A Death Rattle for Christmas

My atheist grandfather’s struggle with pancreatic cancer during one of the most festive times of year

Photo by Annie Spratt on Unsplash

“Katie, you look weird. Your skin looks mottled. You should just go to the house and take a shower,” Mom said, assessing me with her sharp eyes. I opened my mouth to protest, but she continued. “You can come right back, but I think you need to go freshen up. Get some clean clothes, wash your face. Just go do it,” she said, ending the conversation.

I knew Mom wouldn’t lie about my appearance; in fact, I could always count on her to be brutally honest.

I went into the bathroom and looked in the mirror. The fluorescent lights illuminated the bags under my eyes, and as I perceived the skin of my face, I saw that Mom was right: my cheeks were blotchy and red. I furrowed my brows in consternation, rubbing one cheek to see if I could magically wipe away the discoloration. It was useless.

“I’ll be gone for less than an hour,” I promised as I exited the bathroom, grabbing my purse. I looked at Grandpapa in his bed, then over at Dad, who was in the big chair in the corner, watching his father.

Since arriving a few days ago, Dad and I had only left Grandpapa’s side a couple of times to get meals from the cafeteria downstairs. We’d been sleeping in the cots that were folded neatly in half on the other side of the room, drifting off to the rhythmic sound of Grandpapa’s labored, wet breathing.

“Go,” Dad said.

It was snowing; the cold air hit my skin and filled my lungs with sharp alacrity. After a moment I realized I’d forgotten my gloves; my fingers quickly numbed. I walked faster and found the car I’d borrowed from Grandpa Bert exactly where I’d left it in the garage. I’d driven from Indianapolis the other night after flying in from Arizona, exhausted and scared, hoping to make it in time.

“He’s got the death rattle, so it’ll be anytime now,” the nurse had told me when I arrived at his room in the oncology wing. She meant that his breathing was loud and labored, a sure sign that his time was nigh. My sister, a doctor, explained that usually the death rattle heralded a 24-hour warning, 48 hours tops.

We’d just entered hour 72 with Grandpapa.

I started the car and rubbed my hands together. The radio blared an R&B Christmas song, and I paused. What day was it? December 24? I’d forgotten. The song was contrived and corny, representing everything I despised about the holidays. On any other year, I would’ve made bitterly sarcastic remarks about it and changed the station.

Yet as I pulled onto the road and the windshield wipers squeaked, pushing the snowflakes around, tears sprang to my eyes.

The house on Hunter Street felt like a walk-in freezer; why waste money on central heating when we were all at the hospital anyhow? This prudent attitude toward frivolities such as warmth was unspoken and mutual between Mom and Grandpapa, the two of them a united force of frugality. Even though he’d only opened his eyes once in the last few days, I knew that he would approve of the decision to let his house freeze while we gathered at his deathbed a few miles away. Suddenly it occurred to me that I had no idea what else Mom and Grandpapa had in common, and how strange it must have been for them to encounter one another in this life, with Dad as their only link.

Grandpapa and Dad had managed to unearth the little plastic tree from the basement and set it up in the corner of the living room. Adjacent to the tree, a Duraflame log sat in the drafty fireplace, ready to be ignited. How many Christmases had I spent hearthside, working out a jigsaw puzzle or playing cards with my sisters, trying to glean a shred of warmth from one lone, chemically-infused log?

The original plan was for Grandpapa to stay at home and die comfortably in the place where he’d lived for some fifty years. A few days ago, though, the pain from the pancreatic cancer got so bad that Dad brought him back to the hospital. Grandpapa was so distraught that he decided to stay; traveling home seemed too daunting a prospect.

Someone had turned off the colorful lights surrounding the tree (those miserly about heat tend to be synonymous with those who share the same sentiment about electricity). The tinsel hung limply, reflecting the gray of the clouds outside. There were a couple of scattered presents on the beige carpet beneath the tree, and a few envelopes tucked into the boughs.

I went upstairs to the guest room — furnished with two twin beds on frames that had wheels — and pulled a fresh set of clothes from my suitcase. I stripped down in the freezing cold and made a run for the bathroom, hopping back and forth with my bare feet on the cold tile floor, waiting for the water to warm up.

The house didn’t always feel this bare, this skeletal. We used to come for Christmas when Granny was still alive, and we even came a few times in the summers, us girls marveling at the fireflies, staying up late and eating ice cream.

Around the holidays, Grandpapa and Dad used to chop wood in the backyard. They’d get a big, roaring fire going, arguing over who was the better fire-builder. We’d strip down to our t-shirts, the house would be so warm.

Granny would cook a huge meal and truckloads of Christmas cookies. She’d fill our basement playroom with new games and gadgets, and we’d spend hours down there poring over them, occupied and out of the way.

