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The Empty Couch

Grandpa on the couch

September 24th, 2009

We all grieve in different ways. Some people grieve loudly, others in silence. Some people take a long time to grieve, other people finish grieving in a short time. Grandma told me she was grieving long before Grandpa actually died, and I think that is true for me also. But that doesn’t mean I finished grieving before he died.

If grieving entails the acknowledgment of loss, sometimes absence speaks louder than words. For three years Grandpa was my life. My every waking and sleeping moment practically centered around him. What he needed, what he wanted, what his problems were, and what the solutions might be, were constantly on my mind. And if my life centered around Grandpa, the center of his life was the couch.

Grandpa looking at a book

The couch was home base. The couch was the place were Grandpa always returned. It was the center of his domain. In the household, Grandpa was the constant fixture on the couch.

Grandpa liked the couch. It was a good couch, with good comfortable cushions. It was the place he was most comfortable. From there he could peer out the window, watch TV (back in the day when it meant something to him), and in general keep tabs on what was going on in the house as much as possible. On the couch Grandpa was there for you, always waiting. Sitting on the couch, sleeping on the couch—Grandpa and the couch were meant to be together.

Grandpa napping on the couch

So, it is no surprise that I find the emptiness of the couch the most acute reminder of Grandpa’s absence. It’s silence, and emptiness, is the loudest statement of the finality of his departure. The impulse of expecting him to be there was especially strong in the first days after his death. Before, for a man failing from Alzheimer’s he could be remarkably sensitive to what was going on in the house. If a door opened or slammed, he wanted to know who it was. If someone was making noise in the kitchen, he wanted to know what was going on. If someone passed by in the corner of his vision, or went down the stairs behind him, he wanted to know what they were doing. Grandpa wanted to be informed, and he didn’t want to be forgotten. Often during certain times of the day he would shout and call for somebody (sometimes nobody in particular was named, sometimes the name would change with each shout) and often all he really wanted was somebody to come sit with him on the couch. And so, often I would come and sit with him for a short while on the couch before I went back to whatever I was doing.

It’s strange how habits become ingrained in your mind. In the first days after Grandpa’s death I so much expected him on the couch that when I entered the living room it was almost as if I saw him from the corner of my eye—my mind so much anticipating his presence—that it was only when I turned to look that my mind registered he wasn’t there. When I came in from the outside, or shut a door, words would come to the tip of my lips, ready to answer Grandpa’s shout from the couch—a shout that no longer comes. I would move about the house, and find in the back of my mind I was thinking about how what I was doing would reach Grandpa on the couch.

The empty couch

But the couch is empty now, and nobody asks who is coming in the house, or what I am doing. The constant calling and questioning voice is gone, and the empty couch is a symbol of the hole in my life. It is a symbol for that which reaches much further in my life, because the couch is not the only place I notice his absence. For three years my life and Grandpa’s life became so intertwined it was as if we had become conjoined. He always wanted me, and I was always thinking about him. When grocery shopping, I would always have an eye out for anything I thought Grandpa might like to eat—especially some dessert. Now I go shopping and there is that brief flash of regretful remembrance when I stop at the baked goods isle and think, “Grandpa would like that,” to then in that instant knowing that I won’t be buying any more things for him.

Then there are the memories of the funny things, the irritating things, and the hard things. There are the memories of how he would almost always wake up early in the morning to get out of bed, of how he would be determined to leave the bedroom (usually to just end up sitting on the couch) even if he couldn’t figure out how to open the door, had to push a chair in front of him to walk, or had to crawl. There are all the memories of the morning coffee, and the daily routines—the little ways in which we both knew how things were supposed to go, and other people didn’t, and didn’t know why I could do it so much better. There are the hard memories of the many bathroom disasters, and the bad nights, the irritating times when Grandpa would not stop calling no matter what. Then there are the good memories, the memories of how he liked my hugs, of how we would horse around, and how he would put up with my teasing.

Time is a double-edged sword. As the passage of time dulls the freshness of loss and hurt, so also time takes away the freshness of what we had. Already the expectation of Grandpa on the couch is fading, already what was is slipping into the past. I knew long before Grandpa died that he would be leaving soon, and I knew when I gave him my squeezing hug that soon I wouldn’t be able any more. So I hugged him, but not too tightly, because I knew that all things in this world must come to and end. Now it has, and I try to not hold too tightly to the past, in some futile attempt to deny the reality of life. But I do see the empty couch, know what it means, and I grieve very quietly.

Only memories remain