Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Take Care Grandpa


He had gotten up the bug to collect something new.  This time it was knives.  Before it had been RC Helicopters, but when the task of charging, controlling, and ultimately not crashing them proved to be too difficult, he had dropped the idea for a lower cost higher payoff option.

Pocket knives.  They were abundant and relatively affordable.  He had a guide to their values and how to assess their quality.  Each month he was given a small allowance with which he could use to purchase anything he wanted. He bid for items on eBay.  That was fun too.  The thrill of bidding on an item offered an additional benefit.  Winning a coveted knife was exciting.  And receiving it in the mail--opening the box, examining the knife, holding it for the first time--was the culmination of the excitement.

Then there was the conversation the collection elicited.

"Ooh, these knives are so pretty."

"This knife is cool, dad."

"What kind of knife is this?"

"Show me your new knives grandpa."

And he would naturally talk about the knife collection.  Pulling each out and showing off the blade.  The details in the handle.  The gentle tapering of one, the careful inlay in another. In his gruff short sentences--a by product of his poor hearing and the blockage in his throat--he would explain different qualities of the knife, carefully memorized from the book and the eBay description.

There was the comfort of having two beautiful pocket knives that he carried in his pockets.  Neither was the largest or the smallest in the collection.  Neither was the most valuable.  But they held a sentimental value.  They reminded him of being a boy.  They reminded him of being in the army.  They were stand-ins for his past, carried around with the same weight as a memory.  Even though they were not the actual ones from his youth, they were close enough.

It was the same with his hair.  He had a full head of salt and pepper hair that he kept in the same style since it was in style and he brushed it the same way as always.  He wetted his hair down, took the large brush and ran it through his hair on the left side, ran the small brush through his hair on the right side, and finished styling with his comb.  A reflex memory of a time when his skin was tight against young muscles.

Now he needed my help to walk him through his morning routine.  I sat on his walker and watched him as he washed up in the morning, checking for a sudden loss of balance.  His skin sagged against bones, his clothes were loose although they fit right.  He put his teeth in, giving his jaw fill and his lips something to rest on.  In the fifteen minutes it took him to get ready in the morning, his face became the same recognizable one I had known all my life.  Older, yellower, and more worn, but the same.

I had come to Portland to take care of him for the weekend, relieve my harried and tired aunts and uncles.  I had done neither so far.

I had stayed up late taking care of a sick kitten.  Up at all hours of the night, trying to figure out how to get her comfortable.  And the entire time sleeping lightly because I didn't want to hear the dreaded bell, or worse--the thud.

"You sure you don't need anything grandma? I can sleep in the back bedroom," it was the bedroom across the hall from my grandparents.

"Oh no, you sleep downstairs. If I need anything you will know," she said it dead pan but I knew she was setting up her own witty commentary, "you can hear his siren, but if we need you, you'll hear this.

She then stomped her feet quickly on the ground, mimed her feet slipping out from under her, and made a thudding stomp.  For a ninety one year old she was spry.  And sharp.

Olivia had texted me earlier that grandma had told my two youngest cousins the Easter bunny would not be making a visit to her house.  "He's dead, I shot him."

Time at grandma and grandpa's was like that, a cynical and tight commentary on a tough and tragic set of circumstances.  Both of my grandparents had the clarity of mind to approach death with detached curiosity.

To my grandmother there was no tone to dying. It was not a somber minor key, it was a fluid reality.  It was a grand symphony with swelling anthems, light moments, and long held notes of tension.  The precarious balance of the whimsical moments where the house was timeless and the people in it enjoyed themselves was offset by the increasing amount of care that my grandfather needed.

Grandpa now lately sat in his room waiting.  He kept the heat up high, a Caribbean tropic.  He had lost much of his body mass and could barely take in more than a few hundred calories per day.  Naturally he was cold unless the room resembled a sauna.  My eyes gravitated to a black and white photo of him in his youth. A tiny five foot three young man jumping off the steps of a learning institution's facade. His form was great, arms and legs stretched to form a Y.  He had been a cheerleader.

He was interned. He joined military intelligence when he was seventeen. He became an ob-gyn and had five children. He was an excellent amateur photographer.  He survived throat cancer.  He lost most of his teeth.  He lost most of his hearing.  He never quite figured out his printer.

But like anything, the sparse notes I could lay out are inadequate to fully represent the man huddled near the heater, struggling to swallow his tapioca pudding.

There are things I will never know about him.  He gave me pinholes into his mind every now and then.  But only when I was quiet enough.  My impatient youth rarely found the moment to just sit with him--it was always worth it when I did.  He told me funny things, he gave me things selflessly, he told me honest things.  I was never sure quite what was a secret.

I doubt I will tell any of the things he told me.