big buts at the train tracks

Jon Henner

Jon Henner
November 26
full time father, full time deaf activist, some times writer, most times thinker, all times wandering.


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AUGUST 6, 2009 1:57AM


Rate: 18 Flag

Dying in the ICU is a numbers game; a colors game.  A green, red, yellow, and blue game.  As humans, we’re conditioned to quantify everything.  We stare at score boards, ticker tapes, and polls.  Our joys crescendo when the numbers are right and diminuendo at other times.   With sforzando, everything freezes.  The swirling colors on the floor of the Chicago Merc blur and wash out.  The people walking besides us press their noses against the viewing glass.  It’s a numbers game; a colors game.  And, in the ICU, a fatal game.

A year ago, we decided that Hellspawn was old enough to make the long trip and it was time to introduce him to his Great-Grandparents.  Like so many times over the years, I pulled up to the house and saw Grandpa towering in his doorway.  When I was younger, he’d pull me up and hug me close enough that I could feel his stubble brush against my face and smell his smell and see his blue eye dilate as they focused on me.  Grandpa did the same with my son; grabbed him and hauled him laughing to his face. 

Those blue eyes were reeling by the time I arrived at the ICU on Saturday.  It was my third attempt at seeing my Grandfather after his stunning Pancreatic Cancer diagnosis.  The first two times I planned on going, my mother cautioned me not to attend.  The Grandparents weren’t able to handle the Hellspawn’s typical energetic torrent so soon after the diagnosis, and then Grandpa was in too much pain to be able to tolerate having someone so naïve and joyful around.  The last time, my wife agreed to take time off from her schedule and watch Hellspawn.  I left before the sun came up.  When I crossed the California border, my sister texted me and let me know that Grandpa’s kidneys failed during the night.  Mom told me to stop by my Grandparent’s house, but when the right exit came up, I drove past it and headed straight to Eisenhower Hospital.  Then, I parked my car, grabbed my laptop bag, and ran to the main building.  On the way, I passed two men exiting the Cancer center.  They paused to watch my rapid flopping and their sunken eyes clutched at my health.

Locked doors and a telephone guarded the entrance to the ICU.  I begged a nurse to call me in.  She did and the doors swung open to a rather drab room, almost empty except for my Grandfather, my Aunt, and my Grandmother.  I tried to run to them, but the nurse grabbed me and started talking things that I couldn’t understand.  My Aunt quickly went over and pulled me to my Grandfather’s bed.  The nurse looked us over and decided to let protocol lapse. 

“Talk to him,” begged my Aunt.  “Let him know you’re here.”  I looked down at my Grandfather.  When I was a child, my Grandfather was my everything.  I wanted to do what he did; be what he was.  He was a baseball player in the Major League Farm system.  I tried T-Ball and decided that I liked playing video games more.  He was a dedicated and beautiful French Horn player.  I tried to join Band in the fifth grade, when all my peers were choosing the instruments that would define their educational music journeys.  The teacher told me no Deaf child would ever be allowed to play a musical instrument in her group.  It just wasn’t possible or done.  He drank scotch every night for his heart.  Glenlivet.  Macallan.  12 year.  The day I turned 21, I went out and bought some Glenlivet.  It burned my throat and made my eyes water.  I couldn’t hack it.  Grandpa was in the Navy.  I was 4F.  Grandpa boxed.  When I was growing up, Grandpa would come up to me and ask me to punch his stomach.  Even at 60, 70, it was harder than mine.  I was punched at once in my life and forgot to duck.  Later, after my nasal reconstruction surgery, Grandpa asked me why I couldn’t even block the punch like he taught me when I was younger.

I looked down at Grandpa.  The nurse just finished taking out the tube that breathed for him, and he was gasping.  The blue numbers showed 100% and the green lines looked like the mountains ringing Phoenix: high peak, dip, peak, valley, high peak.  “Hi.”  The blue eyes turned.  “Hi.”  He never spoke again.

Later, while sitting Shiva, I told my mother that I wish I said something different.  I wished I talked about Hellspawn.  Like, how Hellspawn’s vocabulary was rippling through our vernacular sea.  How every day he grew larger and stronger.  And, that one day, I was going to have him learn the French Horn so he could be like his Great-Grandfather and that no one was going to tell him that he couldn’t do something because of a blasted disability.  And, I wanted to tell him that he was my hero, but I couldn’t do that because what exactly to you tell someone who’s laying in the ICU with the blasted, infernal numbers games next to the bed screeching about this alarm or that alarm, and everyone knows how the game’s going to end even through we’re all deluding ourselves.

