As soon as I put it out there, it was clear that my aunts and my mother didn't want to put that kind of burden on "us kids." "No, no, no," one of them said. "You don't have to do that." The others concurred. They were trying to protect us from the pain of caring for a loved one and facing the loss of that loved one in such a full-on way. And, since I was one of the youngest and was used to yielding on stuff like this, I backed down from what would have been a good, helpful turn.
I came back the next morning to find that Grandmom had had a rough night. As a result, Grandpop was more on edge than ever. I could have kicked myself for not helping out.
The way things were working back then was that all of us would gather at my grandparents' apartment each morning, and stay until very late at night. Spending all that time together gave me the chance to see this grumpier side of my grandfather that didn't quite fi t with what I knew growing up. So the very next day, when he was even more out of sorts than the day before, I made the very same offer, and this time I didn't back down from it.
Once again, one of my aunts said, "No, honey. You don't have to do that."
I loved them all for loving me so much that they wanted to take on this burden themselves, but this was something I wanted to do, something I needed to do.
It was a milestone moment for me, to push this course of action, and to have it be so. Just like that. And for my mother and her sisters, too, it was a great relief. They were so grateful that I'd put myself out in this way—but it really didn't feel like I was putting myself out at all. It was my plea sure, my duty.
And it turned out to have a very calming, very reassuring effect on my grandfather. We stayed up talking, remembering, for a good long while. We talked about my grandmother's gnocchi. She was famous in our family for her gnocchi—tiny Italian potato dumplings she'd slather with gravy, which was what "real" Italians called their tomato sauce, which she made with "real" tomatoes grown from their own garden. There was always a friendly tug-and-pull between my grandparents and us grandkids over which one was the better cook, and any talk of my Grandmom's gnocchi was almost always met by a challenge from my Grandpop's meatballs. And so it was on this night as well, even though my grandmother was no longer able to defend her kitchen honors.
"You always liked my meatballs better," Grandpop said, as he finally drifted off to sleep.
I sat there for a long moment, watching him sleep, his gray-black hair parted to the side. His healthy olive skin made him look younger than he really was, and I remember thinking that he was still strong and handsome—at least in his granddaughter's eyes.
The next morning, after getting a good night's rest, he was much more like himself, much more like I remembered, so we "kids" (and I use that term loosely, because we were all in our twenties and thirties!) put together a schedule for taking turns on the overnight shift and spending as much time as possible with Grandmom during her last days on Earth.
As I set this down on paper I realize it might seem like such a tiny thing, but to me it was a pivotal moment. It was somewhat of a coming of age.