Grandpa's Harmonica

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Chapter 24

After the party, Grandpa got weaker and he never got out of bed for more than a short time again. Grandma wanted to take care of him so he could die at home, but even with the help of Jamie’s mom help, it got to be too much. A week after the show, they had to call the ambulance to take him to the hospital in town.

When the attendants came in, Jamie’s grandpa demanded a wheelchair. With everyone helping, they got him sitting in the chair wrapped in blankets with the tail of his nightcap dangling down his back. Following his directions, they wheeled him onto the back porch where he sat in the gray morning light taking in the sight of the farm for a few moments. Then they rolled him to the front porch where he did the same thing. Finally, he said he was ready and let the attendants put him on a stretcher. Jamie’s grandma and mom rode along in the ambulance.

Jamie and his dad stood on the back porch watching the ambulance disappear. His dad put his hand on Jamie’s shoulder and said, “Jamie, I’m going to get the car and go to the hospital. I don’t know when your mom and I’ll be back, but it may be after dark. There are chores to do and it’ll be up to you to do them. Can you manage by yourself?”

Jamie’s mouth was dry, but with as much determination as he could muster he said, “Yes, sir.”

“I knew I could count on you. I’ll call Aaron and tell him what’s going on. Take your time and be careful since you’ll be here alone. Call Aaron if you need help.”

They went into the house and while Jamie changed into chore clothes, he heard his dad talking on the telephone. When he hung up, he went out to the machine shed to get the car.

Jamie stepped outside as his dad drove by. He waved and walked toward the barn, but before he got there, he stopped and went back into the house. Getting his harmonica from his dresser, he went outside and stood on the back porch.

He played one of his grandpa’s favorite songs, walked to the front porch and played another. Then he waded through the snow to the other side of the road where he could see the whole farm and played Grandpa’s songs until his lips were too cold to continue. Then he took a deep breath, put his harmonica away and walked to the barn.

Without his grandpa and dad working beside him, the barn felt like a huge wooden cave filled with the lonely sounds of animals rustling the straw and the winter wind whistling through the cracks. Jamie finished after dark and even though he was exhausted, he went inside to put some leftover stew on the stove to warm up for supper and sliced a loaf of bread. It wasn’t much of a meal, but when his mom and dad got home later, they liked it and thanked him. His Mom and Dad looked so tired that Jamie cleaned up the kitchen and did the dishes even though he was having a hard time keeping his eyes open. They all went to bed early without saying much.


His grandma had stayed in town with friends and called the next morning to tell them that Grandpa wanted to talk to everybody as soon as possible. Jamie and his dad did the chores that couldn’t wait, changed clothes and drove to the hospital.

His grandma met them in the hall. She told them that Grandpa wanted to see Jamie alone. Both his mom and grandma warned Jamie not to tire him.

Slowly, Jamie opened the door, walked in and stood beside the bed. The change in his grandpa since yesterday morning shocked him. He was so thin that his nightcap was too big and had settled onto his ears. All his life, Jamie had looked into his bright eyes, but now they were dull with dark rings around them and had sunken into cheeks that were hollow and bluish.

His appearance forced Jamie to accept the terrifying truth that his grandpa was going to leave him. Without thinking he blurted, “Grandpa, I don’t want you to die.”

He gave Jamie a weak smile. “Humph. I know and I don’t wanna die neither, boy. Far as I can tell, I ain’t used it all up yet. But every livin’ thing’s gonna die and I guess now’s my time.” That much talking made him gasp and his lips turned darker blue.

The unfairness of death burned inside of Jamie, making his voice bitter and hard. “But Grandpa, what’s the point of living if we’re just going to die?”

“What’s the point?” He raised a trembling hand and pointed at him. “Why, you are, boy. Don’t you see that? Because of me, your dad’s here. I give it to him and then he give it you. That’s why I lived. And then you’re gonna give it to someone else. That’s how it works. You give life to the next one in the family.”

Jamie shook his head. “I don’t understand, Grandpa. I’m trying, but I don’t.”

“I know. But when you got a little boy or little girl of your own, you will. Just wait a bit.” He took several ragged breaths and smiled again. “I’m gonna miss you, boy, but long as I gotta go, I’m lookin’ forward to what’s comin’ next.”

“You think there’s more?”

“Well now, I don’t rightly know. And there ain’t nobody else who does, neither. Anyone who says they do is a liar or a fool. I ’spect I’m about to find out right soon.”

“I’ll miss you, Grandpa. I don’t know what I’ll do without you.”

“Humph! Sure you do. You’ll get up in the mornin’ and go about your business doin’ what needs to be done.” He paused to catch his breath. “Far as I can tell, you been doin’ good. So just keep on thataway.”

His grandpa had always told him that he was doing good, but Jamie had always thought he only said that because he was his grandpa’s favorite. Jamie knew now that he had it backwards. Grandpa really did think he was doing good and that’s why he was his favorite. Until now, Jamie hadn’t seen it.

With a shaking hand, Jamie’s grandpa picked up the flannel sack with his harmonica in it. “Time like this, a man’s gotta pass on the things he loves to the boy he loves. Keep this alive. Play it to make folks happy and play it for yourself. Music from your heart will keep you company so you won’t feel alone. Play it for your own chil’ren. Maybe you’ll find some of my music in it for ’em to listen to.”

Jamie took the bag and held it with both hands. His grandpa had said good-bye.

“I’ll do that, Grandpa. I promise. And thank you.”

“Good. That’s done. Now, you go on and send your grandma in.”

Clutching the flannel bag, Jamie got up and as soon as he opened the door, his grandma rushed in.

Jamie watched the door swing closed then walked down the hall to the waiting room and stared out the window at the gray winter day. Every so often, he’d rub the soft fabric of the bag over his cheek.

His dad walked up behind him and put his hands on Jamie’s shoulders. “Jamie, Grandpa wants me to tell you that his chores are done and it’s time for him to rest.” He felt his dad’s hands trembling. “He hopes you understand.”

Jamie nodded and stared out the window. “Yes, sir. I do. How…”

“Hours. A day at the most. The doctor is giving him medicine so he won’t have any pain. We’re going to stay on, but I can take you home if you like.”

“No, sir. I’d like to stay.”

“I thought so, but you’ll have to wait out here. Your brother will be here soon.”

When Will and his wife, Suanne arrived, Will said he’d go home, do chores and come back later. His wife took Jamie to the restaurant where she got coffee. He wasn’t hungry, but he had some hot chocolate. After that, he stayed in the waiting room while his family went in and out of his grandpa’s room.

He sat on the hard wooden chairs until his hind end got sore. Then he got up and paced around the room until he got bored and sat down. When he got bored again, he got up and wandered the hospital halls. That was worse than sitting because of the medicine smells and seeing other people waiting. He went back to the waiting room.

Jamie dug through a stack of magazines looking for something to read. Most were old farming magazines, but he found one called National Geographic. He’d never heard of it and almost put it down. But when he scanned the titles of the articles on the front page, he was amazed: Rome to the North Pole, The Peruvian and Bolivian Andes, Conquering the Arctic by Air. Excited, he sorted through the stack and pulled out all the magazines with the bright yellow covers. The rest of the day and into the evening, he read every word on every page, including the advertisements.

He was reading the magazines a second time when the door to his grandpa’s room opened and his mom and dad helped Grandma walk to the waiting room.

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