After his heart attack, his hair went from salt and pepper to ghost white. Then he lost all the weight and, the way his wrinkled skin drooped over his hollowed frame, it was like he’d become an old man overnight.
“I’ll wait here,” I said.
“You don’t want to stretch your legs?”
“We just stopped thirty minutes ago.”
He walked over to the vending machines and, standing in front of a no smoking sign, lit a cigarette. Right away, he was approached by a security guard who directed him to the smoking area.
My sister warned me he was smoking again. But she hadn’t told me he gained all the weight back. Also, he let his hair and beard grow out.
On my phone, I searched for a picture of Jerry Garcia. I found one taken towards the end of his life. I sent it to my sister.
Remind you of someone?
Oh my god, she texted. They’re twins.
“Can you believe that guy?” The short walk back to the car left him winded. “Designated smoking area my ass. I’m outside. I can smoke wherever the hell I want.”
“You’re bleeding.” I pointed to his arm.
“Shit.” He dug a crumpled tissue out of his pocket. “These goddamn blood thinners they have me on.”
“Go to the bathroom. I don’t want you getting blood in my car.”
After he got out of the hospital, he bought an expensive toiletry bag. It had a leather strap and, everywhere he went, he wore it around his shoulder, like a purse.
The first time he came to my house, he carried it from room to room.
“You can set that down. I promise, no one’s going to steal it.”
In addition to his blood thinner, it carried the pills that kept his cholesterol and blood pressure at safe levels. Also, there was a pill for his acid reflux.
Before being diagnosed with the reflux, his heart burn was so bad, he’d wake up in the middle of the night and, convinced he was having another heart attack, pop a nitroglycerin tablet.
He called the nitroglycerin tablets his “lifesavers,” because of their ability to temporary widen his arteries, increasing the flow of blood to his heart and, perhaps, saving his life. He kept them, always, within reach.
He came back with a sleeve of Oreos and a can of caffeine-free Diet Coke.
“I haven’t had a cup of coffee since getting out of the hospital,” he said, proudly, as he cracked open the soda.
“And it’s been five whole minutes since your last cigarette.” I merged onto the interstate. “No more stopping.”
We were an hour outside of Orlando, on our way to my niece’s fourth birthday party, at Disney World.
“Wait till you see how cute your little niece has gotten,” he spoke with a mouthful of Oreo. “Do you remember when your mother and I took you and your sister to Disney for the first time?”
“I remember being crammed into that awful minivan. I still can’t ride in the backseat without puking.”
“I’ll never forget the look on your faces when we walked into that park.” Since his heart attack, it took nothing for him to get choked up.
“And that grimy Howard Johnson’s you made us stay in. You and mom got into a huge fight and she ended up sleeping in bed with us kids.”
“Your mother has always been hardheaded.” He popped the last Oreo in his mouth, whole. “I’m going to rest my eyes.” He reclined his seat. In no time, he was snoring.
My grandfather was in his car, parked at a McDonalds, when he had his heart attack. It caused him to choke on the cheeseburger he was chewing. Or, maybe, it was the other way around – he started choking on the cheeseburger and that’s what caused the heart attack.
My father’s convinced men in our family are cursed with bad hearts. I was still a baby when he died, but I’ve seen pictures of my grandfather. In some, he is lean and healthy looking. In others, it’s like he’s been inflated by an air compressor. His head the size of a pumpkin. His belly as big as a balled up queen comforter.
“He was a yo-yo,” my mother told me. “He’d drop a hundred pounds overnight. Then gain it back just as fast.”
In every photo, no matter his size, the one constant was the lit cigarette in his hand.
We were five miles from the Disney exit when my father made a noise, like a clogged vacuum cleaner. Followed, abruptly, by silence.
“Dad?” I reached over. “Wake up.”
He stirred. But instead of waking up, resumed snoring.
There was a minivan behind us. Even though he was driving with his children in back, the man, unhappy with the speed I was keeping, pressed on the gas until his bumper was no more than an inch from ours. He flashed his high beams. I wanted to slam on my breaks. Teach the fucker a lesson.
STORY IMAGE CREDIT: FLICKR CREATIVE COMMONS/DOUG KERR