Your Cane

Sabah Parsa

The nurse said you had a beautiful cane. She was right. 

It was mahogany, with intricate designs etched in. It looked ordinary from afar, but a closer look revealed the swirls adorning its length. The only undecorated parts were the purely functional ones: the modest handle always in your grip, and the thick rubber casing on the bottom. I still remember the sound of the rubber thumping rhythmically against the carpet as you walked, slow and steady. Whenever I heard it, I knew it was you. 

On college breaks, I’d be watching TV at one in the morning, eating snacks on the couch, when I’d hear you coming down the stairs: thump, thump, thump. You would ask, in Farsi, with a slight lisp because you weren’t wearing your dentures, “You haven’t slept yet, baba?” and I’d laugh and say, “No.” In Farsi, fathers and children call each other baba, but you simply used ba for Mom and her brother daee. Sammy and I inherited the title of baba

These late-night meetings became routine. You’d make your way to the fridge and pour a cup of cold water, which you were supposed to limit because of dialysis, but to you, medical advice was merely a suggestion. Mamani slept soundly in the bed you shared, unable to protest. You knew that unlike your wife, your granddaughter wouldn’t say anything, so you would drink, and I would eat, and then you would thump, thump, thump back upstairs. 

When Sammy and I arrived at the dialysis center that day, your nurse was waiting with you. I could hear you wheezing and gasping for breath as we helped settle you into the back seat of the car. I sped to the emergency room as your wheezing grew worse. I don’t remember if I said anything to you, if I told you we’d be there soon, if I told you it would be okay. I just remember wondering if you’d make it to the hospital at all. 

In the ER, they gave you a wheelchair but you held onto your cane, even though you had no use for it while sitting down. I rubbed your back as you wheezed. You wore your favorite blue Columbia fleece even though it was April; you were always cold. We waited like this for a while, until a nurse finally arrived to retrieve you. Mom arrived around this time, and we silently agreed she would be the one to escort you to the examination room with the nurse. I waved as they wheeled you away. You could barely breathe, but you waved back. 

Do you remember? Before you started dialysis, we got a call from our neighbor. She said she saw you under her cherry tree, lifting your cane to swat at the branches, and then bending down to pick up the fallen cherries for a snack. Mamani was furious—she had you on a strict diet to protect your kidneys, terrified of letting you eat anything other than steamed vegetables. Even your children, Mom and daee, tried lecturing you, but I knew you didn’t regret it. The sour taste you adored was still in your mouth. 

In the days since you arrived at the hospital, I had been sharing my anti-anxiety pills with Mom. I know you would have found this amusing. I’m sure if I’d asked to borrow some of your post-surgery pain medication, you would have chuckled and obliged. 

At first, Mom didn’t tell us your heart had stopped. After dinner, she got a call from the hospital and ran to her bedroom. We followed her, knowing it had to be something serious. I watched her hands tremble as she yanked clothes out of her closet. Sammy and I kept asking her what the nurse had said on the phone. She wouldn’t answer. All she did was ask for “one of those pills.” 

I had to place the pill on her tongue and gently close her jaw with my thumb. Tears raced toward her trembling chin and her body began to convulse. A panic attack—our family was all too familiar. You had seen it a few times, too. She gasped out the news. My own chest constricted as I ran to get the car keys. 

There were no chairs in the ICU waiting room because of COVID restrictions. Mamani perched on a side table. Sammy and Dad stood in the corner. I opted to pace. Snot filled the inside of my mask and ran down my neck, sticking to my collar. I was too embarrassed to ask for a tissue. 

“You can go see him now.” 

I let everyone else go first. When Dad and Sammy came back, I asked Sammy what Dad said to you. 

“He kept telling him to wake up,” Sammy replied. 

I went alone, but I shouldn’t have. I wasn’t prepared to see you like that—thin, frail, a ventilator violently pushing air into your chest. I watched your tongue jolt up and down with each breath and wondered if you would ever speak again. The hospital gown was low-cut, revealing just how thin your chest had become. The nurses had removed your hat, revealing the stubble on your scalp. I wondered where they had put it, your hat. I assumed it was out of sight somewhere with the rest of your clothes and your cane. You never carried anything else with you. 

I didn’t say much then. Just that I loved you, the one phrase in English that you knew.   

A few weeks before you died, we’d gone on a picnic for one of the holidays following Nowruz. Sammy and I knew that to get a good spot, we’d have to leave early in the morning. We three were the only ones ready at seven. We piled into the car right before sunrise, the trunk filled with picnic chairs and provisions for the barbeque: meat, bread, herbs. You were in the back seat, wearing the hoodie we got you for your birthday, the hood pulled up. You were delighted when you first saw it; we knew you often shaved your head, and the faux-fur lined hood would keep you warm. 

During the drive, I put on my Persian playlist so we could enjoy the music together. Ebi’s “Delbar” came on, and you leaned forward, beaming, carefully setting your cane aside so you could use both hands to grip each front seat, mine and Sammy’s. You asked me to turn it up. I obliged. 

The last time I ever spoke to you, you were about to go to dialysis. We didn’t know it would be your last session, that your heart would stop before it was over.

“I’m going to dialysis, baba,” you told me. “And then I’m coming home.” 

It was just you and me in the room when I said goodbye. I spoke in English, because I figured that if you could somehow hear me while unconscious, you might as well be able to understand English, too. I remember apologizing a lot. I’m sorry it turned out this way. I’m sorry you were alone. I’m sorry we didn’t have more time.

If I could have a do-over, I’d thank you instead. Thank you for being my grandfather. Thank you for making me laugh. Thank you for teaching me to love everything around me with my whole heart. 

 We took you off life support, but you hung on longer than any of us thought you would. We sat for hours while Mom and daee kept you company. It was unbearable, sitting there, waiting. It felt like a betrayal.

They told us later that they played you a video of a man reciting Farsi poetry. I hope you heard it somehow. If you did, I’m sure you loved it.

Mom opened the door to the waiting room, daee trailing behind. In one hand, she held a green plastic bag with your Columbia fleece, the one you were wearing when I drove you to the hospital. In her other hand, she held your cane, the mahogany beauty with the etched-in details.

Despite everything, Mom smiled at us. “The nurse said he had a beautiful cane.”

She was right.