OF MOVING ON AND HAVING BEEN
There's this funny little routine you have to go through just to get in the room. They make you put on this hypoallergenic gown that feels roughly like fiberglass and latex gloves that seem snug enough to have been made for children only (which is saying a lot, something you know if you've ever seen my small freak-hands). If you leave the room, you have to trash them. When you come back, you have to go through the process all over again. I'm told it's to stop the spread of various viruses and bacteria that can easily be transmitted from patient to patient. Though for some reason, they don't make you tie the gown. I'm bothered by this, as it seems purpose-defeating.
But them's the rules at the rehab center that has become my grandfather's Last Big Stop. Well, they call it a "rehab center", though taking a look around…egh. Let's just say that most of the people here – strangely referred to as "patients", all in various stages of near-death – don't seem to be rehabbing so much as practicing to be corpses. This is less a "rehab center" and more of a "morgue pre-party".
I wasn't here last time. What my grandfather doesn't know is that this is the same exact rehab center where my grandmother died twelve years ago. He doesn't know because he didn't visit her there. We didn't know she'd be gone so quickly. No one's telling him, either. And that's a blessing – it would only make this worse.
Worse than this would be…pretty bad. I find my grandfather hunched over in his wheelchair, hands folded in his lap, staring at the ground. I can't decide if this is more or less heartbreaking than when I saw him two days prior, laying immobile in his bed. I decide on "more heartbreaking" and fight the first of the many urges I have to cry that afternoon. It's a struggle. He's breathing hard, even with the oxygen tank he's become a Siamese twin to ratcheted up to 11 (please go ahead and laugh at that small joke – if he'd ever seen the movie, he'd have appreciated it). His nose is running. His old-person tracksuit is coated with a smattering of goldfish cracker crumbs. Sadly, this is a good sign – it means he's eaten today. In the cache of euphemisms that have become the Mailey family's manifesto over the past few weeks, this could aptly be categorized as just above A Piece of Encouraging News and just below The Best We Can Hope for At This Point.
It's not until I sit down on the bed and touch his hand that he knows I'm there. I decide to blame this on his hearing (or lack thereof) rather than to congratulate myself on my ninja-like approach. He does his best to smile, and even though that's a failing proposition these days, I know he's glad to see me. I've brought him some Lotto scratch-off cards. Every day, wasting down to nothing faster and faster, he's still scratching off these goddamned Lotto cards. "Wouldn't it be something," he says dryly, "if I were to hit the big one at this point? That would be a laugh." Today it doesn't sound that funny.
He gets winded scratching off the first card and asks me for my help finishing it off. I do; it's not a winner. Best we go on to the second one, he says, and so I scratch that one too. This one produces a veritable treasure chest: $20. Look Pa, you're a winner!" He smiles again, then tells me to keep it. I make some joke about him using it to tip the nurses, and he mumbles something to the effect of their heads being designated for assignment in their asses. "Keep it. Buy yourself a drink in the airport this evening. What the hell am I going to do with it in here?" The last sentence is said without a hint of humor, and immediately following it, his gaze goes back to the faux marbled tile. It's clear there's not going to be a lot of conversation here today. So I hold his hand.
A minute or two later, I remember something I had forgotten to ask him about during my previous visit: "Hey Pa? I heard that (my cousin) Shawn came up to visit you the other day. Did you have a nice visit?"
He raises his head, "Yes, it was very nice. It was good to see him."
A few seconds pass, and before he puts his head down again: "Yeah, Shawn came to visit, your uncles are in here everyday, you came from California.…you'd think I was dying or somethin'." This time it's definitely intended to be a joke. I laugh, wonder how he even has the strength to bother, and fight the urge to cry once again.
There are countless things I'd love to tell you about my grandfather, but most of them are personal stories that merely define him in my eyes and wouldn't necessarily in yours. But if there's one seminal item, one character-cementing thing that my grandfather did that would measure him up against anyone, it's this: he built his own house.
To me, that is…that is something. This man was not an architect. He had exactly zero training as a builder – of ANYTHING, much less houses. He was in the Navy. He studied business. He worked on the railroad. And then one day, he wanted a house for that he and his love, my Granny, could raise a family in. So he went out, read a few books, bought enough lumber to deforest a good chunk of Central Pennsylvania, and he fucking built that house.
Seriously. He had some help pouring the foundation and had friends in the trade help him with the plumbing and electric wiring. Beyond that, he built his house with his own two hands. Just him. My grandfather. Pa. Now, really...how many of you know anyone who's done that? How many of you know a man who wanted a house, read a book about building houses, built the house, and then proceeded to lord over the Great American Family within it for fifty years?
I know one.
My grandfather did what a man does – a fact that did not, I can tell you, go unnoticed by my grandmother. Granny once told a story: "You know, the day your grandfather got home from the War, I was waxing the floor in the kitchen. He opened the door, and I saw him standing there and nearly fainted. We didn't even move for a couple of minutes. We just stared at each other. And he looked so sexy in his uniform…" And just like that, she trailed off like an old woman does when she remembers fondly. I was younger at the time this tale was told, and curious, I asked what happened. Granny composed herself and said only, "Well, let's just say I had to wax the floor again."
