I Shall Not Want

My grandfather answers the doorbell. “God bless you, God bless you,” he says, holding open the screen door and reaching out to embrace me. He is rickety, like scaffolding, and easily winded. My grandmother, standing behind him, is soft and plump. Her blue dress brings out her eyes.

I sit on the sofa beside my grandfather. His top teeth are paper thin and the bottom ones are hollow, like empty wells. He says that first thing in the morning, when he wakes up, he recites the Psalms. The other day he was reciting Psalm twenty-three and he said, The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not. He had forgotten the word that came next, so he recited it to himself in Gaelic and the word returned. It was right there waiting in the language of his childhood. Want. I shall not want.

Everything in their living room looks floral, a recent change. The gold shag carpet is now a soft plush pink. Relegated to the basement are the books I remember from my childhood, the complete set of Charles Dickens from 1923 that belonged to my great-grandmother, and the philharmonic organ with sheet music for “Auld Lang Syne.” The bad landscapes painted by a relative, the “artist,” still hang on the walls, but I miss the musty smell of old furniture mixed with Red Rose tea.

Their suburban bungalow is kept deliberately dim. My grandfather has only twelve percent of his vision remaining—by whatever standards one judges twelve percent: shadows, shapes, recognizing the color red—and even so his eyes are light-sensitive, so we sit with our backs to the window. It is as if he is returning to the womb, preferring darkness to daylight. I take his hand and he presses mine. His touch is cool and dry.

He wants to know if I’ve found a good church and I tell him I have. I don’t tell him it’s the Church of Sleeping In On Sundays, because I don’t want him to stay awake nights, worrying about the fate of my soul. As he grows older, he clings more tightly to religion. It is a bright candle in a dark and unknown place.

My grandmother rocks in her chair. We talk about my cousins: who has graduated, who has jobs, who has boyfriends or girlfriends. The living room is busy with family photos. We gossip. We talk about my brother’s leaky condominium, the result of shoddy construction, and my grandmother says that people these days don’t seem to care about being honest. I ask her if she has people calling to try to get her credit card number, and she says yes, all the time, but she just hangs up.

Good, I say. You have to do that. I tell her about this show I saw that said seniors are particularly vulnerable to phone fraud because they were raised to be polite. My grandmother says it’s worse when they come to the house, just trying to keep them outside the door.

My grandfather, who has been leaning his head back as if asleep, murmurs, “But I’ve met so many nice people.” His voice cracks at the edges. “I’ve been so lucky to know such nice people.” He is always close to tears these days, no matter what the topic, even the relative morality of door-to-door salespeople. My grandmother says something about the way my grandfather thinks people are nice more often than it’s true. He could see the good side of Charles Manson, and she knows it.

She pulls herself up to put on tea. I offer to do it, but she won’t have any part of that. I take my grandfather’s hand and we shuffle together, my arm supporting his back, to his chair at the dining room table. He is so thin that the bones of his thighs are sharp against the fabric of his pants. He wears orange plastic sunglasses against the light outside the window.

My grandmother puts out macaroons and blueberry scones on her best Royal Albert. She tells me that the pharmacist came to their home and went through my grandfather’s prescriptions. He took thirty or forty vials of pills away in a plastic bag and left just three. There was concern my grandfather had been taking whatever he felt like on a given day, mixing and matching. But nothing seems to work anymore, anyhow. There is no cure for the passage of time. My grandfather suffers a variety of vague, recurrent ailments—but more to the fact, he is ninety-one. He is known for saying, “If I can just get over this hump…” Today he murmurs, almost to himself, “Maybe I won’t get over this hump.”

We hold hands to say grace. My grandfather blesses the food and thanks God for my presence. We pour milk into the teacups so it heats up gradually when the tea is added and my grandfather pours, his frail hands trembling.

I ask what they are planning to do with the book collection in the basement. The books loom large in my childhood, the smell of yellowed paper like a rich incense, the quiet afternoons spent turning pages under my grandparents’ roof. I ask casually. I don’t say, when you die, or after your death. My grandmother responds that the books belong to my uncle. I’m not sure if she understands what I am asking.

This piece first appeared in Geist magazine and was featured in the anthology Half in the Sun.