An Old Man and His Grandson (Ritratto di vecchio con nipote)It was still dark outside when the boy awakened and his thoughts immediately turned to the gifts that would be awaiting him under the tree downstairs. This year, like every other year he could recall, the tree was a little too tall for the ceiling and leaned precariously toward the fireplace opening. In his younger days the boy worried that the tree might topple right onto Santa as he started to exit from the hearth with his sack of toys. His grandfather seemed always to misjudge the height of the tree, which made his mother’s eyes roll in exasperation. But the boy nowadays would just laugh; he suspected this annual miscalculation had more to do with his grandfather’s childishness than anything else; his grandfather yearned for trees that would dazzle and overwhelm regardless of practical considerations of ceiling height, room size, and cost.

The boy started to leap from bed, but immediately realized his mistake: it was not Christmas Day. It was not even Christmas Eve. It was just, merely, only, the Eve of Christmas Eve. There were still two too-long days before Christmas finally arrived, and the little boy could barely contain himself. But then a hopeful thought entered his near-exploding brain: Perhaps he had slept through until Christmas morning! He sat straight up in bed. Perhaps he had been so tired and so exhausted from all the preparations that it was really Christmas Day! But then he sighed sullenly and slunk back down on the mattress. Some hopes were too much even for a 9-year old boy to cling to; he accepted stoically, or at least quietly, that he would need to wait another two days.

But as he wrapped the blankets around him, an even more unsettling thought intruded and he realized he had been selfish to even think of Christmas Day. The silence. He dreaded that silence and he started to fidget with his blankets, worried that something horrible had happened during the night. And just when he thought he could not bear the silence a second longer, he heard a harsh cough and a high-pitched wheezing that vanquished his fears. If he weren’t so accustomed to the coughing and wheezing, those sounds might have frightened him all the more. But all year long those sounds had slowly evolved from signs of impending death to assurances that there was still life. It was his grandfather, sleeping fitfully in the room near his own. Sometime last winter his grandfather had fallen ill and it seemed to worsen every month.

The boy had heard the name of the disease over and over, but it was too exotic and too long a word for his mind to remember. He once tried looking it up on his computer, but no matter how hard he tried, he couldn’t get close enough to the correct spelling to find it. And he dared not ask his mother how to spell it or what it was. He had asked his grandfather, but his grandfather just dismissed him with a smile and said the disease sounded much worse than it really was, and that he should not worry about it at all. The boy sensed that everyone felt better believing that he did not know his grandfather was seriously sick, so the boy tried hard to go along with the charade.

The coughing seemed to be worse this morning than ever before, but the boy often would think that, especially around holidays and birthdays when he thought for certain his grandfather would ruin a special day by dying. That sounded harsher than the boy’s thoughts. He was not blaming his grandfather for ruining anything; only acknowledging that the death would necessarily ruin an otherwise wonderful occasion.

The boy got out of bed. He didn’t bother to grab a house robe or slippers. It was chilly, but he didn’t mind. He ran into his grandfather’s bedroom and pounced. The coughing temporarily stopped as the old man burst into laughter and grabbed the boy affectionately roughly and tickled him savagely. In between cascades of giggles and screams of feigned fury, the boy finally asked, “How are you today, granddad?” That same reassuring smile came to grandfather’s face and eyes and he said he was fine, and then took shameless advantage of the child’s genuine concern by mounting a sneak attack on his unprotected flanks.

The howls of laughter awakened the boy’s mother who came running into the room. “Leave us alone!” they shouted in unison when they spied her at the doorway, and then they both laughed uproariously as they always did when they said the same thing at the same time. Undeterred, the boy’s mother scolded the boy to leave his grandfather alone to rest. Normally the grandfather would protest her intrusion, but he was weak today, weaker than ever before, and while he wanted the boy’s company, he needed rest even more. The boy reluctantly disentangled himself from his grandfather’s web of limbs and kisses and followed his mother out to the kitchen to help make breakfast.

After a while breakfast was almost ready and the old man arrived at the kitchen table. “Boy, you know what today is, right?” The boy smiled and said, “Of course, it is the Eve of the Eve!” His mother rolled her eyes, shook her head in despair, and placed a cup of coffee in front of the man. “You know that this is the best day in the entire year, right?” “Well yes,” replied the boy softly, “I know it is, granddad, but it still doesn’t make sense to me.” The grandfather laughed, appreciating his grandson’s straightforward, but ever polite, ripostes. “Well, let me try again to explain this. Tomorrow we will all be too frantic preparing for the big day and the big day itself will be too distracting with gifts and food and other impediments.” “What’s an impediment?” the boy asked. “A barrier. Something that prevents us from enjoying the day.” The boy looked at his grandfather as if he had gone mad and protested loudly, “But the gifts and the food and everything are what make the day special!” The grandfather looked at the boy and all he could think of was how much he loved him. “You’re very right, but you are also very wrong.”