Through out the day, more family members arrived.  My aunt’s husband came in from Los Angeles.  My sister ran sobbing through the ICU doors.  My mother and father trailed after her.  My uncle and his wife flew in from Colorado.  My uncle, a hard man prone to popping in and out of my life, someone who when I was a child called Uncle Knight for his uncanny resemblance to David Hasselhoff in Knight Rider, walked to my Grandpa’s bed, stared into those blue eyes, and started sobbing.  During those hours, we watched the gasping.  We stared at the numbers game.

The yellow numbers fell first.  Bereft of sound, I had been tracking my Grandfather’s life by watching his throat shudder with effort.  When the numbers game finished, the shuddering slowed until it no longer happened.

Hellspawn went to visit Grandpa and Grandma in March, with my sister and my mother.  They invited me along, but I declined to go.  A weekend without the Hellspawn was just too delicious to pass up.  I planned on spending it lounging, without being beholden to someone’s every need.  If I wanted to nap, I could.  If I wanted to play video games until my eyes bled, I could.  If I wanted to stay up late and then sleep in the next morning, I could.  The next day, after sleeping in past 9 (a rare treat, indeed), I woke up to a text from Mom explaining that Hellspawn and Grandpa were fast and inseparable friends.  Grandpa played the Horn and Hellspawn begged him to play for hours after.  “Bop-pa, more, go,” he’d ask.

Tuesday, at the funeral, Hellspawn saw the Horn section, friends and bandmates of my Grandfather, and fussed until we walked over together, past the Naval honor guard, and the plain, pine box covered by an American Flag.  We stayed next to the Horn players for the duration of the services.  At the end of it all, the Horn players played.

Hellspawn tapped me on the shoulder to get my attention.

“Bop-pa.  Bop-pa.”  He pointed off to a lone tree at the far end of the graveyard.  I broke down.

Author tags:

death, games, hellspawn, icu, regret, hope, all that

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My condolences on your loss. This was a lovely tribute to your grandfather.
"“Bop-pa. Bop-pa.” He pointed off to a lone tree at the far end of the graveyard. I broke down."


I am so sorry for your loss. I am so grateful for your talent and brilliance; this post sums up an experience most of us will go through, if we haven't already, with such concise, beautiful, wrenching detail. Thank you for sharing this.
You wrote this with such beautiful reserve, and yet the love and emotion comes through the pores. I am so sorry for your loss, but so happy for your memories, and glad that you were able to share this tribute.
This was a touching way to remember your grandfather. I hope you and your family can find peace soon.
Sorry for your loss. This was so beautifully written, and I admire the way that the seemingly mundane details you give tell us everything we need to know. I'll admit it--your last sentence made me tear up.

And, while it's totally not the point, your band teacher was an asshole--my stand partner in college orchestra was deaf, and I always thought the fact that he was able to play cello using touch and sight alone made him a superior musician. His elementary school orchestra teacher worried that he wouldn't be able to stay in tune and tried to kick him out, but luckily he had parents who chewed the teacher a new asshole by pointing out the obvious: if you can't stand listening to a bunch of kids playing off-key then you shouldn't be a fucking middle school music teacher.

I hope Hellspawn loves his French horn! Again, a beautiful tribute and you're in my thoughts.
Natalie, dj, Drew, Incandescent, aim, Owl, Nurse: Thanks

Jess: Thanks, as well. That's an interesting story you've got there. As far as I know, no deaf person learned a musical instrument through the school programs. But, a couple of us taught ourselves to play. I actually was half-way decent on the piano, but my parents begged me to stop because their piano was out of tune and they couldnt stand hearing me bang away on it.
"As humans, we’re conditioned to quantify everything. " But true life can't be quantified, can it? That's why we tell stories. We tell stories based on fact, we tell true stories with our fiction, and you'll be telling Hellspawn stories of your grandfather when he's older.

This is a very beautiful post. Sending you feelings of comfort during this time of mourning.
Gwendolyn: We quantify stories in other ways, I think. Page hits, word counts, page counts, thumbs, revenue, prints, readers, accolades, and so on. Thanks!
I like that opening paragraph a lot. This is a wonderful tribute you've written.
you made me cry. beautiful writing. I'm sorry for your loss.
Thanks, Juli and Lorraine.
This is wonderful, Jon. It evoked so many emotions, as all fine writing does. Please accept my condolences for your grandfather.
Hi Jon. I realized today that I had not seen your posts or comments in some time and thought to look in. This is a heartbreaking, beautifully-written piece. Hope the grief has eased for you, even if just a little.

And I hope we have moved forward enough that we know anyone can make music. And should. That long ago teacher was just wrong. All the best to you and your family.
Jon, this was...breathtaking. Thank you. It's truly a gift.
Aahh... that last line got me. I'm sorry for your loss...

As for your music teacher - what a jerk. I'm profoundly deaf and played piano for 11 years - there's no reason you couldn't have learned an instrument, or at the very least, the drums.

Anyway, that's besides the point... you wrote a great tribute to a great man. I wish you & your family peace