“Come as soon as you can,” the nurse on the phone said. I hopped out of bed and ten minutes later, I sped to the hospital with my mother next to me. My cramped Volkswagen Beetle seemed to close in on us. After I parked, we raced to the ICU where a group of nurses and doctors approached us with tissue boxes. We were too late.
My mother went to the lobby to call relatives in Ecuador and give them the news. I sat alone in my grandfather’s hospital room. There was a shiny spot on his forehead, as if someone had polished him. I was tempted to take off his oxygen mask so I could see his face better, but I couldn’t bring myself to touch him. Soon, local relatives came by to pay their respects. Despite the numerous kisses he received, his forehead remained glossy.
“What is that weird stuff on Abuelo’s forehead?” I asked my aunt. “Grease? Wax?”
“I had a priest put holy oil on him,” she said. “He would’ve wanted that.”
I bit my tongue and left the room. Before Abuelo married Abuela, he was married to her cousin, but he soon realized he was in love with Abuela, so he wanted a divorce. However, this request grew into a massive feud between him, his religious parents, his religious in-laws, and Catholic church officials. Despite the discord, Abuelo lived with Abuela “in sin” until his divorce was granted after nine years of arguing. They married in 1966 at a courthouse in Guayaquil with my mother and my aunt as their guests. Abuela attended Catholic churches until the 1990s, but Abuelo never set foot in a Catholic church again for the rest of his life.
“My old church tried and tried to keep me from marrying your abuelita,” he once said to me. “But I fought them until I won. Be glad I did. If I hadn’t, you wouldn’t be here today.”
The day after Abuelo died, I went to a funeral home in west Houston. It was the same place which arranged my cousin’s funeral twenty years earlier. I hadn’t been inside the building since I was six, yet I remembered the dull floors, the gloomy, dark green couches, and the tacky wallpaper. I met up with my mother, my sister, a few cousins, and my aunt inside the funeral director’s freezing office. He spoke with a heavy Southern drawl and asked us a few questions: What kind of casket did we want to buy? Did we have an outfit ready for our deceased loved one? Religious or irreligious ceremony? Burial or cremation? Abuelo was terrified of death and always refused to discuss his final wishes. As a result, we had no idea what he really wanted. I pictured Abuelo in the room and imagined what he would answer.
Casket? Just throw me in the trash.
Outfit? I came into this world naked and naked I’ll go.
Ceremony? Pastor. Rabbi. Elvis Presley impersonator. Who cares?
Burial or cremation? Enough questions, Darlene, throw me in the trash already.
After hours of discussion, the funeral director finalized our choices, except for the casket. It had an optional memory foam bedding and it would cost “only $600 more.”
“He wouldn’t care about memory foam,” I said.
“Maybe he would,” the funeral director said and fiddled with his tie.
“Bring him in here,” I suggested. “Put him on this table and ask him if he wants memory foam. Do you have a Ouija board handy? You might need one if he doesn’t answer right away.”
In the end, we didn’t choose the memory foam bedding, nor did we choose a burial. Abuelo was cremated. About a week after his funeral, I carefully poured his ashes into his urn, and I hoped, with tears in my eyes, that his final wishes were fulfilled.
Three days before Abuelo died, I invited him out to lunch for his 82nd birthday. But when I got to his apartment, he clutched his chest, hyperventilated, and begged me to take him to the ER. One of the things I have in common with Abuelo is hospital hatred. When I was a kid and had appointments at the hospital where my father worked, my mother would take me to visit him. We’d eat bland food in the cafeteria or walk around the ER hallways where I’d hear “Code blue!” or “Dr. Campos, your patient needs you now!” And whenever I accompanied my father on his medical conferences in Germany, the activities included visits to die Krankenhäuser to catch up with his doctor buddies. By the time I grew up, I was sick of hospitals because they are usually people’s last stop before they die. Abuelo hated hospitals for the same reason. His massive heart attack shriveled him and he never made it out of “el maldito hospital.”
