When I pet my large white rabbit this evening, I was surprised at how bony Tycho felt under my hand. It has been too long since I stopped to really stroke his body. Generally I run by his cage in the morning and evening, drop in his veggies, provide fresh hay and hard food, check the water, and pat his head quickly. He's nine, which is quite old for a rabbit, so I should not be surprised. Yet I was. He had an ear infection earlier this year and perked up quite a bit after his round of antibiotics. Sometimes he seems like he'll live forever.
When my palm glazed over Tycho's bony little shoulder bone, my eyes began watering. At first I lied to myself. Oh, it's just the fur flying into your face, I thought, but I wasn't sneezing. No, it was the memory of seeing my grandfather for the last time that this quiet moment triggered.
My grandfather had always been a strong man, working in factories and performing heavy lifting for decades. I took it for granted that he would always be around. As the years passed, I became more involved in my life as an American adolescent, and I saw my grandfather less frequently. If I ate dinner at my grandparents’ apartment on a Friday or Saturday weekends, I left early to meet friends. Sometimes my parents and sister went without me.
A few weeks before I returned to NYU for my second year of college, my grandfather collapsed. Earlier that month, his doctor had misdiagnosed his swollen feet, explaining they resulted from his shoes and socks being too tight. Since my grandfather loathed visiting doctors, he accepted the conclusion and refused to seek a second opinion. In reality, his lungs were filled with fluid.
My parents went to the hospital. Dana and I stayed home, waiting for news from them. We turned on the TV to fill the silence, flipping aimlessly through the channels.
Grandpa pulled through the night. The doctors had stabilized his heart, his kidneys, and his bowels. “I didn’t think he was going to make it,” my mother told me on the phone. When he was out of the ICU a few days later, Dana and I went to see him. His hospital room smelled of antiseptics that were overused to cover the odor of sickness. He was pale, shriveled up in his hospital gown, almost like a concentration camp survivor drowning in thin pajamas. He smiled and reached for our hands. When he pulled us toward him, his muscles were still strong even though he had not worked in almost twenty years.
“When I get out of here,” he whispered in a stage voice, “I’m going to kill your bubbe! She is mishuggenah! Nag, nag, nag. I lived for this?” From where she sat in the corner, Bubbe tsked at him. He laughed.
I reminded him that I was leaving soon.
“Good. Study hard. Enjoy New York. Be good to your boyfriend.”
The nurse came to draw blood. “Get out of here,” Grandpa said, waiving us away. “You don’t need to see this.”
I hugged and kissed him repeatedly as I said good-bye. His skin left a salty taste on my lips. When I was a little girl who spent Saturday afternoons in his care he had held me tightly when my parents collected me at the end of the day. Now it was my turn to not let go. Although his prognosis was excellent, I feared that he would he would die before I came home for winter break.
He died a few weeks later on his 84th birthday. Tonight when I noticed that Tycho is dwindling, it reminded me of my grandfather's hand that day in the hospital, so thin but also so strong. It reminded me to remember what's important.