A month or so before my Grandfather’s death, I sat and talked with him in his living room as we would often do. We would talk about sports and the “overpaid bums” on the Yankees. We would share stories of when my sister and I were young. Sometimes we would ponder deeper topics and get a bit existential. I remember many conversations with him, but I’ll never forget what he said to me that day. He said, “You know Bri, now that it’s all coming to an end I can’t help but wonder – what was it all for? What was the point? You know?” I said, “Like – what was the point of living?” He simply replied “Yeah.” All I could say was, “Grandpa – I wonder the same thing all the time. I really don’t know if there’s an answer.”
My Grandfather was 97 years old when he died. Funny thing is, he died of pneumonia in the hospital and he was only in the hospital because of pain in his leg. Had he not gone to the hospital, having no life threatening illnesses, I’m sure he would have made it beyond 100. But as he said on that day in his living room, he was ready to say goodbye anyway. He had lost his wife of 65 years just two years before and although he continued to live on his own after her death, he was lonely and he relied on my mother to help him out. Before my Grandmother’s death, he had never cooked a meal in his life.
A few days after my visit with my Grandfather when he pontificated the meaning of life, I brought my laptop to his house. I paced around his living room looking for a WiFi signal to steal from a younger and more technologically involved neighbor in his retirement community. It was rare that any of his neighbors could do anything for him – after all, he landscaped and did odd jobs for people 20+ years younger than him well into his 90’s. In fact he lied all the time about his age just so that he didn’t make a guy who could be his son feel inferior. Alas, the lady next door came through for us and I found a signal that wasn’t password-protected. I had to balance on the edge of his love seat close to the east facing window in the living room to get the signal, but the discomfort was worth it.
The reason I brought my laptop over is because he had been talking a lot about how he yearned to hear some of his favorite songs again. I figured I’d do even better than that, thanks to YouTube. He had been specifically asking to hear one of his favorites: Eddie Cantor’s “Makin’ Whoopie.” Eddie Cantor? Makin’ Whoopie? Never heard of either of them. But to my surprise halfway into my typed search, it came up as quickly as Justin Bieber would in a Google search. I clicked on the top of many hits and spun my laptop around towards him. It was like looking at a young boy’s face that had seen Santa in person for the first time. He couldn’t believe it. The music started playing and within seconds he was singling along with Eddie Cantor. “Watch his eyes Bri, watch them!” I watched as the dark-haired gentleman stood on stage and rolled his eyes, and I listened to my Grandfather crack up. “He was known for that, you know.”
When the video finished he proceeded to rattle off one song name after another, most of which had some sort of video to accompany the music. One by one, he became more and more amazed with what I could find. He was so excited that he didn’t even bother to ask how the internet worked – it didn’t matter. He was in heaven. After about a dozen songs and a lot of laughter, smiles and tears, he said, “I’ve got one. But there’s no way you will find it. It was a song on a record that I listened to in 1921 when I was 7 years old. It was not very popular, but I loved it. I can barely remember the name. You think we can find it?” I told him that it was possible, but I couldn’t promise anything. We played around with names and titles and I searched as best as I could. After about 10 minutes, he said with closed eyes “Oh well, you tried. What I wouldn’t do to hear that song one more time. But you’re not going to find this one.” And just then I found it. No video, but an audio clip. I didn’t say anything. I hit play. I’ve never seen a reaction like it. He was frozen with disbelief. He didn’t say a word, but he stared into space, I’m sure thinking of the tiny apartment in Brooklyn where he grew up – his mother speaking only Sicilian, his brothers and sisters wallowing in the squalor that they lived in. I think I did the closest thing I could to creating time travel for him. “I NEVER, EVER thought I would hear that song again. Ever.”
The next day my Mother called me to tell me that my Grandfather said that the day before was one of the best days of his life. She couldn’t remember a time when he was so happy. At first, I was surprised that out of nearly 36,000 days, something as simple as watching a few YouTube videos would result in such a high rating. But I suppose that in his deep state of thought, the feelings that he experienced were pretty powerful – feelings that could easily triumph over a fun day at Yankee Stadium or a trip to Sicily.
In his hospital bed a few weeks later with our entire immediate family by his side, just hours before he died, I typed into my iPhone “Makin’ Whoopie.” My Uncle said “What’s that?” I said “Watch.” I held the iPhone to Grandpa’s ear and he cracked the slightest smile – the best he could manage. I didn’t say it out loud because I know he was thinking the same thing. The answer to his question about the meaning of life had been answered for both of us.