My Grandfather’s Bedside
That apartment in Beverly Hills was unusually quiet 11 years ago. My grandmother had made soup despite the heat of that March, and she, my cousin Amy and my Aunt Esther were eating quietly as they could. My body couldn’t even digest the silence as the nurse was in the bedroom with my grandfather. My beloved Papu was sleeping peacefully, the morphine coursing through his veins to diminish the pain of his oncoming death.
The sound of Joseph Amira’s shuffling feet was gone from the white carpet, the roughness of which would announce his arrival. I would hear it as I was drifting off to sleep in my grandparents’ spare bedroom whenever I would come over during college and take a nap there. I would then hear the door creak open just a little bit, just to check in, and then hear the sound diminishing as he would shuffle away.
The small round table in my grandparents’ kitchen seemed empty without Papu. At this hour, he would always drink his coffee with a splash of mocha mix from a mug with little blue flowers. Eating cereal for lunch because he was always told that it was the healthiest thing for him. His big smile would light up his face, topped with the whitened hair would be slightly slicked back in that 1930s style. It was the one that made my young grandmother try to bet her sister that if she spit on his head, the spit would come right off, long before they started dating.
For someone who was relatively so quiet and humble, he had unusual stories: My grandfather was one of the rare people in Brooklyn with a car, which made him a particular favorite for mafia members there so he could run errands and numbers for them. He was probably one of the only Jews under the employ of notorious anti-Semite Howard Hughes at TWA during the war, probably because the last name Amira sounded Italian and he had worked on cars. Then, after moving to Los Angeles and working three jobs to keep his family afloat, he found fortune as Joseph Amira and several of his co-workers invested in orange groves down in Orange County, California.
Yet this was the end of his life. I would never see him again after this day. I headed down the crisp white hall to the bedroom, the second of his three granddaughters, who was named after his beloved wife of 66 years. She sat in the kitchen, trying to pretend like she wasn’t about to become a widow. But we all knew deep down that we were in death’s house now.
As I walked into view of the bed where Papu laid sleeping on the bright orange comforter, I carried a much darker secret that he would never know: That two months previous to this, his 21-year-old granddaughter laid in a hospital bed dying. I almost died before his time to go. If age didn’t kill him, that knowledge probably would have. Somewhere in me, my ability to cheat death came with an odd sense of relief. He had a long enough life without any pain I carelessly brought in.
Watching him breathe ever so slightly, my eyes darted around the room. It was the place where three little girls once jumped on the bed and watched Batman and danced to Madonna on Friday nights after dinners together. He would probably call us from the bedside where he laid now to wish my sister and me “Shabbat Shalom” over the phone so that both he and my grandmother could talk to us at the same time.
My mind wanted to take him away from this place to the one where I liked him best, at the head of the dining room table, a yamulke on his head as browned hard-boiled eggs were passed around. He would sit upright, quietly joyous in his family surrounding him and content in where he was. In a family structure filled with women, he was the patriarch; the man who showed me, alongside my father, what a man should be in relation to the world and his family.
I couldn’t flash forward to the days to come: The men trying to honor him by volunteering to watch my grandfather’s body before the burial, a traditional Jewish practice. Standing next to my tiny grandmother in her black dress during services, her graying hair flat along her face and her eyes in shock. Sitting at the huevo, or reception afterwards, eating browned eggs and already feeling the missing piece in the wooden-paneled room. The people who would hug and kiss me at the Sephardic Temple, where he had been president of the temple, and tell me stories about “a good man.” They ranged from close friends telling me how he would try to pretend that they were actually blood related or how, when they first came to this country, the first stop after the synagogue was at Joseph Amira’s home, at a long dining room table with his family. In the years after, I didn’t realize how hard the days would when I wished he was by me, and how surprisingly shameful it would be when the days came where I was glad he wasn’t alive to see them.
All I knew in that moment was that head chair in the dining room table would be empty now, and no one would fill it the exact same way. My heart longed for the shuffling of shoes along the carpet, the sound of his voice. I would have even been happy to even hear another one of his diatribes against Howard Hughes (he was the only person I ever heard Papu get angry over, in the rare instances he came up). I wished I could ask him questions and hear him tell stories. But our time together in life was now over.
I decided to sit next to him on the other side of the bed, raising my head to G-d. I wasn’t going to tell Hashem not to take Joseph Amira, not when he had been given so much in his life that would leave him content. In this moment, my heart began to reach out in prayer for those of us left behind in his absence: my mother, father, grandmother and sister. I whispered in his ear all my love, without tears or pain, as he had never given me any. Just his love.
As I left the bed, about to walk out of the room, I heard something: His voice. It wasn’t words; he couldn’t speak anymore. He began to hiccup. It wasn’t just a bodily reaction. The struggle of his soul, lingering somewhere between heaven and earth, was coming back to try to find me one last time. I witnessed how the body can wither away, yet how love is stronger than death ever hopes to be.
I stood in the doorway of the bedroom, looking at him, thinking of my then three-year-old cousin Sam several days before, as he shouted his love so loud that “Uncle Joe” could hear him in the limbo where his mind residing now. And somewhere, deep in the corners of my mind, I heard my grandfather’s voice as if he could still speak with me, excitedly saying, “You know, Sammy came by the other day…”
Sam wouldn’t remember that moment of his life, but I would remember this one, even as now Papu was slipping away from me. All I could hope, as I walked away from my grandfather’s bedside, was that we would find strength from his love in the days to come.