My grandma taught me to volunteer from a young age. Every Monday, we did Meals on Wheels together. We would go to the assisted living center, take the service elevator to kitchen lugging an enormous cooler and a rolling cart, and load ourselves up with meals for people who couldn’t leave their home for whatever reason. We put the hot meals into the cooler so that they could stay warm, and the cold meals went into the cart. I put the cooler in the backseat with me, along with a stack of hand towels so I could handle the hot containers pain free. Grandma would drive to each house, and then we would both pop out with our respective parts of the meal and deliver it to its intended recipient.
There was one particular man on our route that still sticks out to me even now. I can’t remember his name now, so I’ll call him Herman. Herman was very old, at least, old to my eleven or twelve year old self, but he was always incredibly nice to me. His apartment reminded me a lot of my mom’s—there was stuff everywhere. Giant stacks of newspaper taller than I was lined the walls. In order to give Herman his meal, we had to open the door, holler up the stairs, wait for him to holler back, and then wind our way up and through the maze to where he was always sitting at the kitchen table. Every Monday at 12:30pm, he was always in the same spot, the same chair, reading his newspaper. As a kid, I used to wonder if he ever left the house.
One Monday, Grandma and I were slightly late getting to Herman’s. The meals hadn’t come to the kitchen on time, and they’d made us late. She opened the door, and we slipped inside. “Hello??” she yelled from the bottom of the stairs. “Meals on Wheels!”
For the first time, there was no answer. She tried again, and then a third time. By this point, my hands were burning through the towels I had wrapped the container. “Maybe he’s not home,” I suggested, desperate to put the food down.
“He might have had a doctor’s appointment and forgotten to mention it,” she agreed. We decided to go upstairs and leave his food in the kitchen where he would see it right away when he came back.
Herman’s staircase was only big enough to go up single file, and it was barely even big enough for that. This meant that when Grandma stopped short at the top of the stairs, I couldn’t see the reason why. She very quietly told me to go back to the car, and she turned to place the cold food on top of the hot stuff I was still clutching. Herman was sleeping, she said, and I had to be careful not to wake him up. I did what she said and went back to the car, where I sat quietly with the food in my lap wondering why Grandma wasn’t coming down. I got so bored, I pulled out my book and started reading. Eventually other people showed up, and Grandma got in the car and started the engine again.
“Did you wake him up? Should we bring him his food?”
“No, sweetheart.” She clipped her sunglasses on over her glasses. “He doesn’t need the food today.”
I took the sleeping idea at face value, and only later as I thought back did it occur to me that Herman was not sleeping at all. Herman was dead. I thought about that day a lot, about how we never know how much time we have left. I wonder how long he would have sat there if we hadn’t come that day to deliver the food. We would never know the exact circumstances of his death, the mark that he had left on the world. We would never know anything other than the fact that he hated the juice that came with his meal and that he liked to horde all of the newspapers.
My grandma died on her living room sofa at approximately 8:45 the morning of September 14th, 2015—over 20 years after that day with Herman. She had just made a phone call to a friend, leaving a message that detailed her excitement for the beautiful day and the bridge club she would be attending that afternoon. Her morning pills were resting next to her on the arm of the couch, and a plate of toast was in her lap with one bite missing from the piece on top. The medical examiner told the people who found Grandma that her face was peaceful, that deaths like these were her favorite because she knew the person didn’t feel any pain. I like to think that this was the case; I also like to think that all deaths are this way, even though I know they aren’t.
My grandma taught me a lot of lessons growing up, but it’s the ones like this that really mean something. The idea that everyone is a person who deserves care, who deserves to be loved. I didn’t really think about these things before, all of these random things that I learned. But I’m a better person because of my grandma and the things that we did together.