Your grandfather on your grandmother’s lap at Christmas, wearing polyester and mismatched plaids, his colostomy bag under his shirt crinkling against her body, and he’s weeping like you’ve never seen, much harder than an hour earlier when he appeared in the dining room doorway and said, “I’m sorry I yelled at you,” and burst into tears, confusing you, frankly, because he hadn’t yelled at you, he had simply asked for help counting out pills at the kitchen table because his fingers were fat and shaky and your grandmother was busy basting the twenty-pound bird, a reasonable request, you thought—and maybe his voice had a slight edge, and maybe he snapped a bit when you went for the wrong colored pill, but he is dying, and he knows it, and so does everyone else, and isn’t he entitled to a little crankiness, given that fact? (the fact being: colon cancer, spread to his lungs and brain); and now here he is amidst shiny bows and torn paper and glass dishes of peanut brittle and walnut fudge, crying in big shivering sobs as your grandmother cradles him, crying the way men of his generation who served in wars and supervised the production of steel in churning mills aren’t supposed to cry—that is, with a child’s abandon—except not exactly like that, because his weeping, it’s clear to you even then, is shot through with something less wounded and confused than a child’s tears, not despairing, not angry, more aware of itself, something that looks to you like joy; and even as a boy-man of twenty-five who is not wise or grateful, and who is unsure (as you still are) how the scales of the universe tip, you can feel it in the air, that joy, like a ragged pulse, like heat from a buzzing bulb, and the scene is awkward to witness, as evidenced by others in the living room—your father, sister, mother, uncles, aunts and cousins—who, like you, aren’t really acknowledging this outpouring of emotion from the family patriarch, and instead are opening gifts, conversing about school and work and weather, tossing around thank yous, clinging to the status quo, and consequently your grandfather looks so alone, even in his wife’s arms, but again, not unhappy; and below him is the cool basement where mason jars of odds and ends hang screwed to the undersides of plank stairs, and his desk with the tank-like Royal typewriter on which he punched out ornery letters to the school board, and his garage workshop where he clumsily tried to fix everything, often drawing blood; and above him is the bedroom with the photo of your toddler grandmother pulling a toy wooden duck on wheels, the same room where your father will keep vigil three months later and where you will see your grandfather, delirious on morphine, grab at his wife’s breast through her nightgown, causing her to chuckle, the most intimate exchange you’ll ever see between them; and behind him are eighty-six years of breathing and yearning and family obligations and road trips and Gibsons with cocktail onions and prayers and pension checks and birthdays and Meals on Wheels deliveries and corny jokes; and in front of him is who knows what, flights of angels, or a drop off a cliff into nothing; and yes, maybe you got it wrong, and his weeping was the kind you’d expect from somebody on the brink: resentment over his diagnosis, regret for things he hoped to do but never did, shock at how quickly it goes, fear of disappearing; but that’s not how it looked to you, you remind yourself; what you saw, or think you saw, was a man brimming over with his life, holding the full sloshing weight of what would soon be given up, or given, a vessel spilling its contents into the air.

Dorian Fox is a writer and freelance editor in Boston, where he teaches courses at GrubStreet, a nonprofit creative writing center. His essays have appeared in The RumpusGay MagazineAtticus ReviewLongridge Review, Under the Gum Treedecember and elsewhere, and received special mentions in the Anne C. Barnhill Prize and Curt Johnson Prose Awards contests, among others. More of his work can be found at

Photo by Kim Adrian