by Kailey Sherrick
My knees were killing me. The acrid scent of Spic n’ Span mixed with Old English Lemon Oil was burning my eyes and causing my nose to drip profusely, starting a vicious cycle of sniff, wipe, repeat. I had been washing the baseboards of my grandparents’ house all afternoon, and the finish line was in sight. The white molding, still wet and gleaming in the late afternoon sun, would surely be inspected by my grandmother later, but I was ready to be done. The last room, my grandfather’s room, was cleaned. The only thing left was to move all of the large antique furniture back into the same arrangement it’d been in since the 1970s, save for the recent addition of a medical bed. I heaved and hauled wooden dressers, nightstands, and tables back into position, envious of my grandfather who sat in the living room watching television while my grandmother cooked roast and mashed potatoes for dinner.
The last piece of furniture to move was a small, quaint kneeler with a rosary hanging off the side, the same make as those placed in front of caskets at funeral homes. As I slid the kneeler across the floor, praying like hell it wouldn’t scratch the hardwood, the rosary clinked and clattered against the side. I placed my hand over the rosary to stifle the noise, and noticed a small drawer beneath the podium. I had never seen the drawer before, even though I’d played on the kneeler since I was a child. I would place my bony knees on the cushion and clasp my hands together, bowing my shaggy blonde head into my knuckles. I would clamp my eyes shut, closing them so tightly that they ached, and pretend to be in the throes of a fervent, possessive prayer, the same way I had watched my grandfather pray.
I stood there with one hand still holding the rosary, while the other traced the plain, round knob on the drawer. Curiosity overcame me, and I slid the drawer open. Inside I found a pocket-sized version of the New Testament, a small book of prayers, a step-by-step guide to saying the rosary, and, almost obstructed from view behind these items, was a long white envelope. Grasping one of the corners, I slid the envelope out of its hiding place. On the front, in large, recognizable blocky letters, my grandfather had written a message:
TO WHOM IT MAY CONCERN
Something urgent and anxious was set loose inside my body—a raw need to see what was inside the envelope, to lay eyes on whatever it was that my grandfather had hidden from view. I flipped the envelope over and looked at the back side. Sealed. Could I steam it open? Could tear into it and forge his writing on a new envelope? Would he notice it was missing? I went over to the window and held it up to the sunlight. The paper inside was thick and folded over, possibly more than one page. I couldn’t decipher a word. I knew I was holding something secret, something I wasn’t meant to find, or at least, something I wasn’t meant to find at that time. I stared at those blocky letters on the front, my brain unable to make the bridge between the alphabetical arrangement and its meaning. I held the letter to the window until my trance was broken by the sound of creaking floorboards as my grandmother’s heavy footsteps moved closer down the hall. I placed the letter back behind the books and shut the drawer with a snap.
Later that evening, as I ate dinner with my parents, I decided to ask my father about the envelope. We were sitting in the living room, plates on our laps, watching a movie, enjoying what we jokingly called “quality family time.”
“I found something while I was cleaning upstairs,” I said, placing my cleared plate on the coffee table.
My father averted his eyes from the television. “Was it porn?” he asked, as a small, crooked smile crept onto his bearded face.
“Gross. No. I found a letter in Grandpa’s room.”
“What did it say?” The corners of his mouth fell as he glanced in my direction.
“I don’t know. It was in a sealed envelope. The front said, ‘To whom it may concern, if anyone.’ That’s all there was.”
My father set his fork down and rubbed his eyes, then ran his hands through his hair. He stayed quiet.
“What is it? Do you know?” I asked, leaning forward and placing my elbows on my knees.
“My guess is we were meant to find that after he was supposed to die last year.”
“Die? He didn’t die last year.”
“Obviously. You know how we got the new generator, the wood burner, and filled up the petroleum tank all within a month last year?”
I nodded, remembering how my father scrambled around that entire summer, how harried and worn he had appeared.
