near where he and his mother had entered the second-floor corridor. One of them spotted him and came in a brisk walk. Short dark hair peeked out of her cap.

“Does Mr. Abbott need something?” Her nametag read: “Nurse A. Jones.”
“The bathroom,” Ronnie replied.

Quickly, they re-entered the room. “Here I am, Mr. Abbot.” She circled to the pole and rolled it around to the side of the bed nearest the bathroom. Ronnie figured one of the tubes must have contained glucose, a term his mother had mentioned before when talking about people in the hospital.

“I’m Nurse Jones,” she said to Ronnie. “I’ll need your help.”
“I’m Ronnie…Ron Abbott, a grandson.”

She nodded and gave a quick smile. She was short and wide without being fat. Her face possessed a ruddy glow, and her dark eyes showed care and concentration.

Ronnie’s heart ached and melted at the same time.

In silence, they slowly raised the old man. He was quiet, except for an occasional short moan and labored breathing. His eyelids dominated the faded green he peered through. His gown hung like a loose tent.

Ronnie had reached six foot months ago, but was still surprised at how short, how small this robust man had become.

Finally, they got him to his feet. The nurse had managed to put his royal blue slippers on, and they helped him shuffle to the small room in the corner. Embarrassed for his grandfather, Ronnie let the nurse minister to the old man.

“Okay,” she said to the boy’s back a few minutes later.

Ronnie turned to help lift him. The boy tried not to look at the hairless, skin-covered pencils that supported his grandfather. Instead he caught sight of something he’d never seen from the proud matriarch. A look of utter appreciation from those distant, glassy eyes. The boy had to overcome the weakness in his own knees to help put the man back to bed.

“Thank you, Miss Jones,” the old man said, through a strained, dignified voice.

The afternoon kept surprising the boy. Ronnie had never heard his grandfather curse. The closest thing to an expletive had been “Great God in the morning!” when the old man had been outraged at something on their central Kentucky farm. Which, in Ronnie’s experience, had seemed often. The man, ever the businessman and a product of a more brutish age, always wanted things done a certain way. Instantly.

In fact, Ronnie’s father, Hank (Henry, Jr.) Abbott, himself no gentle, patient soul, could not please the old man and had given up trying.

But Henry L. honored civility when in public and reined himself in, especially at church or around women. Even so, he had never been the deferential, docile man who graced that room in Soldier Memorial.

When they had the old man settled, the nurse beckoned the boy to follow her into the hallway. Ronnie welcomed the chance to trade the whiff of decaying bathroom odor for the sweet aroma, which trailed the nurse.

“Your grandfather’s a very sick man,” she said.
“I know. I heard my folks say, he broke a rib just turning over.”
“Yes. Several. His cancer has spread.”

The C-word hit Ronnie’s gut. It had never been spoken in his hearing. Only something about malignancy, and “malignancy” somehow had a softer, foggier feel. He never let on about his new shock. But he felt closer to Nurse Jones. Finally, a grownup was speaking to him in real words, and not some hushed code to protect supposed innocence.

Before he could respond more to this angelic figure, she said, “I know your grandfather appreciates you staying with him.” She smiled, patted his shoulder, and hurried away.

Ronnie’s otherworldly afternoon continued another hour, but he lost track of time in the cycle of silence, stifled groans, calls for Nurse Jones, and trips to the bathroom. He spent a good part of that hour, holding the weak grip of his grandfather’s hand and praying that the old man would not die on him. Or suffer much.

Several hours after his aunt had relieved him, after returning home, after supper, and Lawrence Welk on the TV, the phone rang.

Ronnie’s mother answered. “Yes. Just a minute. Hank, it’s Sarah.”

His father took the phone from her hand. His mother stood next to her husband and looked off into the distance.

Hank Abbott’s tanned face showed no expression, but grew ashen. “Yes. Uh huh. We’ll be there.” He put down the phone, turned and embraced his wife. Ronnie saw a slight tremor, like some electric current, go through their bodies.

His fourteen-year-old sister curled around a flowered pillow Granny Abbott had crocheted and cried.
Ronnie felt numb, part of the scene in his living room, but somewhere else as well.

Moments later, his father said, “Son, get the keys and pull the car around.”

The boy nodded and patted his mother on the shoulder as he walked toward the kitchen to the back door.

He flicked on the outside light, but soon forgot its illumination. Ronnie felt separated from the ground he walked on. He glanced up. Stars punctuated the dark.

He strolled slowly toward the garage that housed their old ’58 Chevrolet. Granddaddy Abbott had given it—new—to the family, five years before.

Ronnie imagined his grandfather’s essence somewhere up in that brilliant sky. A hymn played along a new connection between the boy’s ear and his heart: “…nearer my God to Thee, nearer to Thee.”

Granddaddy’s death would be hardest on Granny. They’d been married over 50 years. Even as a kid, Ronnie had sensed the mutual respect they shared.

There’d be a lot of tears in the next few days. Ronnie might shed a few. But that evening, Ron just watched the sky and felt a song of relief. Of rejoicing.

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