Oddly enough, Pa's favorite thing to do in his house was contaminate it. For decades the man smoked 8 – EIGHT! – cigars per day. He remained adamant that it was not a bad habit because, much like even our finest Presidents, he "didn't inhale". Perhaps it wasn't on his mind, but the rest of us who had the privilege of staying there for any amount of time existed in an atmosphere that could only be described as brownish. The air in and around my grandparents' house was acrid, hefty and pervasive, coating everything from clothes to food to, perhaps, even a few souls. My grandfather's solution to this problem? He bought a ten-inch high air purifier and set it on his chairside table. As you might guess, that functioned about as well as a band-aid on the Titanic. Pa puffed away contently, undeterred, until one day, at a doctor's appointment, he was told that his smoking habit might be contributing to his heart disease.
Pa quit smoking that day and never had another pull off a cigar in his life. This left Pa with a dearth of ways to torture his beloved family. And that's about when he decided that if he couldn't ruin our lungs, he would ruin our vision.
One day, I walked into my grandparents' house to find that Pa had gone quite out of his head and had electric-blue carpet installed in his family room. And when I say "electric-blue", I want to be frank about just how electric it was: I became the only middle-schooler in a fifty-mile radius to have acid flashbacks. It was like sitting on top of an azure sun. Just being around it made your body temperature spike by ten degrees. It was garish. It was uncalled for. It was retina-searing. And my grandfather LOVED it. It was his favorite color. No one else understood. Chalk it up in the barrel full of things that Pa did that we didn't understand. Another of note, just for posterity: the man watched upwards of 10 hours of television per day, yet never sprung for cable or even a TV that had a working antenna. He traveled back and forth across his blue carpet dozens of times every day, manually changing the channel and then complaining when the reception sucked. All of this in an effort to watch an episode of M*A*S*H* that he'd only seen sixty times before.
There are enough stories like this to fill books. Maybe it would be a book you'd read, and maybe not. Just in case you're here for the condensed version, I'll leave you with this:
When my grandmother died, my grandfather sold that house. His house. The one that he built, by himself, for her. That house was iconic in my mind, a place of countless happy pastimes and life experiences. I was flabbergasted that he could part with it. Some of the family was outright angry. But to Pa, his house was no longer a home. Not without Granny. Now, it was just a structure fixed in place over everything he'd lost. Before he'd even moved out, it was a memory. The reason he got down on his hands and knees and created it from nothing was gone, and as far as he was concerned, the house had served its purpose. It was now obsolete, so he left it.
Like I said, my grandfather did what a man does.
I sat with Pa that day, the last day I would ever see him, for a good forty-five minutes. Conversation, spotty and infrequent, took up a grand total of about thirty seconds of that visit. He mostly bowed his head and looked down, squeezing my fingers tightly in his, and God, I wished that I could do anything to make this stop for him. How is it that just at the point when the sum of your life's actions should be called upon to build your dignity to its highest level…it can be so unceremoniously and callously drained from you? Frail, diapered, runny-nosed, struggling. Miserable. Watching it is pure and unadulterated agony. I can't even imagine feeling it.
It was time to go. It was time to go, and I felt like I'd offered him little. I'd worried about this earlier, that there was nothing I could really do for him. My mother told me that just having me there would be a tremendous lift for him. He didn't look lifted. He looked just like he looked when I came in: broken. There was nothing I could fix. But knowing that and accepting that are two wholly different animals.
I stood up, kissed him on the head, hugged him, and said goodbye. Our last goodbye. I told myself how lucky I was to have this moment, that most people don't ever get to say goodbye for real. I didn't feel lucky. He hugged back as best he could, told me to be good. I walked to the trashcan, started to disavow myself of the gloves and gown. "This is it," my frustrated, scared brain screamed at me. "This is it! Don't you realize that? Tell him how much he means to you! Say something! Say something, you idiot!"
I turned and looked at him. "I'll be back at the end of August," I barely creaked. "It's my ten-year high school reunion. Can you believe it's been ten years?"
"Isn't that somethin'," he replied, trying to look up.
"So you hang on until, then, OK?"
"OK Geoffrey," he lied.
"I'll see you then," I lied right back. And I turned and walked for the door. I almost made it out.
I know I must have turned around instantly, but standing there, I felt like it took me half a minute to rotate.
He offered a sickly wave…and yet made it seem as though it was the grandest of gestures. "Thanks for coming all this way," he said. "To say goodbye to your old Pa."
The words hit like a wave. A Gibraltar-sized rock formed in my throat where my Adam's apple used to be and my knees all but buckled and gave out from under me. Somehow, for the last time that day, I successfully fought the tears back. It had nothing to do with projecting stoicism or feeling foolish or being a man. My grandfather had only four days left on this planet at that moment, and I sure as hell wasn't going to let his last memory of me be one with wet eyes. So I smiled.
"You got it."
I'm 28 years old; it was the first time in my life that I've ever felt like an adult. All I did was fly home, and that's the kind of man my grandfather was: when I could give him nothing, he turned it into everything. The old bastard.
A prophet much wiser than I once theorized that a man stumbles around most of his life confused and in various stages of inebriation, his vision clouded to one degree or another, except on two occasions: when he finds himself, and when he faces death. I've often thought that one can consider himself truly lucky if those events don't happen at the same time.
If someone had walked into that room with us at that point, they wouldn't have known that something was off, something was discordant. They would have just seen two men – one old, one young, one a grandfather, one a grandson – about to part one final time. They would have gone about their day and never questioned the fact that they were both wearing glasses. It shouldn't have seemed funny, shouldn't have seemed unnecessary, but it was.
Because…what did we need glasses for? At that moment, we were just a couple of lucky fellas with 20/20 vision.
I will miss you, old man. I will miss you.