My father let out a heavy sigh and continued, “He said God told him he was going to die—had a date set and everything.”
“What the fuck?”
“Watch your language, young lady. And just forget about the letter, okay? It’s nothing to get concerned about.”
“I’m already concerned. If Grandpa thinks he’s going to die then-”
“He doesn’t just ‘think’ he’s going to die. He wants to.”
It was my turn to be silent. My father and I stared at random spots in the carpet, falling into a mutual discomfort. This was the first time I ever heard about my grandfather’s voices, and the first time I realized he had lost the will to live.
My grandfather had been a part of my everyday life from the age of two until I left for college. Even now, I still see him at least once a week. We all lived under the same roof, but on different floors. When I was a toddler, my parents moved us all in to grandparents’ house. The original plan was for this to be a temporary arrangement. My father bought two acres off my grandfather’s eleven-acre plot, and we situated ourselves in their refinished basement until we could save enough money to build a house of our own. Plans changed in 1999, when my grandfather was diagnosed with Degenerative Nerve and Muscle Disease—a close cousin to Lou Gehrig’s. My parents stayed in the basement and became primary caretakers as the disease progressed.
I saw my grandparents every day. While I have no memories of my grandfather ever coming down the stairs to visit us, I would go up and see him multiple times. He was always in the living room, sitting in his chair, either listening to Irish folk music or watching EWTN (Eternal Word Television Network). One of the earliest memories I have of him is being sprawled across his lap while he sat in his overstuffed armchair. It looked like a throne made with crimson leather, golden rivets, and dark cherry legs. I asked him to tickle my feet, and he grudgingly obliged. He ran his finger up and down the arch of my foot as I tried to hold back my giggles, fighting the urge to pull away until I burst into laughter and rolled off his lap, falling onto the floor.
“You’re such a ham,” he said, grabbing his cane and poking my sides as I twisted and squirmed on the blue shag carpet.
It’s hard to remember what he looked like back then, as my memories of that time are tainted by how he looks now, but when I see him in photographs or home videos, I’m stunned by how healthy he appears. My favorite photo of my grandfather was taken right after my first communion. He and my grandmother stand at my sides. His hand is on my shoulder, and he’s smiling. It’s this photo gives me a glimpse into the man I can barely remember.
I have his nose. It’s long, with a slight bump on the left side, giving it the illusion of having been broken, and his thick-lensed glasses were perched directly over it. His ears are large, but they don’t overtake his strong jaw and his thick, precisely trimmed beard. His body, straight and alert, seemed to be brimming with pride and masculinity. He gave off the impression of someone who was inherently strong, and his hands were calloused from years of carpentry, both for business and pleasure. He stood with his chest out, proud and intimidating. He was a man—healthy, full of life, and beaming with pride for his only grandchild, who had officially entered into his church.
I was five years old. I went upstairs to eat dinner with my grandparents. My grandmother’s spaghetti always drew me up from the basement. I sat at the table, bowing my head and closing my eyes as my grandparents said grace.
“Bless us Oh Lord, and these thy gifts, which we are about to receive, from thy bounty, through Christ, Our Lord. Amen.”
When it was over, I immediately grabbed my fork and prepared to stuff my face. A hand grabbed my wrist before I could take a bite. My grandfather was staring at me.
“Cross yourself,” he said, his grip tightening on my wrist.
I had no idea what he meant. In my confusion, I could only stare back at my grandfather, whose face was contorted with anger.
“Cross yourself, damn it!” He let go of my wrist and started to get out of his chair. I bolted to the living room and threw myself down in my grandmother’s rocker, covering my head with my arms, sobbing. He followed me to the living room and stood over my cowering form. His arm was raised, and he was preparing to strike me when my grandmother stopped him.
“Jim, stop it. She doesn’t know what that means.”
“Of course she does. She’s seen us do it hundreds of times.”
“But we’ve never taught her how to do it, or why we do it in the first place.”
This was the only time I’d ever seen my grandmother stand up to my grandfather. He relented, slinking back the hallway to his bedroom, and I escaped to my parents. My dad went upstairs later that evening. I don’t know what was said, but I know I didn’t go up there for dinner for a long time afterwards.
Degenerative Nerve and Muscle Disease is agonizingly slow. It creeps, eroding the brain stem little by little. The first thing to go is motor function. I have no memories of my grandfather walking unaided, and very few of him only needing a cane. For the majority of my life, he has used a walker, propelling himself forward mainly using his arms while his feet drag sideways behind him like a lame dog.
The next thing to dissipate is the ability for speech. His once booming voice has turned into a wheeze, and he shouts to raise his tone above a whisper. At this stage, forming each word takes a huge amount of effort. In between sentences there are heaving sighs and gasps for air. What little laughter can be drawn from his body leaves him breathless. It’s as if the body is slowly decaying even though the heart still beats. At the end of its course, my grandfather’s lungs will be too weak to function properly. He will be able to inhale, but he won’t be able to exhale. He will suffocate to death.
In many ways, my grandfather has been dying for most of my life. I’ve never known him truly healthy. I know facts about his life before the disease. I know his first name is James, but everyone calls him Jim. I know that his middle name is Aloysius. He was born in 1933, the second youngest of eleven siblings. He grew up in Mount Vernon, Ohio. At the age of eighteen, he joined the United States Air force and was in the 82nd Airborne out of Ft. Bragg. He served in Korea, shortly before the armistice was signed. After his service was complete, he married Roberta, aka “Biddy”, and had two sons, Christopher and Robert. He worked for Dominion East Ohio as a meter reader until his retirement.
In comparison to my other older relatives, his death has always seemed near and more inevitable. I have had my whole life to prepare myself emotionally for his passing. Maybe it would sound like a blessing in disguise—to be given the time and the information needed to prepare for the death of a loved one as opposed to them being taken suddenly—but that’s not how it worked for me. I distanced myself from him, and I still do. As I got older, each trip upstairs was met with trepidation and resistance. The feebler he became, the more fervent and staunch his religious beliefs became, and the voices swelled from a whisper to a constant roar.
My grandfather has always been blunt with me, even when I was young. He made no exceptions for my impressionable mind and tender heart, and took no excuses for my actions.
When I was eight, I asked my grandfather why I had to get baptized. I stood in the middle of their living room, keeping my distance from the overpowering presence seated in his throne chair.
“You need to get baptized because if you don’t, you won’t go to Heaven,” he said, leaning forward and looking over the top of his glasses.
“Right now,” he continued, pointing his finger at my head, “you’re in a state of mortal sin. If you die before you get baptized, you’ll go straight to Hell.”
The idea of Hell, in my eight-year-old mind, had always existed more within the realm of fantasy. It was where bad people went, and I wasn’t a bad person, right? I tip-toed out of the living room, feeling like I was walking on egg-shells. The use of the word “mortal sin” would be something I’d hear consistently throughout my childhood and into adulthood, to cover everything from missing a day of church, taking communion if he knew I hadn’t gone to confession, and marrying a non-Catholic.
While I was concerned about the fate of my own soul, I was more alarmed that my cat’s soul may be doomed to Hell if I didn’t intervene immediately. I waited in the kitchen with my grandmother, who was reading one of her romance novels. When I saw my grandfather leave his perch and make his way to the bathroom, I jumped to action. I rushed to the area where he kept tiny bottles of holy water, located near the small font that was mounted on the archway into their living room. I took one bottle, wedged it into the waistband of my pants, and sprinted back downstairs.
After a large amount of treats and coaxing, I captured my cat. I cradled him in my arms, and much to his surprise and disdain, began dousing him with holy water. My parents heard the yowling and came running. They ordered me to let go of Lucy, our big orange tabby, who skulked away, a little bit waterlogged and a little bit holier.
In between the stifled snorts of laughter my dad ordered me to return the bottle, so I trudged up the stairs to return the empty container and confess to my transgression. When I reached my grandfather, I handed him the bottle and looked at my feet.
“What did you take it for? And why’s it empty? Look me in the eyes.” he asked, prodding me in the side with his finger.
“I had to baptize Lucy. I didn’t want him to go to Hell, either.” My eyes were brimming with tears, and the image of my grandfather swam in a salty haze.
He chuckled a little.
“Lucy won’t go to Hell,” he said, using a gentle yet stern voice, and added, “But he won’t go to Heaven either. Animals don’t have souls. Only humans do, so only humans get baptized.”
“That’s not fair.” I hugged myself, arms tight across my chest.
“I know. But at least you know Lucy won’t be going to kitty Hell.” He sat back in his chair and grabbed the newspaper. He was done talking. I turned on my heels and walked back downstairs to break the news to Lucy that he didn’t have a soul.
As I got older, and his disease progressed, it became a common occurrence to hear my grandfather through the thin tiled ceiling as he yelled and cursed at God. When his stomach hurt, when he lost control of his bowels, when he fell, almost anything could send him into a screaming frenzy, yelling as loudly as he could, “You bastards! You sons-of-bitches!”
During one of these shouting matches with the voices in his head, my grandfather got up, rolled to the wall, grabbed the framed print of the Sacred Heart of Jesus, and smashed it on the ground. He also took a crucifix and hurled it across the room. After this incident, Grandma and my parents convinced my grandfather to see a doctor, who referred him to a psychiatrist, who referred him to a neurologist. My family wanted answers as to what was causing the voices. Was it dementia? Was it his disease? Was it something else entirely? Leading up to his appointment, I spent a few hours researching on Google, which, in retrospect, was a terrible idea. Somehow, I landed on Neurosyphilis, courtesy of WebMD.
A few days later, I found myself sitting in my grandparents’ living room. My grandfather was watching Life is Worth Living on EWTN. The black and white image of Bishop Sheen was parading around the screen in his 1950s Catholic regalia, proclaiming the word of his God with closed captions so Grandma could follow along. It struck me how much Bishop Sheen looked like Lon Chaney. I shuddered.
“Grandpa, I know this is an odd question, but how long has it been since you’ve had an STD screen?”
He let his head loll in my direction. The once full, neatly trimmed black beard had thinned and turned grey. It was growing wild, with long wispy hairs protruding down his neck. His perfect, proud posture was slumped and contorted. His skin seemed to hang from his frame. He looked like a ghost, like a shell.
He opened his mouth and took in air. I could almost hear it rattle as his chest expanded.
“Oh, not since I got back from the war.”
“Have you ever had any STD’s?”
“I caught something from a prostitute in Korea, but I got treated.”
I felt the heat in my face reach a boiling point, and my eyes darted over to my grandmother, who sat beside me in her lift chair. She lost her hearing completely in one ear when she was young, and recently had a cochlear implant placed in the other after it suddenly gave out one morning. The red light on the implant was blazing, she could hear him.
“She knows,” my grandfather said, slowly casting his hand in her direction, “I told her when I got back.”
“And how long has it been since you and Grandma, you know, had sex?” I cringed as the words escaped my mouth.
“Probably about thirty years. Why?”
“I was doing research. Syphilis can remain dormant in the body for very long periods of time. If it isn’t treated properly, it can cause visual and auditory hallucinations. It could explain the voices.”
“They aren’t just voices.” He was leaning forward in his chair, his face turned fully to face me. His eyes looked like they burned with fever. His cheeks were flushed.
“Last night, the Holy Mother and Jesus walked me through masturbation. They showed me what to do.”
I looked over to my grandmother again. She was still watching the television, seemingly unfazed. I noticed the red light on her implant had gone dark. She’d shut it off.
“The Holy Mother dangled the image of a woman I loved and lost above me. She had been mine before I met your grandmother. I didn’t treat her right. She got married to a man who treated her worse.”
