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My best friend lived alone in Niagara Falls. He was 95 and became my grandfather. I lost her earlier this year.
It was not until a decade ago, when he almost died on an operating room table, that we became best friends. I came to meet him every day in the hospital.
He recovered and we soon found out, man, we really like each other. The terrible motel had road trips and cheap alcohol, arguments about how much salt we should put in our food and late night talks about love and war and why I need to get someone pregnant as soon as possible.
My 95-year-old grandfather has the best treatment for loneliness that I have received
In the fall I received a COVID test and walked into the room from Toronto with him for a week. I was worried about how lonely he felt during the epidemic. I saw him again last Christmas. This will be our last week.
As I stepped out of the elevator, he smiled and waved his cane at me – then tripped slightly, nearly collapsed, persecuted himself and continued his smile.
He was one of the all-time great pioneers of human history – like a little water bug constantly drifting around his apartment and re-arranging things that did not need to be rearranged. I quickly noted that he had added something new to his athletic repertoire since the last time I saw him: singing. He sang the same song in Italian, each time he was soaked in water around his apartment.
I finally asked him to teach me how to sing. He stopped his panting, said “no” and chuckled. He always waved this little half-head and kept his eyes open while he was in a maze.
This was the thing about Nono: he was irritated. And I loved him for it.
After lunch, he would cleanse my every action, as I cleaned. My sweep stroke was too “wide” and rotated the dirt around “too much”. Glasses of wine “don’t go there, they go there” – about an inch from where I gave them. And dishwasher – oh my god, dishwasher. The dishes must be thoroughly washed before going into it. The dishwasher is actually a drying rack. “I’ve been doing this all your life,” he says. “you’ll learn.”
One morning I woke up at 5 in the morning to a sound that can only be described as an industrial grade waste compactor. Nono was making bread. When I got out of bed after four hours, he slowly looked at his watch and then looked at me. “Man, that burmaker is loud,” I told him. “Yes, it’s Eric,” he said. Then he shook his half and half his head again and blinked his eyes. It was a passive-aggressive violation.
Another time, I was eating non-veg at 9 pm, Nono thought it was too late to eat. As I finished, he asked, “Is it your girlfriend to leave you?” This time he put a mild smile in the pupil of his normal head and eye because he knew he was extra ridiculous.
About the middle of our week together at Christmas, we feared a COVID. Someone tested positive at Nono’s caretaker’s house. He was eating a peanut butter cup when we got the good news that his caretaker did not have it. His response was to calmly finish his Peanut Butter Cup.
“Were you worried?” I asked him. “Eric, I’m 95 years old,” he said, pinching at me. “I do not fear death.”
We talked about it often. I didn’t believe him at first, but he wasn’t really afraid of death – just dying. He did not want to suffer.
Nono was different, however, before we received the COVID test results for a few days. His regular fickle annoyance and domestic advice led to Edgar and even anger. This was a crime in which I used four glasses of water throughout the day instead of one. I was becoming a “child” and needed to learn “how to be a man.”
At bedtime I ask for our normal hug and he says “no.”
When the time came for me to leave, we were hugged and he looked me square in the eyes and said: “Eric, I don’t like you.” Then begged and hugged me again. It was ridiculous, but it didn’t feel like nono. All of this was new behavior for me.
I soon found out why. During her knightly call, she told my father that she was deliberately strict on me because she felt that I was “very” attached to her – and that I would suffer a lot when I died.
That type of man was my best friend. In our final week together, he tried to make me love him less because he thought I was suffering too much.
A few weeks later, I was there for his last breath. I will always be grateful to the nurse who let me stay the night – as long as I put on my mask and face shield. I sang that one Italian song, a verse sung by him. I told him that he should have taught me the rest.
The nurse put the stethoscope on her chest and after confirming her departure, I put my forehead against her and I thanked her. For everything: his kindness, his wisdom, his shout; His ability to love, to be vulnerable, to be just the right amount of annoying, all the things we want from a “modern man”, wrapped in a cute fondant-like package; All this, all of her … changed me. I am a better person because this man was my best friend.
I died after waking up alone in my apartment in the morning. I got a slice of his bread in the freezer and had a slice with breakfast. It was delicious. By the time I finished, he had voices from five people who would hear about the investigation of his fall when he needed something. He had a community. he loved. And he loved it back. It can be easy to see our relationship as the dutiful grandson goes to his grandfather, but it is not so.
He survived a German POW camp, impoverished Canada and came alone, ran away in a steelmill and faced discrimination all with the goal of giving his family a better life. He was successful in running spades. He was a complete person. I am a 34-year-old demented depressant who has been shutting down the inside of my microwave for about a year. I am not a complete person – far from it.
I realize that I had more to gain from our relationship than he did. They taught me how to be vulnerable – and how to love good without fear. I think that for the rest of my life – with a shorter, more efficient sweep stroke.
Find the big people in your life and befriend them. you will not regret it.
RIP, friend. If grief is the price you pay for love, then I will not do this pain for anything in the whole world. Thank you for being my best friend.
Eric Bombicino lives in Toronto.
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