Grandfather’s Pocket Watch

Grandfather’s Pocket Watch

He moved slowly from the hospital bed to the bathroom. I watched his agony. I looked over at my grandmother. She sat quietly, my grandfather’s pain reflected in her eyes. They had been married, my grandfather and grandmother, for over forty years, and had raised two daughters, my aunt and mother. And now she watched him slowly die.

Life seemed ahead of me. I looked around the sallow room, uncomfortable. My grandfather’s time in the bathroom was excruciating. He shuffled back to his tormented bed, the agony hewed into his hard face by cancer’s implacable ax. I helped the withered body crawl back into its death bed.

Grandmother: did you pee?

Grandfather: I tried.

Grandmother: you need to pee.

Grandfather: I know. I can’t.

My grandmother looked at me. She shook her head. I turned away. Through the streaked window I stared across the exhaling vents of a forlorn rooftop. I thought, I don’t want to be here. The view was distressing. I sat down, glancing uneasily at my grandmother. She knew.

Grandmother: why don’t you get something from the cafeteria?

I’m not hungry, I said.

Grandmother: how about an ice cream?

No, thank you.

I stood up and walked around the sallow room. My grandmother followed me with her watery eyes. She was fragile. Maybe I should go down to the cafeteria, I thought.

Do you want anything? I asked my grandmother.

Grandmother: I can’t think of anything.

Maybe I will go down.

Grandmother: do you need money?

No, I have some.

I glanced over my shoulder: my grandmother looked away, my grandfather stared back in twisted agony. I walked unsteadily down the bright corridor to the elevator. I held my breath against the stale air inside. The cafeteria was noisy, clattering dishes and stale talk. I ordered coffee and sat as far as I could away from the blue scrubs and disarrayed visitors. The coffee was bitter and tepid, but I didn’t care. I felt alone. My grandmother would soon be alone, I thought. This was no place for anyone.

I lingered, but realized that I could stay no longer. I found the stairs and walked up to the sixth floor. When I stepped into the bright corridor, I turned the wrong way. I walked past the nurse’s station. Someone asked if I needed help. No, I don’t think so. I turned around.

My grandmother sat alone. My grandfather was in the bathroom. The smell of stale death made me nauseous. My grandmother’s weary eyes pleaded with me to stay. I sat down. She smiled over at me. Anything? I asked her. She shook her head. The wide door opened. My grandfather faltered. He walked in agony back to the narrow bed. I slid the rolling tray table away to give him more room. He steadied himself on my arm.

Grandfather: nothing.

Grandmother: you need to tell the nurse.

Grandfather: and she’s supposed to pee for me?

Grandmother: no, but maybe she can give you something.

Grandfather: I need to pee. What can she give me?

The cancer had destroyed his kidneys, and even in his inflamed pain, only the frustration to pee overcame him. I remembered him as a tall man. He was small now, wrinkled with pain. On the rolling table next to his bed his gold watch lay next to yesterday’s newspaper. He looked at me.

Grandfather: that was my father’s watch.

Grandmother: and his father’s father. That watch has seen three generations.

Cool, I said.

Grandfather: my grandfather helped put in the first railroad here, begun before the Civil War. It was completed before I was born.

What about your father? Did he work on the railroad?

Grandfather: no, he was a farmer. The same place I farmed, after he died.

Grandmother: it’s where I met your grandfather. He was the most eligible bachelor in the county. Because he had the largest farm. It wasn’t much, really, but there were over two hundred acres free and clear.

She smiled.

Grandmother: I had to trick him in to marrying me. He was a stubborn bachelor.

Grandfather: that’s just what she thinks.

He laughed, followed by a fit of coughing. The smile in his eyes died. I looked over at my grandmother, her hands folded in her lap. She was helpless. My grandfather looked down at the watch.

Grandfather: I need to do something with that watch.

He looked at me. I looked away, uncomfortable.

Grandmother: why don’t you just give it to him? You want to, you know you do. It doesn’t do you any good.

My grandfather’s bleary eyes sunk. I stood up and looked out at the rubble on the rooftop below. It was an ugly hospital in an ugly town. Why did any railroad want to come here?

Grandfather: my fingers can’t wind it anymore.

I reached down and picked it up.

Grandfather: make sure you don’t wind it too tight. The mainspring is strong but can be wound too tight. Wind it forward and then backward. Forward and backward.

I held the watch in my left hand and ratcheted the winding crown forward and then backward. It felt solid in my hand. I wound it all the way until it wouldn’t wind anymore. I looked down at its face: 11:56.

Grandfather: you did good.

Thank you, I told him.

He smiled. There was something between us. He coughed, and I helped him out of bed. He walked unsteadily to the bathroom and closed the wide door. I listened. There was nothing other than his unsteady scraping in front of the toilet. I looked down at the watch. For a single minute, I thought I heard its steady click. It had run across three generations, through the building of a railroad and a farm. I held it in my hand, unsteady. I looked up when the toilet flushed. My grandmother looked over at me, hopeful.

Grandmother: did you pee?

Grandfather: a little. I still need to pee, but I can’t.

Grandmother: well, a little is good. Better than nothing.

Grandfather: it isn’t good. It only encourages me to die more slowly.

Grandmother: you aren’t dying.

Grandfather: no? And what do you call it?

Grandmother: as long as I’ve known you, you’ve always been stubborn.

Grandfather: well, I’m not being stubborn now. Death is being stubborn.

I helped him back into the stained bed, the strong smell of ammonia bringing on my nausea. He needed to die, I knew. But death isn’t as easy as we think it is. Death held him in its unsteady grip.

My grandmother sat quietly. There really wasn’t anything to say. Unknowingly, I had slipped the pocket watch into my pocket. When I looked down at the rolling table I saw that it wasn’t there, and I quickly pulled it out of my pocket and laid it there. My grandfather had closed his weary eyes.






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