A Time for Dying
My grandfather’s eyes turn old before he does. We watch them as they yellow—changing from a pure white into an egg yolk, runny and discolored. The way he watches the world around him changes too; he seems to watch now in quiet anticipation. We do not ask his thoughts these days, but instead hold his veiny and bruised hands, swollen from sickness and medication and war scars. He stays always now in his room, where midday light filters through the bay window like a small paradise. This is a good place to die, I think.
We wouldn’t let him into the kitchen now anyway, as my father has picked up smoking again, but he is still trying to hide the depth of his relapse. He smokes his cigarettes slow, slouching against the scratched-up wooden cabinets, then makes arroz con pollo for dinner, overly generous with aromatic seasoning—leaving the house smelling like cayenne and garlic. I watch from my window as he buries the cigarette butts in the backyard, digging little holes with mom’s gardening shovel while she is out grocery shopping, so she won’t know how much he is really smoking. I watch him closest then, watch him hurt himself without consideration—the secrets we carry when we are alone.
“Déjalo en paz, Val,” Mirabel says. “If your dad wants to smoke an occasional cigarette, let him. He’ll give it up as soon as Johnny dies.” I don’t bother to tell her that his habit is far from occasional.
My grandfather is white, paling more each day, even in the glowing sunlight from the bay window, the nicest window in our house. He watches the evening news on a tiny television my mother bought at the bargain store. For days unending, he is quiet, barely even speaking to my mother, his pretty Georgia sunflower. When he does speak, he often complains—spiraling into something incoherent and likely racist. My mother used to scold him for these things, but she does not take the time to correct his inflammatory vagaries anymore, knowing he is rotting from the inside out. We do not tell dying people what they are doing wrong, even if what they do is very wrong.
He talks most in front of mom and me, grinning with his few remaining big, horse-like teeth. My family is somewhat from rural Georgia and somewhat from San José—depending on who you ask, what side of the family they are on, what moment and what mood you catch them in. I understand it best in this: I did not learn Spanish from my father, but from listening to Selena Quintanilla for hours in the car. Selena, like me, was not raised speaking Spanish, but learned it to pay homage to her Hispanic identity. My father traded his fluency in college for some self-inflicted gentrification and didn’t start to pick the language up again until I decided to learn it.
Most of my relatives from San José are dead now, but the kings and queens of the deep south reign on, faces crisscrossed with a century of broken-down trucks and night shifts, cheap beer, and deep-fried food left under heat lamps for hours. My grandfather says in his dying daze that here in Georgia, you can fry eggs on the asphalt in July. Mirabel and I try this, but we are left with only runny yolks and the empty gaze of my father’s eyes as he watches us from his shaded lawn chair. “There Is a Light That Never Goes Out” by The Smiths plays on his battery-powered radio.
* * *
“He’s full of nonsense.” Mirabel is painting my fingernails cherry-red. We are not telling mom. “But then again, he’s dying—isn’t he, Val? I heard people say weird stuff right before they die. Didn’t he tell you he sees angels and demons fighting over him in his dreams?”
“I don’t think he’s exactly banging down death’s door yet.” I roll my head to crack my neck. “Mom keeps saying he’s about to go, then he starts cursing and drinks three cans of Bud Light in like two minutes as if he thinks he’s some big high school quarterback. I mean, he’s definitely in the process of dying, but he’s taking a hell of a long time, you know?”
“No sé. Y’all need to stop giving him beer. I don’t think old people are supposed to drink alcohol.” Mirabel’s hands slip, leaving a line of red down to the knuckle of my thumb. “It’s kind of depressing, honestly.”
“Not my place.” I shrug. “Mom’s letting him do whatever he wants at this point. She’d probably hand him the match if he wanted to burn the whole house down.”
Mirabel laughs, but something flickers in her ghost brown eyes. There is still red on my hands.
* * *
When I go home, my grandfather is eating cold SpaghettiOs out of the soup can. He didn’t bother to stir it, so he digs out the noodles that have sunk to the bottom of the murky red liquid. When his yolky eyes meet mine, I look away—instead turning to the table of men in suits shouting from the television screen.
“You look like a hooker with your nails all painted up and your mouth all drawn on with that awful lipstick.” My grandfather raises the can to his lips and drinks, tomato stock dripping around his mouth, out into his lap. He looks like a vampire now. “I never would’ve let your mother go out looking like that while she lived under my roof!”
“Sorry.” I shrug. “I was just going to see a friend.”
“Don’t bother to say sorry.” He wipes his mouth with the back of his hand, and yawns. This is likely the last time that he will speak for many days. “It’s just my out-of-date opinion, and what do I know? I’m just an old man.”
* * *
“He doesn’t know anything,” my father says, much later, in the kitchen, when the SpaghettiOs are long gone and mom has put her dying father to bed. “He’s just a mean old person, Val, but he doesn’t mean to hurt your feelings. When people get old, they get like that—obnoxious, you know? But your mom and I are really going to make an effort not to be like that when we get older, so don’t you worry.”
“That’s good to hear, I guess.” I open the refrigerator. We’re running low on eggs and milk, but I can improvise.
“¿Y qué haces? Cooking so late?” My father grins.
“I’m making a cake. Mom said that when she was putting him to bed, she remembered how he used to give her cake before bed when she was little, so she asked me to make one.” I pause. In the dying light, my good, hard-working father looks like a poorly-functioning addict—scratching at his dark hair and wringing his hands together. “Mom’s in the shower, now. You can smoke if you want, by the way. And don’t worry about hiding the butts. She already knows you picked it up again.”
He sighs, a tired sort of longing settling in his eyes, but pulls a crushed pack of cigarettes and a lighter out of his jeans pocket and lights up his first of many vices tonight. Three Christmases ago, he promised mom that he would give up smoking, but this is an exception time I am told. This is a time for dying—the process of dying, that is. My grandfather is not dead, so my father can smoke for a few days or weeks or months or years longer.
“Did I not bury them deep enough?” His eyes are closed, smoke swirling up from the little orange sparks on the tip of his cigarette. He taps the ashy head on the side of the table.
“You can’t bury anything deep enough that mom can’t find it.” I crack an egg over the mixing bowl. “You should know that by now.”
“I knew she’d find out eventually,” he whispers, breathing heavy to the sound of me stirring up the box cake mix. I don’t know if you can recognize what’s homemade when you are dying. If anything, I think my grandfather prefers the processed food—his SpaghettiOs and box cake, Bud Light and long stretches of quiet waiting.
Above my father, a single lightbulb hangs from the ceiling, illuminating the kitchen yellow in the night, not unlike the eyes of my grandfather. Dad finishes his third cigarette and throws the butts in the trashcan with the charade now ended, then coughs. I wonder how many cigarettes he would have to smoke to stain the lightbulb a faded gray. For tonight at least, it still glows its warm yellow—a lone egg yolk glimmering in the night. For tonight at least, it is still a time for dying.