The old man’s face had already slackened; as the skin pulled downward, the cheeks rounded. Although almost completely devoid of color, the cheeks managed to shine, rejoicing in a prominence they never had. His face had become an afterglow; how lovely he now resembled a newborn baby.
The old man was dying. The family gathered in the hospital room, paying their last respects, hoping they would not be present for the last breath. As each member hugged the old man, already sleeping in peace, they spoke softly to him and then moved to the edges of the room. Conversation on the fringe was respectful but louder, almost demanding the fact that life goes on. Conversation halted for a moment: a little boy walked in with his mother. The family parted as if welcoming a king. Each one of them knew: the boy was the old man’s favorite. If jealousy was present, it was hidden well. The family honored the boy, nudging him forward. After resignation and perhaps a little fear danced across the boy’s face, he stood next to the old man. What passed between them only angels could know.
I stood off to the side, watching my grandfather and nephew. My stepsister did, too. It was an amazing moment.
“He used to say really ugly things,” my stepsister then said.
“I know. I remember.”
My mother and stepfather married when I was fifteen years old. Before my parents made it official, my new grandparents accepted me and my sister as their own. But it wasn’t until I visited them in their home in Arkansas that I actually began to know them as people.
My first trip began as a celebration. Family now mine, speaking in accents slow and melodious or slow and nasalized, bombarded me with introductions to them, their food, to a Southern way of life. The table was golden brown and crispy: fried catfish, fried okra, fried hush puppies—two kinds, sweet and savory—fried apples, fried shrimp. Peeled and sliced tomatoes. Peach cobbler. My stomach, rarely allowed French fries, became a joyful rebellion against the deep-fried goodness. I should have stopped eating long before; but I was a tourist now, lost in a bazaar.
But like a tourist, the hair at my nape began to tickle as the mood in the room changed. My grandfather asked someone to pass him the vinegar.
Or as he said, vi-nigger. Sure, it could have been the thick accent. Until he said it again. And again. His smile was wide and seemed somehow just for me. It was a great joke, was it not? Or perhaps it was a test: just how would the Northern girl respond to the slur lying rancid on the greasy table?
The Northern girl seethed: rich food was not the only thing percolating inside. I said nothing. I was too polite but I did lose a lot of respect for my grandfather that day. That slur kept me emotionally apart from my grandfather for many years. In my youth and idealism, I regarded him singularly.
Of course, as I became more aware of who I am, I learned to stop forcing my beliefs on others; to meet people where they are rather than where I want them. And an interesting thing happened: people I judged to be one-dimensional began to change.
My grandfather changed. Was he a racist? Yes…on the surface. Given his generation and where he was raised, I think racism was a coat his culture expected him to wear. Not an excuse but an explanation: how else was an old white man from the South supposed to behave? But when it mattered, when his actions were born from love even as his words weren’t, he took off that coat. Crumpled it onto the floor of the closet. When my nephew was born on Grandpa’s birthday, there the coat stayed. I believe it may have been love at first sight. For a reason I don’t know myself and in a way only the two of them understood, they were bonded: a white Southern man and a biracial little boy not even of the same bloodline.
Yes, biracial. Yes, not related. Beautiful, isn’t it?
People often complain that no one is capable of true change. I disagree. People can change. They do. When that change is positive, it serves as a precious example for the rest of us. On my grandfather’s deathbed, how blessed was I to witness such a loving embodiment of our ability and willingness to change? People can change.
Guided by the love of an old man and a tiny boy, by the presence of love without boundaries, I know I did.