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My best friend lived alone in Niagara Falls. He was 95 years old and happened to be my grandfather. I lost him earlier this year.
It wasn’t until a decade ago, when he almost died on an operating room table, that we became best friends. I visited him every day in the hospital.
He recovered and we soon realized, man, we actually really like each other. There were road trips and cheap wine in terrible motels, 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.
In the fall I got a COVID test and drove from Toronto to room with him for a week. I was worried about how lonely he was feeling during the pandemic. I visited him again last Christmas. It would be our last week together.
As I stepped off the elevator, he smiled and waved his cane at me – then wobbled a bit, almost fell over, steadied himself and continued his smile.
He was one of the all-time great putterers in human history – like a little water bug constantly flitting around his apartment and rearranging things that didn’t need rearranging. I quickly noticed he’d added something new to his puttering repertoire since the last time I saw him: singing. He’d sing in Italian, the same song every time, as he water-bugged around his apartment.
I finally asked him to teach me the song. He stopped his puttering, said “no” and chuckled. He’d always do this little half head nod and flash his eyes open wider when he was being a butthead.
That was the thing about Nonno: he was annoying. And I loved him for it.
After lunch, he would critique my every move as I cleaned up. My broom stroke was too “sweeping” and moved the dirt around “way too much.” The wine glasses “don’t go there, they go there” – about an inch from where I had them. And the dishwasher – oh lord, the dishwasher. The dishes have to be completely hand washed before they go in. The dishwasher is actually a drying rack. “I’ve been doing this your whole life,” he’d say. “You’ll learn.”
One morning I woke up at 5 a.m. to a sound that can only be described as an industrial grade garbage compactor. Nonno was making bread. When I got out of bed four hours later he looked slowly down at his watch then back up at me. “Man, that breadmaker sure is loud,” I said to him. “Yes it is, Eric,” he said. Then he did his little half head nod again and flashed his eyes. This was passive-aggressive breadmaking.
Another time, I was eating a sandwich at 9 p.m. Nonno thought this was way too late to be eating. As I finished, he asked, “Is this why your girlfriends leave you?” This time he added a little smile to his usual head nod and eye flash because he knew he was being extra ridiculous.
About midway through our week together at Christmas, we had a COVID scare. Someone in Nonno’s caregiver’s home had tested positive. He was eating a peanut butter cup when we got the good news that his caregiver didn’t 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 chuckling at me. “I do not fear death.”
We talked about it often. I didn’t believe him at first, but he was truly not afraid of death – just dying. He did not want to suffer.
Before we got the COVID test results, for a few days there, though, Nonno was different. His regular playful annoyances and domestic advice became edgier and even angry. It was a crime I used four water glasses throughout the day instead of one. I was being a “baby” and needed to learn “how to be a man.”
At bedtime I’d ask for our usual hug and he’d say “no.”
When it came time for me to leave, we embraced and he looked me square in the eyes and said: “Eric, I don’t like you.” Then giggled and hugged me again. It was funny, but it didn’t feel like Nonno. This was all new behaviour to me.
I soon found out why. During their nightly call he told my father that he’d purposely been hard on me because he thought I was “too attached” to him – and that I would suffer too much when he died.
That’s the type of man my best friend was. In our last week together he tried to get me to love him less because he thought I would suffer too much.
A few weeks later, I was there for his final breath. I will forever be grateful to the nurse who let me stay the night – as long as I wore my mask and face shield. I sang the one verse I knew of that Italian song to him. I told him he should have taught me the rest.
After the nurse put the stethoscope to his chest and confirmed he was gone, I put my forehead against his and I thanked him. For everything: His kindness, his wisdom, his hilarity; his ability to love, to be vulnerable, to be just the right amount of annoying, to be all the things we want from a “modern man” wrapped in a cute hobbit-like package; all of it, all of him ... transformed me. I am a better person because this man was my best friend.
I woke up in his apartment alone the morning after he died. I found a loaf of his bread in the freezer and had a slice with breakfast. It was delicious. By the time I finished he had five voicemails from people who heard about his fall checking if he needed anything. He had a community. He was loved. And he loved back. It might be easy to see our relationship as the dutiful grandson visiting his lonely grandfather, but that’s not how it was.
He survived a German POW camp, came to Canada penniless and alone, toiled away in a steelmill and faced discrimination, all with the goal of giving his family a better life. He succeeded in spades. He was a complete person. I am a 34-year-old neurotic depressive who has been putting off cleaning the inside of his microwave for almost a year. I am not a complete person – far from it.
I realize now I had more to gain from our relationship than he did. He taught me how to be vulnerable – and how to love well without fear. I get to have that for the rest of my life – along with a shorter, more efficient broom stroke.
Find the older people in your life and befriend them. You will not regret it.
RIP, buddy. If grief is the price you pay for love then I wouldn’t trade this pain for anything in the entire world. Thank you for being my best friend.
Eric Bombicino lives in Toronto.
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