“How can something be both very right and very wrong!” Now the boy was shaking his head and rolling his eyes like his mother. “That, young man, is a bad habit!” and the old man whacked the young man’s head. “You’re much too young to be so judgmental and supercilious.” But before the boy could ask what that word meant, the old man grabbed the child and wrestled him to his lap. “Now listen, listen carefully. One question only for you to answer: What is the best part of any holiday, any special day, and any ordinary day?” The boy didn’t hesitate: “Us being together.” The grandfather may have said it differently, adding much more detail, but why tarnish the Doric simplicity of the child’s answer? He nodded quietly and said softly, “And that is why the Eve of the Eve is my favorite day. No distractions, no stresses, no worries, and no schedules. Just us. Together.”

The boy silently sat, thinking, then his face darkened. He looked up at his grandfather and asked, “Does this mean you are going to die before Christmas, Granddad?” His mother moved from the stove in fury and charged toward the child as if she would tear out his tongue if he said another word. But the old man calmly held up his hand and waved her off. She took a deep breath and moved back toward the stove; the old man breathed a sigh of relief that she had not torn the child from his lap in her rage. She was a wonderful mother, but sometimes she just could not understand the forthrightness of her son’s manner. And, in truth, his manner sometimes could render violent even the calmest and sweetest of dispositions. The man looked down at the boy and kissed his forehead. “None of us knows how long we have on this earth, sweetheart. But I promise you I will still be with you on Christmas Day.”

The boy looked down at the floor. He wouldn’t look at his grandfather. “But you are dying, aren’t you, granddad?” Even if you are here this Christmas, what about next Christmas or even my next birthday?” Tears welled in his eyes. His mother had stopped cooking at the stove, but remained motionless, willing herself not to run to hold her little boy, no matter how painful this became. The man’s hand stroked the boy’s cheek and he said softly, “In two days, we celebrate the birth of a child. A joyous occasion, but a child who, like all of us, ended up dying.” He waited a moment to let that sink in. “On Christmas Day we forget that he suffered and died and I think it is a pretty good thing that we do. Christmas is no time for dwelling on death; it is a celebration of life and love and that is enough for now. No talk of Good Friday in December!” he gently scolded. “We will deal with dying when we must, but not today on my favorite day nor on Christmas, your favorite day.” And he held the boy tightly to his chest.

The boy started to feel better, but then he looked up and saw that his mother was crying. Her tears brought him back to reality–a dangerous place, his grandfather always warned, where young boys and old men ought not to dally too long. His grandfather would always admonish him about being too realistic about reality. He never was quite sure what his grandfather meant by that, but he resolved to try to be more cheerful, if only to put the old man at ease. But he faltered. His grandfather was dying and that was that.

He remembered once asking his grandfather how long he would live and how his grandfather had answered that he would live until the boy no longer needed him, and the boy had taken that to mean that his grandfather would live forever. That was foolish, the boy now reflected. As foolish as believing in a red-suited jolly elf. Life was nothing like jolly.

The boy thought of all the gifts he would get on Christmas morning and they were no longer anything to him. He didn’t want them; he didn’t even want to wake up and run downstairs on Christmas day. Suddenly the excitement of the holiday evaporated and just as suddenly his longing for those presents vanished. His mouth was dry and it reminded him of how it felt when he had tried tasting the fireplace ash when he was much younger. He only had one wish now, one hope, one urgent prayer. For Christmas he only wanted that his grandfather would be better; that this illness, whatever it was, would die before his grandfather died of it.

The grandfather looked at his grandson and saddened. He saw that something was changing in the boy, his demeanor, his features, something, he wasn’t quite sure what. That strange transition from childhood to manhood can take a lifetime, the old man mused, or it can happen in a blink of the eye. This year the boy would wake Christmas morning and his first thought would not be of the gifts under the tree or of fresh baked bread and hot chocolate. No, Christmas morning would be just like every other morning from now on: waiting breathlessly for the reassuring sound of coughing and wheezing.

It was as if in that instant the boy realized for the first time that there really isn’t a Santa Clause. The boy looked at his grandfather and saw a person he loved dying and he knew his Christmas prayer would not be granted. The boy for the first time clearly understood life’s fragility—its transience, although neither of those words could be found in his lexicon. It was a harsh awakening and the old man trembled to see this loss of innocence. The boy looked up again at his grandfather, this time forcing himself to look the old man squarely in the eyes. “I will miss you when you are gone,” the child whispered. And the whisper broke both their hearts. For a sad, silent moment the man looked at the boy and the boy at the man. “I love you,” they both spoke at once and then broke into laughter, as they always did when their words and their thoughts and their hearts perfectly matched each other’s.

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The featured image is “Ritratto di vecchio con nipote (An Old Man and His Grandson)” (1490) by Domenico Ghirlandaio (1449-1494), courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

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