Stopwatch by Bob Geslinger

The most obvious thing was the smell. Kind of like that general old-person smell, you know? Like an old perfume made of expired medicines and dead flowers, tinged with just a hint of whiskey breath—not necessarily an unpleasant aroma, but as we came closer to her room it started to grow, totally overpowering in its cloying sweetness, so much so that I began to feel sick to my stomach. Looking back, I think that, even at seven years old, I knew what that smell was. The whole place reeked of death. 

Once we finally reached her room, my mother told me to wait outside, and closed the door behind her. So, I sat down in the most uncomfortably upholstered piece of furniture I’ve experienced to this day. Somehow, the manufacturers of this chair had managed to create something both sharp as tacks and supportive as a wet paper bag—like a hammock made of old spaghetti and fiberglass. Perhaps their thought process was that, when someone’s dying in hospice, there are far more pressing matters than the comfort of the furniture. Then again, maybe the chair was just cheap, and my parents couldn’t afford to put my grandmother into the facilities that had such frivolous amenities as comfortable seating.

I got up from my modern torture device and began to explore the hallway. Its faded paint was a mixture of sickly green and pink hues, as if the building was only allowed to be decorated in shades of the medicines its inhabitants took on a daily basis. All the lights were turned down low, even though it was barely passed noon, and the dancing shadows in the corners looked like terrifying monsters to a seven-year-old brain. It reminded me of the reptile exhibits I’d seen at the zoo. Could old people see in the dark, like naked mole rats? Or did they not notice; just not care? It had to be the latter; I couldn’t imagine anyone cared much here.

I tried to find something to distract myself, but there was nothing—no nurses walking the halls, no music coming from the rooms, no sounds at all, save the sound of heart monitor coming from my grandmother’s room. 


The noise broke the silence of the empty corridor and began to grow louder and louder. Soon, like a speeding truck approaching a distracted squirrel, it soon became the only thing running through my head.


It was slow and steady, just like the metronomes I used for piano lessons. A ticking stopwatch counting down my grandmothers’ last few moments. 


Was this what death was? Just waiting, waiting, waiting for some unseen timekeeper to stop your clock, take you away from everything you’ve ever known, every person who’s ever loved you? 


Someday, my mom was going to die like this, too. My dad. All my friends. Eventually, I’ll be here, too, trapped in a bed helpless and sad, as my shitty little grandkid stands outside, bored and terrified while I wait to draw my last breath. 


“You can come in now, honey.”

My grandmother died peacefully in her sleep that night, at the ripe old age of 84. I can’t recall what I said to her, or the last words she spoke to me. I’m sure they were incredibly poignant. Or, maybe they were full of delusional, ranting hysterics. I don’t remember. I do remember going to McDonald’s afterwards, though. I got a cheeseburger Happy Meal. The fries were cold. There’s nothing worse than cold fries.