It’s six o’clock on the dot when my paper bag and I pass together under the aching trees. Above, leaves rally their best color, a burst of beauty close to the end, something to remember them by. I rest the bag on the porch. The steam of hot stew and warm bread rises up. I take in a slow breath and press the button for the doorbell. It’s been seven weeks since I’ve seen him. I expect he’ll be gray and gaunt from the doctor’s forced feast of chemicals that has stolen the appetite. Grandma opens the door and welcomes me in with a smile and a hug. I whisper the run down of what’s in the bag, my meal on wheels. I don’t want to wake the patient. I’m on my feet; I won’t stay long.
But around the corner, something tells me to sit for a bit. It’s his hand patting the well-worn couch cushion next to him and it’s more, it’s the chatter of the heirloom clock on the mantle, the clock he always winds because Grandma is just too little to reach. When he laid down for his nap, he tells me, he heard the clock slowing, it’s chime not quite on time. He would make sure to wind it before dinner. Rest first. Chores later. And isn’t everything a chore when your body is so broken?
“Your color is good,” I tell him. He tells me I don’t have to say that. “I wouldn’t patronize you,” I say, but then I don’t tell him that I notice the new lines where his cheeks have gone concave. The doctor says he has to eat. It’s his lifeline. If he can just get past the treatment, we’ll all have some quality time together. He puts his arm across my back and crinkles his face. He’s sorry he hasn’t been fit for company. His voice gives out halfway through. His eyes shine grief. I’m mindful of the humility, the trust it takes, the realization of unconditional love involved in him letting me see him so vulnerable. He, my husband’s grandfather, takes me in. I hug him, and my own tears hit his sweater. I back up and tell him we miss him, yes, but we know his love, and he doesn’t need to worry about anything else but getting better.
The clock chimes, time marching on. Soon, Grandpa narrates as Grandma waltzes to the mantle to re-enact the scenario. She moves the little basset hound statue out of the way and steps up onto the brick foundation of the fireplace. The little blonde girl painted below the clock face smiles as always. And Grandma is a little girl on her tippy toes going for something that seems out of reach.
Grandpa speaks up. “Your grandmother,” he says. He pauses and embosses his words on me. “I call her your grandmother,” he puts his hand on my knee. I smile at these redemptive words. He doesn’t know about someone else’s words a few days earlier that left me aching, feeling like an outsider. But, here is Grandpa taking me in, affirming my right to call his love by the name my husband rightfully calls her.
He keeps going and looks across the room at her, “Your grandmother is a remarkable woman.” Her elbow is past the mantle; her fingertips touch the top of the clock and snatch the tiny key. Into the notch it goes, turning, churning, keeping antiquity ticking and chiming. Grandpa and I clap our hands together, a round of applause. Grandma curtsies.
Two weeks later, I’m in a boutique looking at time all busted to pieces. Gears and sprockets hover on twisted wire, swaying with the beat of the second hand’s movement. The vintage face leans out to show the old clock’s inner workings, springs and bushings and pivots and dowels and little pieces of metal that make the alarm zing. It’s what we need this anniversary with our eyes still tired from the sadness. I think of the clock that ticked, the only sound in the hush while we lay there the night before the news. My arms around my husband, his around me, I let the warm tears slip over my cheeks and into my ears and I silently asked the Lord for 60 years of keeping time together, the clock ticking my love and me into old age, past life-expectancy…the audacity. Then, I thought of Grandma and Grandpa and their 62 years, and how Grandma wanted still more. And how could you not want more of a love that cheers you on when you try the littlest things?
I do a double-take when I run across a picture of one man’s window on the world from a loft in one of Brooklyn’s historic landmarks. It’s the first window I’ve seen stamped with Roman numerals and orbited by minute and hour hands. He looks out from the inside, seeing the motion in reverse. Like some sort of Benjamin Button, he gets to watch time tick backward. And maybe some would do it if they could, let the clock take them back in time, away from the end. Or maybe they’d let the forward motion slow, forget to wind it up.
But we know it– time stops for no one but the One who made it and the only way out of this round and round of aching and loss is through it. Every second that ticks, every minute and hour that eases us through the day, every increment of time is moving us away from living by the clock and dying by it. Like Grandma, I have to be reaching for that key and cranking it tight, not missing a beat until the hour strikes and the trumpet sounds, until time is blasted to kingdom come, sprockets and gears flying, a burst of beauty at the end, something to remember this by.