December 31st, 2006
It’s strange how life can travel in full circles. The years roll past and what once was is now reversed.
When I was growing up my grandparents had a camper in a summer RV camp in Pennsylvania. For a few summers around the time I was twelve, they invited the three oldest boys in our family for a week’s vacation. It was a time of swimming in the park pool, eating meals outside at the picnic table behind the camper, and playing board games.
Grandpa wasn’t a socializer and was a homebody, so he didn’t care for these vacations. Why go live in a tiny trailer for a week when your own home was good enough? It was all foolishness to him–swimming in the pool or playing board games. He hung in the background most of the time, or disappeared entirely, so I have no recollection of what he did most of those summer days. But a few memories stand out in my mind.
I’m not sure why this first memory stays with me so clearly. I’m a worrier, and as a child I was an obsessive worrier. The incident was one of probably a thousand like it that have passed in my life, but I think this one stuck in my memory because I realized I was worrying in a foolishly obsessive and excessive manner. The self-recognition of my own foolishness made the memory stick.
The time was before we left to go down to the RV camp. Grandma was loading the car and doing other preparations before it was time to leave. While Grandma kept herself occupied, Grandpa decided to take a walk in the woods until Grandma was ready to leave. We three boys decided to tag along.
Almost as soon as we left I began obsessing and worrying.
“How much time do we have?”
“When should we go back?”
“What if Grandma is waiting for us?”
“What if we don’t hear when Grandma calls us?”
“Maybe it’s time we go back.”
I’m sure I wearied Grandpa, and as he answered every one one of my questions and not-so-subtle suggestions, even I realized I was being unreasonable. Didn’t I trust my own grandfather? Was I really afraid that Grandma might leave without us? If I was in such a hurry to get back, why on earth did I go on the walk in the first place? I recognized my foolish childishness, but in spite of it I couldn’t shake the nagging thought that Grandma could have called for us to come back to the house, and we didn’t hear and we really ought to go hurrying back.
Finally, Grandpa gave in to my pestering and we turned around and went back. Of course, Grandma hadn’t called for us.
My worrying habits were always with me. While at the RV camp, Grandpa told me that if a high wind came when the camper canopy was extended the wind could rip the canopy right off the trailer. If any of us boys woke up in the middle of the night when a windy storm was coming we were instructed to wake him up so we could close the canopy.
Wind ripping the canopy off the trailer–scary thought. Warning Grandpa before it happened–big responsibility. So I obsessed over that thought while I lay in bed that night. How would I know when it was a bad enough storm to wake Grandpa? What would happen if I woke him and it wasn’t really necessary? What would happen if I didn’t wake him when it was necessary? What happened if I accidentally slept through such a storm and didn’t get the chance to wake him?
Well, that night we had a terrific thunderstorm. The lightning flashed in brilliant white, and the thunder crashed like an artillery barrage raining down all around us, and the rain beat on the roof by the bucket-fulls. It sounded like a storm to end all storms, but any mature person listening realized that for all the crashing and booming and drumming rain, the rain was coming straight down. There was very little wind and not much reason to go out in the middle of the night and get completely soaking wet to retract the canopy. But all I could think of was the violent storm, and my moral duty to save the trailer from permanent damage.
I scrambled out of bed and nervously hurried to the back of the trailer, pounding on the bedroom door.
“Grandpa! Grandpa!” I called. “There is a storm! It’s–”
“Yes, I can hear it,” he said (who couldn’t, with it booming loud enough to rattle the windows). “Go back to bed. Don’t worry about it.”
So I went back to bed, feeling relieved that I had done my duty. And when we all got up in the morning the canopy was still attached to the trailer.
Grandpa is a reticent fellow. I’m sure, in part, he simply doesn’t have as much to say as an outgoing and vivacious person, but there is also a part to his silence and stillness that speaks of a shield and defense. If you don’t speak, and don’t act, you can’t say or do something that will leave you open to emotional wounding, humiliation, or regret.
Growing up, I never really saw much into Grandpa’s life. He was that smiling and laughing Grandpa who was always happy to see his grandchildren coming to visit. He would read you a story, or make peanut butter brittle, or maybe go on a walk and you could come along. But that was as deep as it went, and the older you became the more you realized that most of Grandpa was hiding behind that wrinkled face–stories and thoughts locked up behind those watery blue eyes.
Sometimes, a little more of Grandpa would show through, brief flashes of a larger man. We went for a walk once at the RV camp with Grandpa. There was a waterfall on the creek that ran beside the camp and he was taking us to look at it. I don’t remember how the conversation went, but Grandpa must have been in a playful mood. Somehow we got onto the topic of running, and I guess it got around to Grandpa and running–and how he couldn’t.
“What, you think I can’t run? You think I’m too old? I’ll show you!”
And next thing I knew we had a race, and Grandpa had taken off running down the forest trail.
We were flabbergasted. At first we tried to give chase but we were so surprised, amazed, and amused that it was hard to not stop and watch him and just laugh for the fun of it all. Grandpa was racing us! He was already in his mid-sixties, but for that brief moment the years fell away and we saw a much younger man, a different man, sprinting down the trail ahead of us, light on his feet, finishing with a quick leap over a branch laying across the trail.
I think that was the only time I have ever seen my Grandfather run, the only time I have ever seen him so fully take leave of all care and thought, and act like someone who truly remembered what it was to be a boy once.
