Friday, January 24, 2014

When Your Grandfather is 92 Years Old

He took me to McDonald's at six in the morning when I was small.  Early was his calling card. He got up at 5 or 5:30 to tinker on his HAM radio, morse-coding with people all over the world, and then, when the rest of the house was sleeping, he would slip me out of it and drive me to pancakes and sausage. He wore Hawaiian shirts and trousers. Always. Except on his ten-year-increment wedding anniversaries (and he's had 7 of those!). Then, he wore suits. And his hair always looks fancy because it is long in front and swept back and to the side in a white pompadour, fluffy and floppy on more recent days after he naps or after, say, he had the stroke.

That was Tuesday. My father called to say that Gramps wasn't waking up from his nap. It's all we knew for the longest time. Then information came in dribs and drabs: he was at the hospital. He was sitting up. He was "perky." But the next morning, he was "in and out;" he couldn't speak properly, couldn't move an arm, couldn't swallow, couldn't walk, didn't know who was who. We truly thought death was imminent. So did the nurse. So did the hospital chaplain.

So I packed a bag and drove to Little Company of Mary Hospital in Chicago and met him at the elevator on my way up to his room. He was shrunken in a hospital bed, rolling down to an EKG with a nurse. "Hi Grandpa. It's Heather--from Iowa."  His eyes half opened and he groaned acknowledgement, and I could hear underneath it the always-cordial, the ever-keeping-track-of-who's-who-and-what's-what man who wasn't keeping very good track at the moment.

My grandmother, his wife of 72 years, arrived for an afternoon visit and waited for Gramps to return from the test. She was in good spirits, likely due to her mild dementia; the air was light. All my girl cousins in the hospital room distracted her with stories of toddler potty training, great-grandchildren and dancing. Grandma danced with Maureen next to Gramps' empty hospital bed. Then, winded she sat down. A moment later she eyed me opportunistically. "Do you dance?" she quizzed. And then she was giving me instruction, teaching me steps while I followed to the music on a cousin's phone.


"Are your eyes tired? You look tired," My 5-foot grandmother leans over his bed after he returns from his test. Gramps' eyes roll back toward the corner of the room.

"He can't hear you," a cousin explains.

"What?!" says Grandpa snarkily. We laugh and Gramps puckers his lips, kissing the air, reaching for something with his mouth.

"What are you doing, Grandpa," Beth asks.

"Drinking my coffee," he explains, still puckering, now bringing his fingers up to his mouth as if tipping an invisible cup.

"What's he doing?" Grandma asks.

"He thinks he's drinking coffee," explains Beth.  "There's no coffee, Grandpa. It's all gone now."  He still puckers and resists Beth's attempts at stilling his hands in his lap. "That's enough now, Grandpa. It's all gone!"

"I'm sssluring my S's." he announces to Grandma.

For everything he understood there was so much he didn't: why he couldn't get out of bed, why he couldn't have water. For hours, he argued, he strained against loving hands and firm voices until a nurse belted him into the bed. He just wanted to go home, he said. A TV repairman for Sears before he retired almost 30 years ago, his favorite place to tinker was the basement where all manner of electrical and mechanical odds and ends waited. He just wanted to go down to the basement, he said. He yanked off the external catheter, which ultimately didn't help his cause. He exchanged harsh words with Grandma. "If you want to come home, you need to stay in that bed!" she warned.  "Now look here!" his own voice rose and fired off something that reduced her to tears.

"I've never cried so hard in my life," she told me repeatedly after we'd ushered her into the hallway outside his room. She cried, and my father and I took her home; she cried in bed that night and then came and sat in a rocker in the living room across from the couch where I was sleeping until she fell asleep herself. And the next morning she cried when he wasn't there to make her coffee and pour her cornflakes and make fun of the horoscopes in the Chicago Sun Times. I sat in his spot at the dining room table and resisted the urge to read from the paper. Instead, I encouraged her to eat so she'd have energy for the hospital later in the day.

Grandpa was sleeping in his hospital bed when I arrived with my father. We sat in silence in his room, both of us praying, the sun gleaming into his fourth story windows, the television on the wall glittering with silent images. When he woke, his eyes were wild for a moment until they seemed to focus, "What happened?" he asked.  And, "How is Grandma?" We explained the stroke, the bed, the lack of water ("I just need to drink a ton" he said, and he'd be fine). And then my grandfather scrunched his eyes tight and cried at the fact that he'd just laid down to take a nap on Tuesday afternoon and had a stroke. "It's amazing how you can almost just slip away like that," he slurred in broken voice.

He seemed to understand now, and he wasn't fighting. And he knew who I was--a granddaughter who'd spent so little time with him that my most prominent memories from childhood were McDonald's outings when I was 9, a granddaughter who lived hours away and came once or twice a year, if that, but held him and his wife fiercely dear. He knew who I was and it seemed he knew that the occasion of my visit wasn't random. When he said to me,"It's so great that so many of you came and hung around," his voice quavered and broke again in a way I've never heard on Gramps, so foreign still that it was a shock to hear him cry and to imagine what thoughts ran through his sometimes-lucid mind--facing death, surrounded by family but very much alone, as alone as one can be when embarking on a journey. It was his to take and we couldn't take it from him. It's what happens when your grandfather lives to the age of 92. Instead of railing against the car accident or the cancer that struck in the prime of life, we're left with the inevitable conclusion that our bodies expire, no matter what, simply because they are old.

"I've got to head back to Iowa, Grandpa. I love you." He tilted his head and I kissed his forehead, not knowing if I'd rest my hand on his face like that again, not knowing if death would wait a while and/or if memory would preserve his knowledge of me a little while longer. So, I kissed him like it was the last time.

No comments: