The click of the machine pumping morphine into Grandpa’s arm is consistent. In contrast, his breathing is ragged, and every so often he lets out a pained moan that comes from low in the throat and sounds like a death rattle. We’ve heard it at least a dozen times now but it still makes me jump a little. This is what we’ve been doing. We sit silently, all of us in gowns and gloves, like some kind of familial Haz-Mat team, watching his chest rise and fall. We hold our own breath every time his chest collapses and exchange glances, wondering if it’s his last exhale.
Still, amid the clicking and whirring and moaning and nurses chatting just outside the door, my mind is singularly focused. The only thing I can think right now, is about turkey legs. Yes, turkey legs. The huge ones you get at theme parks or renaissance fairs. They’re big, greasy, and browned to perfection. They usually come in a foil bag—the same kind that you get from the bakery when you’re too tired to really cook and pre-buttered garlic bread calls your name. The turkey legs are easily big enough for two or three people, but hell, we came all this way didn’t we? We’ll each get one! I’m thinking about turkey legs because my grandpa’s arms used to remind me of them.
He’s always been a muscular bear of a man. Short, yes, but nothing about him small. His arms would always show from the elbow down, tanned from mowing the lawn on a riding mower or taking a drive out to some back woods road only he knew about to watch white tail deer come and go. They were freckled by the sun and covered in wispy, nearly imperceptible hairs. And the skin was always wrapped so tautly over his huge muscles. They looked just like those turkey legs.
Now though, I don’t recognize these arms. They aren’t turkey legs. They’re chicken legs. They’re small and cold and the skin is far too loose. He’s been indoors for the better part of a month so they’ve lost their color as well. These look like boiled chicken legs that have been set out on a paper towel, puckered by water. They aren’t right.
When everyone has left the room to stretch their legs, get coffee, go to the bathroom, I stay behind. I pull a chair up close to him and watch him for a while. I watch his arms. His chicken legs. Though we’re not supposed to, I remove my glove and rub the loose remains of muscle gently as if the skin-to-skin contact might bring color and plumpness back to them. Like they might inflate like a pool toy, happy and bright again.
After a while, I cover his arm up with a blanket. I whisper to him, “That’s okay. You just get warm. Get better and you’ll be able to come home for Thanksgiving.” I rest my head gently on his chest and listen to his heartbeat. “I’ll make all your favorites and you can just sit in your recliner and watch the game. Deal?” But his ragged breath is the only reply.
In the coming days I stop promising candied yams and sweet smells. I stop promising whatever ball game is on TV. I don’t say that I’ll cut my hair short like he prefers instead of letting it hang like a mop. I don’t tell him that I’ll move home, right upstairs if he wants. Instead, I start making a different kind of promise. I promise him that if he’ll let go, if he’ll just slip away, it will be okay. I promise him that dying will be good for him. That he won’t be scared and alone but filled up, whole and blissful. I promise that when my family leaves the room and I stay with him, he can just let it all fall away. All the noises and pain. I promise that if he lets it, death will be as nourishing and warm in his body as a giant turkey leg.