Monthly Archives: April 2012

Sidney Zimbalist

Sidney Zimbalist

The first year after he died I began writing a song that I never finished. At the time I was also attempting some sort of concept album based on Gustav Meyrink’s Golem that I also (thankfully) never finished (This has become an impossible beginning to a story as I simply cannot tie the two together well enough to feel comfortable with it. This sentence — or the previous one, or the one not written — has been scrapped several times because of that fact).

Sidney was not my paternal grandfather. This is likely why we called him Sidney. It mattered little. I never knew my grandfather, who died before I was born. I could not think of my grandmother without him by her side. His mustard-yellow cardigan. The way he hung his wool cap. His old-man glasses. His giant, bulbous nose that somehow made him seem incredibly friendly. And he was. Kind, gentle. Slow-talker like my father. Avid reader, writer, scholar, philosophizer, family man. Never missed an event. Always asked the right questions.

When my sister and I would stay overnight, we could not wait for bedtime. Sidney had a technique. He called it “tucking in,” and now that’s the only way I can think of it. After climbing into bed, he would hover over us, one at a time. Clutching the ends of the bed with both hands, he would push down on the mattress, bouncing his hands up and down, shaking the entire bed like a giant spring, as we jiggled left and right, up and down, giggling, laughing, chortling.

I find myself instinctively doing this with my one-and-a-half-year-old son. He giggles through his pacifier as his body shakes and tumbles.

Rarely have I seen my father cry. It wasn’t until Sidney was on his deathbed that I truly realized how much my father adored and admired him.

It is just three months before my wedding day.

A Monday night, the day before April Fools. I stay with my grandmother for several hours keeping her company. She leaves around midnight. It is not easy to convince her to go, but eventually her exhaustion wins out. I sit in the waiting room, checking up on him from time to time. I fall in and out of sleep on several different chairs, in several different positions.

At 5:55 a.m. Tuesday morning, “Boonie,” the wonderfully-kind, 73-year-old Korean nurse, wakes me from my half-rest on the waiting-room chair. I sluggishly get to my feet and stumble into his room in a daze.

I know now that she was inviting me in for the last moments of his life. Truly, his last moments were some days before. When he could still nod and acknowledge the presence of his wife, children, and grandchildren. But here I am, the unwitting witness, dragging my half-conscious body through the doors leading to his room.

Within moments I find I am talking to myself. I place my hand on his and words begin to flow and it is not clear whether I really believe the words are for him.

For the next few moments, Boonie and I watch him die like a time-lapse photograph. I see his right ear turn purple and mention this to her. She begins to walk out of the room and tells me to sit down. Like a small puppy, I obey. A few minutes later, a doctor comes into the room, only half-noticing me in his gloves, face mask, and smock. He takes out a stethoscope wrapped in plastic, checks several places on Sidney’s chest, and then wanders back behind the ten or so machines keeping my grandfather alive to find an instrument. He pulls it through the tangled wires, opens my grandfather’s right eyelid and shines the light of the instrument into his pupils. Leaving his eyelid to slowly close on its own, he begins to walk out of the room. He stops to look at me.

“His heart not beating,” I think I hear him say. I stand up and come over to him at the foot of the bed. “I don’t understand,” I say. He points to the machine at my grandfather’s left. I had spent the previous evening and early morning staring at this machine, at one spot in particular: the blood pressure indicator, which had been declining steadily for days. It was at forty last night when I had naively asked a resident exactly how low it could actually get. It was now in the thirties, and I thought he was telling me that it was getting low and would be any time now. He repeats his previous words, and adds, “He’s dead. Did the nurse not tell you?”

I look at the machine once more, as he points this time, more specifically to the topmost measurement, my grandfather’s heartbeat, which now reads “0” with a barely visible flatline to its left. I must have sighed, because the doctor backed away after this and began repeating, “I am so sorry, so sorry.”

“It’s okay,” I say, “I’m tired, I’m confused. I didn’t know.”

As the doctor leaves the room I notice the multitude of machines that seem to be keeping my grandfather’s now deceased body in a sort of limbo. His chest is still moving up and down with each automated breath. It is several minutes before the nurse comes in to unplug him.

My mother arrives fifteen minutes later, my grandmother another ten. She cries at his side, while touching his forehead. “He’s still warm,” she says.