In the summer of '62, my grandfather was dying in the Biloxi, Miss., V.A. hospital, so Grandmother and I would ride over there every day to visit. As the city bus swayed pleasantly down the Coast highway, Memama always sat in silence, lost in thought, praying with her crystal rosary. I was 16 then, and reluctant company. Death was unacceptable, especially for the man whom I believed hung the very stars in heaven. To grieve was to acknowledge the impossible, so I resented my grandmother's sorrow and would turn away from her to study the living Gulf and the glittering sand, or ponder the great houses that drowsed among palms and Spanish Bayonet, or the grand hotels whose blinding white faces looked seaward to the rim of the world.
At the hospital, we would sit bedside in the ward under the listless fans where the smaller sounds of suffering were drowned out by the cicadas' chirring through the screens. Memama, hands crossed over her purse, would watch my good Dada sleep. I wished him to sleep, to remain in the dignity of repose until Life brought him back again.
But he always woke, and then he would talk restless nonsense, his eyes bright with medication and fixed on a horizon only he could discern. After a while, unnerved by the sudden stranger in the iron bed, I seemed visible to him only in flashes, and sometimes he would call me by my uncle's name. I would beg release. Memama never refused, and I would slip away gratefully, guiltily, to spend the balance of the afternoon wandering the grounds among the moss-drenched oaks, musing on possibility and romance, but never on the dream of Death.
In those days, some of the permanent hospital residents were allowed fishing shacks perched on the end of rickety piers, bleached white as bone, that jutted into Back Bay. These were the first men I ever knew who had outlived time. Their families were extinct, or had forgotten them, or lived in distant places, yet the old men were not melancholy. In fact, they seemed content as any persons I have met since: profane, unshaven, self-reliant, wiry, sunburned, skillful with a pocketknife, and drunk, a little, most afternoons.
I made friends with one of these ambulatory fossils, an old soldier who lost an eye in what he still called the "Great War." He was prickly and cantankerous, but cardinals and blue jays and squirrels would light on his shoulders and take peanuts from his palm. Along with his other various and mystifying ailments, he had an unhealed spider bite, a "corruption," as he phrased it. Through the early summer, we monitored the relentless crawl of infection up the pale, blue-veined landscape of his leg. The doctors could do nothing, he claimed, and he would poke me on the arm and declare he would die of "hospital gangrene" before anything else got him. The thought always made him laugh; he snorted at death as a mere inconvenience before the next outrageous adventure could begin.
He was of my grandparents' robust generation, and he was a soldier, which always means something. He had lived an entertaining lifeif only half his stories of hoboing and strike-breaking and the Bonus Army were trueand at the end, he came to me.
"Go ahead and grieve, boy," he told me one drowsy afternoon. "Let your heart get busted," he said, "and keep it three days. Ain't no busted heart worth more than three days."
Then, as always, he launched into a tale, reeling out the past as though time had not leached it of color, as if it were peopled by living souls who might at any moment come strolling down through the oaks. It was a lesson I needed, for the man lying up yonder in the iron hospital bed would soon be dead and gone forever. Yet not gone, I learned, and not forever.
Dada crossed the line one hot July morning, and a few days later, with busted hearts, we buried him in the V.A. Cemetery. A flat, mossy stone marks his place, and now there is one for my uncle, a Coast Guardsman, and my aunt, who was a member of the Women Accepted for Volunteering Emergency Service during World War II. As for the soldier of the Great War, I never saw him again. No doubt he lies out there too, legless, under a flat, mossy stone beside which, every Memorial Day, someone plants a national flag. Like Memama and Dada, like uncle and aunt, the old soldier has vanished into time. It well may be that no one on Earth remembers him. But I remember him, and I remember them all. He was one of those who taught me how.
I never knew his name. If I did, I would go and visit him, but no matter, for that is only a gesture, and a small one. Better that I thank him here for teaching me how time and death beguile us, and what seems to be an end is only another way of booking passage. It is a lesson I have carried through war and tumults and a busted heart, and one that I will carry still when I lie with my people, God willing, under the stones, under the little flags.