The Duraflame began making an appearance after Granny died when I was around eleven. At the same time, her elaborate meals were replaced with a spread from the deli at Kroger, the local grocery store. The days of cookies were over. I guess Grandpapa was too tired to deal with a big fire or with cooking, and none of us offered to pitch in.

I decided to leave my hair wet, so I wouldn’t waste any time getting back to the hospital. It would dry there.

“You look much better,” Mom told me as soon as she saw me. “How do you feel?”

“Better,” I admitted. “Any changes?”

“No.”

I resumed my seat by the window, cracking a book. I’d already undone and redone the scarf I was knitting about five times, and was getting bored of it. I’d been working on it for that one moment when Grandpapa opened his eyes after I first arrived, and I tried to show it to him, to engage him in conversation. His eyes had simply sunk closed again, but I figured he’d heard me.

If I’d known that he wouldn’t be awake again, maybe I would have said something different.

“YOU CAN LET GO NOW, KARL,” the hospice nurse said loudly into Grandpapa’s ear. She was enunciating each word like an elementary school teacher explaining the alphabet for the first time. My sisters and I all paused our reading to look up, hoping Grandpapa would open his eyes.

Snow drifted down in steady flakes outside the window. Grandpapa didn’t move.

It was Christmas day. He was still breathing rhythmically and with alarming volume, his death rattle unchanged. It sounded like he needed to cough up a bunch of phlegm.

Later, I asked Dad why he thought the hospice nurse spoke to Grandpapa that way.

Dad had a theory. “Well, since he’s an atheist, he might be extra scared to go,” he said.

I nodded. “That makes sense. Like — there’s nothing on the other side. Just death and it’s over and he’s gone, into nothingness?”

“Exactly,” Dad said.

I woke up when it was still dark. I looked at my phone: 4 a.m. Right away I noticed that Grandpapa’s breathing was much faster, like he had just gone for a run.

Dad was already getting out of bed. Without a word, we both walked over and stood above Grandpapa, watching, listening.

After a few minutes, his breathing slowed to the same old rhythm it had during the first few days of the death rattle. Instead of staying there, though, it kept lagging. The pauses between inhales and exhales began to stretch, and the rattle began to fade. His breathing became so subtle that I waited until I was sure he had stopped before I remembered to take a breath myself.

Dad was silent. I waited for him to say something, to do something. He didn’t move.

A few minutes later, I spoke. “Should — ” I swallowed. “Should I get the nurse?” I asked quietly.

“What?” Dad had been in some sort of reverie. “Oh. I didn’t realize he had stopped breathing,” he said, looking surprised.

I looked back at Grandpapa, praying that Dad was right. But Grandpapa was absolutely still, completely silent.

I called Mom; she was sleeping at the house on Hunter Street with my sisters.

“We’re on our way,” she said.

“It’s Elsa’s birthday,” Dad said to us. It was light outside now, and we were getting things wrapped up at the hospital, trying to sort out what to do next. Grandpapa had died on the day of his mother’s birth. It was December 26th.

“Also, thank you so much for waking me up, Katie,” Dad said, looking at me.

“I woke you up?” I cocked my head quizzically.

“You don’t remember?” he asked. I shook my head. “You spoke very loudly to me. You were almost yelling. You said, ‘That is beautiful!’ When I opened my eyes and turned to look at you across the room, you were sitting up.”

What?” I asked, surprised. I had no recollection of saying such a thing, nor of witnessing whatever had caused the outburst.

“It’s true,” Dad said. I strained to remember the moment, but all I could see was waking up and looking at my phone, the sound of Grandpapa’s breathing pulling me from my slumber.

The next year, my family didn’t converge in Bloomington for Christmas. The house on Hunter street had sold, the old traditions burned right along with Grandpapa’s body.

I stayed in Arizona and worked an extra restaurant shift, coming home to share leftovers with my boyfriend. We watched a dumb Christmas movie and fell asleep.

I probably told him the story of Grandpapa’s death, finishing with the one question that still plagues me: if Grandpapa was an atheist, then why did he have a Christmas tree?

The only answer I can come up with is that he did it for us, for his grandchildren, his progeny. He wanted us to feel loved and happy. He wanted us to know that even though Granny was dead, he could still carry on her traditions in his own way.

My Grandpapa was an intellectual, a rational atheist. He was a professor of sociology at Indiana University, and he was afraid to die.

In spite of his pain and in spite of his beliefs, he passed on with grace and dignity. I am grateful that I had the opportunity to be there with him while he transitioned.

I miss him. I can hear his voice now, uttering his signature expression to me: Carry on, Katie. Carry on.

And so I do.

Writer, artist, teacher, seeker. Learn more at https://www.innervisionsstudios.com/

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