“You know, even pain is a blessing,” he says to me, standing in the doorway still, where cool ultraviolet light bounces against glossy floor, where the warmth of conversation and reunion and the savory smell of roasted yams and honey ham and three variations on stuffing gives the whole room a burnished tone. Right there, after delivering that iron-tight hug for which I’ve whispered over twenty years of thanks, after telling me again how filled he remains—how truly grateful, our Grandpa Bill—nearly eighty-eight years strong now—grips my shoulder with an affectionate hand and delivers a seven-word sermon:
You know, even pain is a blessing.
He must notice the way I shift back a step to look at him, the way I sift through those words and taste them on my tongue, because he continues without hesitation. “If my body hurts, that means it’s working the way it’s supposed to work. It’s telling me something’s not right. And if I’m saddened by loss, that means I’ve loved and been loved; I’ve enjoyed life. Otherwise, I wouldn’t hurt, wouldn’t feel like I had anything to lose. And you know, I’ve known a lot of love. I’ve enjoyed many things in life. And my body, it works just fine.” His voice has always reminded me of a rushing wind held captive in a cavern—sonorous in the middle; thin at the edges, wispy. All the years I’ve known him I’ve had the impression that his body just isn’t quite large enough for his spirit. He has a grip on life that defies the infirmities of age.
It feels like Grandpa Bill is slowly disappearing from our view. He’s always been small in stature, but when we compare pictures only separated by a year, we all notice that now he’s smaller still. His white hair has thinned. His cheeks suddenly seem more sallow than the ruddy we’ve known. And when we talk to him, it feels natural to raise our voices a notch or two, though I’ve never known him to mishear me. Certainly nothing has dulled about his comprehension.
I nod my head, listening intently to the sound of joy, of freedom. So, this is the sound of a fresh soul. Grandpa Bill’s eyes glint–defiant blue–sharp, bright. Vaguely I notice my children drifting to a table somewhere in the room beyond, Kevin’s grandma and a line of her sisters lifting foil off of casseroles, the chilly breeze gusting in when the door swings open behind us, but I am captivated and would sit at this man’s feet for hours just listening. I know that later, when the conversation has tightened in the room and turns to the cataloging of details, I will wish that Grandpa Bill would start again and teach me to see. And this while physically he squints at me, his gaze brilliant but anymore just barely visible. In fact, I have this impulse to widen my eyes, as though the suggestion could help him somehow, but as quickly as it comes, it passes. Grandpa Bill sees better than I do.
Last year at Thanksgiving, we stood in exactly this same spot, in very nearly the exact same effect, and he told me how thankful he was for the helicopter and its pilot who had life-flighted him to the hospital just days before, for the doctor who had been able to swiftly and skillfully preserve another of his collapsing arteries, for the fact that he could eat that hospital food—though it wasn’t what he preferred—and that in all his life, even when he “didn’t have much” as a child, he’d always had something to eat. I still remember the way he smiled that day that maybe should have been for recovery, the way he turned his empty palms up and said, “You know, it’s just good to be here.”
Now, here we stand again, and he has paragraphs of gratitude left for welcoming me—enough for every breath he breathes, and he lifts his voice around the edges of his words, wrapping them up for me, like a gift. “And it sure is a blessing to see you today,” he says, wrapping me up in another one of those hugs—so strong, much, much stronger than he could possibly be. And I realize then that he’s counting gifts, and that I have just made his list.