The years have swung past now, the summers flashing by like moments of bright light in the quickly spinning orb of life. After a few years Grandma and Grandpa took their camper out of the RV park and the summer trips stopped. The years have passed, one to another, and I’ve grown up, becoming, perhaps, a little less of a worrier. And Grandpa . . . well, the years have ground at Grandpa, too. They haven’t strengthened him in the vigors of life, when the dew of youth is still fresh and the tests of time form one into a strong and capable young man. That was a long time ago. Time has ground youth and health from him. The years have ground him fine and thin, and now they are grinding him right away.
Once, Grandpa drove me and my siblings around, as Grandma and Grandpa would take the extra kids that couldn’t fit in my Dad’s car to the family gatherings. Now I take Grandpa to family gatherings.
Once, I followed Grandpa on walks in the woods and worried about being away from home too long. Now I take Grandpa out of the house and he worries and wants to go home as soon as we’ve gotten where we’re going.
Once, I worried about the weather, and things that didn’t need to be worried about. Now Grandpa stands at the window and looks at the gray sky, the rain, or the snow, and frets and worries. He struggles with the unease that hangs over him, an unease that no rational thought can chase away, and which remains to pick at the back of his mind.
Today is the last day of December, the day when the old year gives way to the new. My grandfather was born this day, many years ago. He turns seventy-nine today. He has Alzheimer’s, and it is grinding him away.
Grandpa isn’t much of a talker, and he struggles to show affection. You know it is there, you can see it in him, and how it comes out in the backward way of words that say “I love you,” without being so embarrassing as to actually say it. I don’t recall Grandpa ever directly commenting on how my father raised us, or ever really directly complimenting me any further than perhaps a rare “You’re a good lad,” that might escape as if by accident. But it wasn’t because you didn’t know. It was because, for Grandpa, you didn’t say those sort of things. You knew those things anyhow because when you were little his face lit up with a smile when you came to visit and he would read a story when you asked, pop out his false teeth at you to surprise and maybe even scare you, and then hug you goodbye when it was time to leave. And you knew what he thought (at least generally) when you got older and he got older because then, when he needed help, he asked you for help–help with the roofing project and help with the moving project.
He didn’t talk much, but he made things. He was a man of his hands, and Grandma and Grandpa’s house was filled with the things he made. There were the model airplanes that hung from the ceiling, made from metal soda cans. There was the life sized, and life-like, Indian that Grandpa made. There was the bright red canoe that you could actually ride in the pond with. And there were the many little wooden figures that he carved that stood about the house, and the paintings and drawings that I never knew he did until I was much older, because he was ashamed of them and hid them away.
Grandpa was what you might call a folk artist and a tinkerer, a man who grew up as one of ten kids in the heart of the Depression. He would draw and paint, carve, whittle, and build whatever came to his fancy–and none of it was good enough to him; even if others wanted to buy it, he was ashamed to sell what he had made. He could tune a piano, and play it some, a mandolin, too, and even sing, I’ve been told.
I saw the Indian standing in Grandma and Grandpa’s house, the canoe, too, and other various carvings standing on shelves around the house, but it is only now that I am older that I can begin to appreciate how much I didn’t see, and never will see. And now those hands are stilled forever. Hands which could once carve an Indian’s face or tune a piano are now stilled. Those hands which once controlled the sharp tools of the woodworker now struggle to use a light switch or button his shirt. The things he knew and the things he learned have left him. His tools now sit on shelves and in boxes and bins in the basement and barn, unused, and the last remaining drawings and carvings of his sit in corners of the house like forgotten markers of a fading past. The mandolin given to him for Christmas a few years ago is hidden under his bed to be kept safe at his request, now probably forgotten as he lays on that bed in restless sleep.
He doesn’t talk much about his Alzheimer’s and when I first came to be with him and care for him I wondered if he knew. But he has let enough words slip so that I know that he knows. He has let enough words slip so I can guess–like a faint shadow–some of what passes through his mind in the long hours of the day.
He curses himself when he stumbles and cannot walk, struggles when he cannot work a light switch or faucet. He remembers that he could. He knows he could, and he struggles, determined to do what he once did, but it is a struggle that he cannot win. It is a thing painful to think about, a thing you try to put from your mind because otherwise it will break your heart as you daily watch him lose his fight–as you see ever more clearly what he had, what he has lost, what he still has and is daily losing. You feel the urge to laugh with a bitter-sad laugh because the echo in your mind is a cry when he acts the fool because he had forgotten how, and calls himself a stupid filthy man because he pisses on the floor, spills his coffee, and can’t remember how to dress himself.
The days are hard, but worse for him, the nights. Restless nights, and with each one he seems anxious for the dawn. One morning Grandma came into the kitchen while I was helping Grandpa with his morning routine.
“How was last night, Papa?” she said.
“Well,” she said, leaning over to give him a kiss. “Maybe the next one will be better.”
“Awww, shit,” he said. “You know that isn’t so. The next one is going to be worst than the last, and the next and the next and the next after that . . .” Then he trails off before continuing, as if to himself, (and perhaps only I heard it) “I never thought I would, but I’m scared.”
I hold out my arms now, ready to catch him when he totters and falls. I tuck him into bed at night and give him a goodnight kiss. He is losing his life one bit at a time. He knows it, and I know it. He is scared, and I am sad.