The one regret I have is that the night before he died, I went home instead of sleeping in his ICU room. The thought of sleeping in a place of illness and death made me queasy. Since Abuelo was on oxygen and other machines to keep his heart going, there were thick tubes in his throat, and he couldn’t speak. His droopy eyes said, “Stay here, please.” When my great-grandparents, Abuelo’s parents, died in their hospital rooms, he wasn’t there. He said he couldn’t bear being with them, but he always regretted it because “they died all alone.” Years later, the same happened to him. Before I left, I held Abuelo’s icy hand and told him I loved him, but I should have proved it by suppressing my hospital hatred for one night. I walked out of his room at 1 a.m. Abuelo died at 8 a.m. He was the only grandfather I had, and I failed him in the last hours of his life. Sometimes I wonder if he ever forgave me and if I will ever forgive myself.
A month after Abuelo’s passing, my family and I were busy taking care of his duties like paying his bills, donating his old clothes, and organizing his documents. I was given the responsibility of closing his P.O. Box. Abuelo had it to receive mail from Ecuador because he thought his mailbox at home wasn’t secure enough. When I explained to the postmaster that Abuelo died, she told me his P.O. Box was paid for an entire year and he still had five months left on his contract, so I decided to let the contract run its course. I found his P.O. Box at the back of the stuffy post office and opened it using a key from Abuelo’s keychain labeled cajita. Most of the mail was advertisements and coupons, but on the bottom of the pile, there was a letter from his doctor. I didn’t open the letter until David, my fiancé at the time, asked a few weeks later, “why would his doctor send him a letter? He’s never going to read it.”
My curiosity sparked, so the next day, I opened the letter with Abuela. It was dated March 1, 2017, exactly three months before Abuelo’s passing. It was in English, so I told Abuela I would read it and translate. She waited patiently as I skimmed through the words. The letter explained how to live with end stage heart failure, hospice options to consider, and tips on how to break the news to loved ones. Abuelo experienced heart issues in the past and he needed surgery when I was in high school, but he refused because of his hospital hatred. Thus, his heart had weakened. My head throbbed and my pulse quickened. I tore the letter in half and tossed the pieces on the floor. Abuela asked me what was wrong, but for a while, I couldn’t answer.
After I calmed myself by taking several deep breaths, I said, with burning tears streaming down my cheeks, “Abuelo knew he was going to die. He knew. He knew for months. And he didn’t tell us!”
My uncle soon moved in with Abuela to care for her as her Alzheimer’s progressed. Without Abuelo, the home felt unusually quiet. When he was alive, he was the one who answered the door, offered me snacks or drinks, and led me to his personal library of films and books to recommend something I might enjoy. However, Abuelo had deep flaws as well.
In Abuelo’s younger days, he had countless mistresses, including one who gave birth to a daughter he kept a secret for twenty years. Each affair shattered Abuela’s heart, yet she always took Abuelo back with open arms. Additionally, whenever I visited my grandparents, Abuelo would ask what I wanted to drink or eat. He’d list choices, like “coconut water” or “chocolate ice cream.” Then he’d yell, clap, and obnoxiously whistle at Abuela for her come to serve me, but I’d always serve myself because I hated seeing her ordered around. As a loving grandfather, Abuelo was fantastic. As a loving husband, he flunked. I never understood why he fought so hard to marry Abuela only to cheat constantly and treat her like the dirt under his shoes.
But sometimes, he’d passionately kiss Abuela and tell her how much she brightened his life. The day he got his first smartphone, he was so excited when I taught him how to put a picture of Abuela as the wallpaper. On Christmas 2016, I gave Abuela new underwear she asked for and he giggled with a wink, “Well, Merry Christmas to me, too!” Mourning him was difficult because though I loved him very much, he also repeatedly hurt another person I love very much.
