The Day Great Grandpa Died
Aunt Conchita Sender Compaire's Final Story
by Ramón Sender Barayón
"I never thought I would see you again, Moncho," Tía Conchita confided to me. She settled her elfin self into one corner of the couch but kept me within arm's reach. "All those years you were in America I wondered, 'How is that little boy I used to hold in my arms?'"
"I heard you were in an old people's home, very old and sick," I explained. "Imagine my surprise to find you living with your grandchildren! I rang the bell and you ran to open the door, as lively as a teenager!"
Although she was my father's older sister, she had insisted from the moment I arrived -- at the peak of the worst Madrid heat wave in years -- that I call her abuelita -- "grandma".
Conchita pretended to pout, deepening the wrinkles around her mouth. Eighty-six orbits of our star have etched into her face the beauty you can only earn the hard way. "Ah, son, it's not easy to have a thirty-year-old's mind in this body! We Senders live a long time, and then we go out like a light!" She clapped her palms together. "Like that!"
"Papá went that way," I said.
"Eighty-two is too young to die!" she murmured. "Poor Pepe!" Her eyelids close and she leans against the pillows. "Your great-grandfather José lived to be 97. Your father and I looked the most like him of all the brothers and sisters. We were his special favorites because we were the darkest of the children." She sat up straight and self-important, her fingers gently stroking my thigh as if soothing a fretful child.
"You look like him too, Monchín." Her supply of pet diminutives for my name seemed inexhaustible. "He lived all those years in perfect health, a gruff old whitebeard, but we adored him." She chuckled deep in her throat. "He would take Pepe for walks down to the square. If they passed some children playing with some marbles, for example, he would say 'You like those -- you want those marbles?'
"' Ummm!' Pepe would roll his eyes and nod his head and Grandpa would run towards the children shaking his cane. 'Away, away! Afuera!' he would shout. They would run and he would motion to Pepe. 'Here! Here! Take them all!' He was un tipo raro, as we say. A real character!
"But how he loved his fruit trees! He was always in the orchard in his bare feet pruning this one, fixing that one, both in winter and summer. He claimed it kept him from catching colds, but the mountain winters of Aragon are bitter!"
She leaned back and flicks open her fan to stir the overheated air. The siroccos from North Africa had pinned the thermometer to its upper limit. "I used to help him dress in the mornings. He didn't want to admit that his fingers had become clumsy so he blamed it on his tailor. When he fumbled with his buttons, he always muttered, 'These worthless tailors who don't know their business! They're useless! Once, in my time, what good tailors we had! But now, nothing but garbage!'
She performed Great-Grandpa in a breathy growl and I prepared for another of Conchita's command performances. She told stories with such flair, so adept at mimicking voices! There must have been a virtuoso in the family when she was a child -- maybe I even descended from a long line of woman storytellers!
"For a while he let me help him put his clothes on until finally he made me stop. But there came a morning when he didn't appear. I went in and said, 'Ah! Today you're going to be annoyed because I'm going to help you!'
"'I'm not getting up!' he shouted, waving his arms. He was a small man, but stubborn enough for ten!
"'What will I tell your son?' I asked.
"'Oh!' She shrugged one shoulder, an eyebrow raised in mild disdain. 'Whatever you want,' he said. 'It's all the same to me.' Suddenly he sat up. 'You mean I won't do what I want to in spite of my son? Just tell him I don't want to get up!'
"Mira, señor, inasmuch as he was talking so normally, I thought nothing about it." She vibrated her fan towards my face and I smiled in gratitude. "But you will see what happened!"
She drew a deep breath to imitate Great-Grandpa again, tucking her chin into her collarbone. "I don't want to get up!'" she shouted on a rising pitch. "'Nothing else! That's all! I don't want to!'
"So I left him and said to our old nurse, 'Look, Nacha, the gentleman doesn't want to get up. He won't let me help him and with disagreeable growls tells me that he doesn't want to move!'
"'Well, that's a strange sickness!' she said. So she went to see him. 'Señor, why don't you want to - '
"'Because I don't want to! Now you're informed!'
"Nacha went to tell Mamá, because my father was away on a trip. She said, 'Señora, the old gent doesn't want to get up and won't let anyone help him.'
"'Is he sick?' Mama asked.
"'We asked him whether he'd drink some milk and he said "No!" very loudly before thanking us.'
"So Mamá went." Her voice softens to one of motherly concern. "'Father, what's wrong that you won't get up?'
"'They tried to get me out of bed in spite of everything I said!' he complained to her. 'But haven't I gotten up every day before this for 97 years? Today I don't want to!'" She laughs through her words. "That's the answer he gave! 'I believe I have the right not to want to get up!'
"'But other than this, Father, has anything happened?' Mamá asked. It was winter and unfortunately in Huesca it gets very cold. 'Have you caught cold?'
"'Why would I do that? Why?'
"'I don't know, but - '
"'Anda!'" he shouted. 'Go back to bed!' Mamá never got up early. 'I don't know why you got up in the first place! Every day for 97 years I get up, and then one day I don't want to and the whole family gets upset!'