“Grandpa, this isn’t God. Mary and Jesus aren’t tormenting you.”
“It is, goddamnit!” He slammed his hands with what force he could muster on the arms of his chair. “These cocksuckers, these motherfuckers. They won’t leave me alone unless I pray around the clock. It’s a test.” He started sobbing. The great heaving of his chest and the sharp intakes of breath terrified me.
“Listen to me, Grandpa. Just calm down and listen, okay?” I wanted to stop his crying. It was taking too much effort and I was afraid he wouldn’t be able to catch his breath. “God wouldn’t do this to you. Why, after all these years of praying and going to Church and trying to be a good Catholic, would God turn on you like this? It doesn’t make sense. If God is benevolent and loves us all, then there’s no reason for it. The voices aren’t real.”
I was crying now. I walked over to his chair and knelt beside it, taking his withered hand in mine.
“I can’t stand seeing you like this. Please promise me you’ll see the neurologist. He can help you.”
He nodded. I leaned over and hugged him.
Two weeks later, my father took him to see the neurologist. After an hour of waiting in the lobby, followed by an hour waiting in an exam room with no sign of a nurse or the doctor, they walked out. My grandfather blamed the voices. He hasn’t been back.
My grandmother and I sat at her kitchen table, munching on potato chips and chocolate milk. It was late, and my grandfather had gone to bed for the evening. She was keeping watch.
The previous night, my grandfather had mustered up enough strength to get out of bed, slide his walker to the end of the house, climb down the steps to the garage, and get in the car. He started it and sat there with the garage doors closed. My grandmother smelled the fumes, and was able to stop him after only a few minutes.
“That dumbass,” she said, in between crunches, “It never would have worked. The garage has too many air holes.”
I no longer clean the baseboards for my grandmother. When college, a husband, and a child chipped away at my free time, she hired a cleaning lady. I haven’t stepped foot in my grandfather’s bedroom for years. I haven’t checked to see if the envelope is still there. I don’t know if I’ll even read it when the time comes. Maybe it will be a confession. Maybe it will be an apology. Maybe it will be the writings of a paranoid, demented, dying man.
My grandfather stopped going to church. In the past three years, he has only left the house a handful of times. The religion he once clung to so fiercely, that was once a point of salvation, has turned into a tormenting force that cannot be relieved through anything other than death. This is why he wants to die. He sits in his chair each day, waiting for an end that seems like it will never come as his body deteriorates. He is trapped. He can’t even commit suicide, because his faith demonizes it, and because he’s too weak to do himself any harm. His suicide attempt wasn’t actually a means to take his own life, but a way to prove a point to the voices, to gain back some semblance of control.
Now, I’m left to struggle between what is selfish and what is compassionate. How can I ask him to fight, to cling to life, when the life he leads is one of constant suffering, when all the things he knew and loved are now a cause for pain? How can I ask him to keep breathing when each time he struggles for air, he wonders if it will be his last? I threw away my belief in my grandfather’s God a long time ago, so I don’t know if there’s a Heaven waiting for him. All I can say is whatever comes after he takes his final gasp of air, it will be more peaceful than what he has endured. I don’t pray often, but if I find a reason to lower myself down on to my knees, clasp my hands, and close my eyes so tight they ache, there is only one thing I pray for.
I pray for my grandfather to die.
Kailey Sherrick is currently a graduate candidate at the Northeast Ohio Masters of Fine Arts program (NEOMFA), where she focuses on honing her Creative Nonfiction skills. Her work has appeared in The Mill, and she is also a semi-regular contributor to Belt Magazine. She currently serves as the Essay Editor for Whiskey Island Magazine and works for the Confucius Institute at Cleveland State University as a Writing Assistant. When she isn’t writing about living and working in the Rust Belt, she enjoys spending time with her family, gardening, and ruining dinner parties by talking about the Big Three: Sex, Politics, and Religion.