“How did that happen?” I asked impertinently, as I pointed at his index finger that was about half as long as the other fingers on his rough and meaty, weathered hands.
It was then I first learned that he made what must had been a terribly hard living loading and unloading ships in the old country’s most important seaport. I didn’t know what an estibador was, and hearing it translated to longshoreman wasn’t any more illuminating then. I since learned that we rely on huge crane-like machines to do most of that kind of work now.
Bump bump would come the hard sound of the downward pointed lopped off finger, as he’d repeatedly knock it on the wooden table to my everlasting amusement.
“Do it again!” I’d command with a laugh. And he would, as I’d giggle at the game of sonic peekaboo. I could never make the same sound with my own finger, as hard as I’d try.
His english never improved past the point of basic communication, but he always knew to greet me with the two words that would make me instantly smile. “So beautiful,” he’d say, and he hugged me, with a grin that made his infinite supply of wrinkles comfortably cradle his sparkling brown eyes.
He had a talent for making solemn and long-winded toasts at celebratory family dinners, which he’d recite with the gravitas of a spoken tango. The boisterous noise of three generations would quiet the moment he’d clink his fork against his wine glass.
In the summers we’d walk the lonely streets in the early yellow mornings, collecting cans and bottles that we’d recycle at the depot for five to ten cents a pop. When my arms would inevitably tire from carrying the overflowing bags of our bounty, he’d somehow pick me and put me on his shoulders, and still carry all the bags himself.
Later, when I was old enough, we’d play billiards at the table in the residence where he lived. His friends around the table would tell me that I might one day get good enough to win their losses back for them.
As the years went on, he picked up the habit of wearing dark sunglasses at all hours of the day. His mood became more ornery, his patience growing more thin. He’d succumb to petty skirmishes with his wife of decades, who also became more stubborn and combative.
In April of this year, my grandfather was diagnosed with esophageal cancer. That’s a kind of cancer that has an overall five-year survival rate of 15%, with most patients dying within the first year of diagnosis.
The transatlantic text awoke me at 3:22 this morning. I sat up in bed with my phone in my hand as the black characters struggled to appear against the backlight. “He is about to pass away. Is there any message you wish to send?”. My eyes struggled to focus as I read the message again.
I turned to my side and curved my back, and rested the side of my face on my pillow. I placed the phone, face down, only inches from my squinting eyes and hugged my knees with my cold arms. The light cast a cool glow, like a halo around it against the white cotton of the pillow sheet. I texted back my message.
“Thanks for texting. If I was there, I would tell him that it’s ok to let go and that everyone will be ok. I will miss him, and remember him, always. And tell him that I love him. And tell him: “So beautiful”.
I shut the phone off, closed my eyes and willed myself to sleep.