"He said all this in his usual cantankerous voice. But he was very intelligent and knew he wasn't feeling well. Up until then he had never been sick and now he was thinking to himself, 'Today I die!' Imagine, it was nine in the morning and he had already decided!"
"So Mamá picked up the telephone and called the doctor. 'This is what's going on, and my husband's away for a few days. I don't think it's serious but it's strange that's he's not getting up.'
"'I'm coming right now,' the doctor said.
"So he came and entered the room. 'José,' he said. 'They've told me that you don't want to get up!'
"'Someone called you for me?' Great-Grandpa yelled, very offended.
"'But, noooo, I came to see your daughter!" the doctor lied. Mamá was in a delicate state and he came at odd hours to see her. "I asked about you and they told me you wouldn't get up. What's going on?'
"'Pero si," nothing's going on! Nothing! Absolutely nothing. These people are causing the uproar, not me! I'm not bothering anyone.'
"The doctor looked at him. 'Now I'm going to have to take your pulse.' He coaxed him as he would a little child. He took his big watch out of his pocket and held Great-Grandpa's wrist. 'Well, you seem to be all right.'
"'Claro!" I'm always all right!' Great-Grandpa grumped.
"The doctor went out and said to my mother, 'He has a terrific arrhythmia.'" Conchita fixes her ebony pupils on me. "Do you know what this is? First the heart beats much-much-much and then little-little and it can stop any time it wants. Anyway, the doctor said, 'It's a heart attack and there's nothing we can do.' Because in those times for a 97-year-old they did not have what they do now.
"'Ay, Díos mio!'" Mamá wailed. She sent a telegram to my father because he always stayed at the same hotel in Barcelona. Papa caught the express train but did not see Grandpa alive again because he arrived at nine o'clock that night." She taps her fan on my knee in time with her words. "And at five that afternoon -- well, you will see. The doctor said to Mamá, 'I'll be back in two or three hours. But since you have a nun with you at night -- ' My mother had had a very delicate heart for years -- it was a lesion with which she could die at any moment just walking down the hall. You see, in Huesca we were somebody. Even though there were no nuns for other families, there were always the Sisters of Mary for my mother.
"'Look, Andrea,' the doctor said to her. 'Since a nun comes for you, tell José that she's here for you and that she asked after the gentleman and wants to see him. She will give him, if it's possible, an injection of camphorated oil.' Tap-tap! went Conchita's fan. "There was no other recourse! 'She should give him this injection every hour and a half. Let's see if this helps because at any minute his heart could stop. At least this may keep him here until his son arrives.'
"So the nun came and entered Great-Grandpa's room with Mamá.
"'This nun is not here for me!' Grandfather yelled. 'She's here for you! You haven't called her for me!' He turned away from them and pulled the covers over his head. 'I hope you're all preparing to be disappointed because I'm not dying!'
The fan fluttered like an agitated bat. "But hijo, he knew he was dying! And Mamá knew he was dying, but she said, 'No, the nun came to be with me all night. She asked after you and came to look in to see how you are.'
"At first he refused to have the injections. His whole life he had never had one aspirin! Every time someone in the house took medicine he said, 'Huy! You're putting death into your body when you take that stuff!' He never asked once for any sort of medication. Nevertheless the nun finally was able to inject him in spite of his objections. But an hour and a half later, when she was preparing another, he turned to face her and said, 'Leave me! Leave my bedroom until five o'clock because I want to sleep! Go!' he ordered us.
So Mama whispered, 'We'd better pretend to go.' We left his bedroom and tiptoed in from the other side very quietly, the nun, Mamá and I. He had turned his face to the wall. The nun went over and took his pulse again."
Conchita sighed and shook her head. "I still remember how she came over to Mamá and, as is the custom, said with great sorrow, 'Señora, it seems to me that you should consider acting on the inheritance.' She brought out a little prayerbook to commend his soul to God and -- " Conchita threw open her hands. "That is how he died, without a murmur or a look -- nothing!" She paused, her thoughts far away with the old man. "I never feared death after seeing how grandfather died -- well, he was just like St. Joseph!"
It was my last visit before returning to New York. Conchita had some keepsakes for me, a photo of her and a printed notice of the anniversary of my grandfather's death many years ago. Standing by the elevator, I took her hand for a last good-bye. "The best of all presents for me has been you, abuelita," I told her.
"Ah, cielo, if only you knew how long I waited to see you again!"
"Now that I know you are here, I'll come back again," I assured her.
"At best God kept me here so that you'd see me." She hugged me to her and I planted two heartfelt kisses on her soft cheeks. "Write your abuelita often and come back soon."
The elevator had arrived and I was holding the door open with my foot. I had a last, somewhat misty, view of her through the elevator window, her wide, tragic eyes staring at me, her lined features sorrowful. I waved again. "I'll be back!" I shouted.
I saw her again one more time, in the Residencia de Correos, a retirement home for postal and telegraph employees. She was just as animated as before and continued into her nineties herself.