One of the final tasks I completed after Abuelo’s death was putting his CDs in their cases and setting them aside either to donate or give away to relatives. In his little CD player by the kitchen, he had a Nat King Cole album and one of the songs was titled “I’m Lost.” The song describes feeling totally lost in the world without a loved one’s presence for guidance.
And for several months, as I grieved for him, that’s exactly how I felt.
Take the Trash Away
For a long time, I was angry at Abuelo, but being angry at someone who has passed away is different than being angry at someone who is alive. There was no way for me to call or visit Abuelo and tell him how betrayed I felt about his heart failure secret, so I couldn’t get any closure for my rage. Eventually, a year passed. David and I got married, my father-in-law died, and we spent most of 2018 cleaning out my father-in-law’s barbershop and then his house to get it ready for sale. One afternoon, as David and I threw away grocery store receipts from the 1980s and ancient canned food that probably once belonged to Cleopatra, I lost my patience. I told David to give me matches and let me set the house on fire.
“He didn’t like throwing anything away,” David said and continued digging through a lopsided box of assorted trinkets. “Sorry for the mess, baby. Take a break if you need to.”
I went outside and dragged yet another box of junk to the curb. I sat on the porch for a little while and a big truck with two men and a woman suddenly pulled up. The woman rolled down the window, smacked her gum, and asked, “Are you getting rid of all this great stuff?”
“Take it,” I said. “Be my guest.”
The men happily shoved every trash bag and cardboard box into the truck’s bed. David watched them from the front window. When they drove off, he joined me outside and asked, laughing, “Did you pray for God to send people to take the trash away?”
“No,” I said and rubbed sweat off my face. “But I guess God had mercy on us.”
“Wouldn’t it be nice,” David said with a smile. “If someone could come along like that truck and take away our grief?”
“It would be great,” I said. “I miss your dad and I miss my grandpa. I’m still mad at him, but you know, even though I want to yell at him from here to the moon, I want him here again.”
Everyone is Here All the Time
One evening in April 2021, I couldn’t sleep, so I quietly got out of bed not to wake David, and crept downstairs to watch Netflix. As I scrolled through the menu, I realized I hadn’t finished a series called Shtisel and there was only one episode left. Just before it ended, there was a scene with three of the characters having a drink at a dining table. One of the characters remarked that he had recently read a book by Isaac Bashevis Singer. He recited this quote:
The dead don't go anywhere. They're all here. Every man is a cemetery. An actual cemetery, in whom lie all our grandmothers and grandfathers. The father and mother, the wife, the child. Everyone is here all the time.
When I was little, my grandparents lived in Ecuador, but they moved to Houston when I was nine. Since they were close by, I spent lots of time with them. One of my favorite memories is from 2010. Abuela suffered a diabetic scare and was rushed to the ER. Abuelo got so worried, he ran to a restroom because he felt nauseous, but he slipped and smashed his head against the toilet. He blacked out and was soon taken to an ER room for evaluation.
I visited Abuela first and when I saw that she was well, I headed to Abuelo’s room. He was hooked up on numerous machines and his blood pressure and heart rate were higher than the Empire State Building. He squirmed on his bed, saying in Spanish, “Damn hospital, damn bed, damn oxygen, damn all of this!” The nurse asked him to stop moving, but he didn’t understand. I stepped in and said, “Abuelo, I sued the toilet for hurting your head. You won ten dollars.” He laughed out loud and his heart rate and blood pressure began dropping to normal levels.
“Mi niña linda,” he said and blew me kisses. “You always come.”
To this day, I don’t know why Abuelo kept his secret, and I honestly don’t think it really matters either. I’m not angry anymore. Abuelo never left. He’s here with me, all the time.
Darlene P. Campos earned her MFA in creative writing from the University of Texas at El Paso. When she's not writing, she enjoys reading, exercising, and going to museums. She is Ecuadorian-American and lives in Houston, TX with her husband and their six rescue cats. Visit her website at www.darlenepcampos.com / Creative Nonfiction