I looked over at my Grandpa lounging happily on the couch, watching the 3rd edition of the 6 o’clock news. He seemed oblivious to the insistent ringing of the telephone. Trotting out to the kitchen, I yanked on the receiver. “Hellooooo.”
“Hi, is this Heather?” It was my Grandpa’s sister in law.
“Nope! It’s Mary!” I replied.
“Oh hell-oooo. This is Pat.” She chimed, a legitimate smile behind her voice.
I responded to her greeting and she responded to mine, followed by a series of formalities and updates and few quippy tid-bits. When we arrived at the point, she told me that she planned to visit next week with my grandpa’s brother.
“Do you mind if I talk to him so I can tell him myself?” The question was formal. She is the epitome of a Great Aunt, always minding her P’s and Q’s and other such proper etiquette.
“Ha! Good luck!” I blurted out. She was going to need it if she was going to get through to my grandpa without eye contact, sign language or Pictionary. “But suuuure.” I added, trying not to be so discouraging.
After a series of pointing and waving and shouting, my Grandpa finally picked up the phone. I started to replace the receiver but thought better of it. After all, I don’t have cable. Isn’t that what kids used to do in the olden days when their radio programs were over? Listen in on their parent’s phone calls and then head outside to chase hoops in the street with a stick? As I put the phone back to my ear and quieted my breathing, I mentally justified my snooping with the fact that my knowledge of the conversation would help me decipher my grandpa’s attempts at conversation afterwards. I nodded approval to myself and settled in.
“Hey Bob!” Pat said, greeting my Grandpa’s confused hello.
“What?” he returned, flatly.
“HI BOB! IT’S PAT!” I smiled at the shouting so early on.
“Oh Hello! How-How are you?” He stammered but with pleasure in his voice.
“GOOD!” She shouted.
“Oh that’s good!” He replied, the racket of the television finally fading out as he found the volume button.
“I WANTED TO TELL YOU THAT WE ARE COMING NEXT THURSDAY FOR LUNCH!” She still wasn’t loud enough, partly because she is a small woman who rarely yells and partly because being deaf isn’t his only problem.
“For what, now?”
“LUN-CHA!” She said, drawing out each syllable.
“I’m sorry…I’m not understanding.” You could hear him sitting up as the leather squeaked under him.
“FOOD” she shouted.
“Oh okay. That should be fine. Thank you.” He started to hang up the phone. When my grandpa is done, he’s done, and to make matters worse, Pat called during the news.
“Okay! Well I will see you next Thursday!” She sang, sweetly.
“When?” He asked.
“THURSDAY!” There was a pause. “Not tomorrow but a week from tomorrow!” Her experience explaining things to small children was apparent.
“In November?” He asked, probably checking his watch.
“THURSDAY!” She repeated. “NEXT THURSDAY.”
“Okay, that will be fine.” I could hear him fiddling for a clean page in his notebook to take down the meeting.
“Fine.” She finished, simply. “See you then!”
“Ok. Bye-bye now!” Grandpa concluded, replacing his end of the phone. I hung up too and wandered back into the family room.
“That was my wife!” Grandpa said pleased.
“You mean your brother’s wife.” I replied, smiling, and picking up the notepad from the coffee table. His shaky handwriting spelled out:
“LUNCH. Food. November of next week.”
He looked at me blankly. “Well yes. Not my wife. My…my…”
“Sister in law?” I offered.
“My…my…cur. I think it’s my cur?” He scratched his bald head. “No…my Washington…Washington…no my discontentation.” He settled on this made up word as he fiddled with the remote.
“Can you make this work? I need channel R.” He handed me the Time Warner device that was covered in fruit juice and bread crumbs.
I changed the subject along with the channel. “Boy! There sure are lots of people coming to see you huh?!” I tried to sound excited though I know that my Grandpa doesn’t like disruption in his routine.
“Who else is arriving?” He asked, turning towards me from the couch.
“”Well Robin is coming this weekend. Remember?” It seems almost cruel to end sentences that way when talking to someone with Alzheimer’s but it’s a pattern of speech I have yet to shake.
“Who?” He asked, still staring at his remote and running his fingers over the buttons.
I pressed the mute button for him. “Your daughter, from Vermont. ROBIN.” He stared at me, no recognition passing his face so I translated it into Grandponian, a language he has created from the bits and pieces floating around his head. “Your son, from Connecticut. Rob.”
“Ah…I see. Is that all?” He had understood and nodded his approval.
“Well, her family…” I got up and went to the wall with the family photographs. “Her husband, Greg.” I pointed to his picture. “And of course your grandchildren. There’s Isabelle…”
“Oh yes! Isabelle!” He smiled at the black and white picture of Isabelle that showed her laughing delicately. “She looks fun.” He smiled again and reached for the picture.
“And then Clayton…” My hand drew across the photos to one that showed a younger version of my cousin, arms crossed across his black turtleneck.
“Clayton! Yes Clayton.” He took the picture from the wall, pleased with his memory. “What about that one!” He asked pointing at a picture of Annie, my oldest cousin.
“Not that one this weekend.” I told him. “She has her kids and a job and stuff.”
He looked confused. “That’s Betty right?” He picked up an old, faded photograph of his cousin Betty and held it up to the picture of Annie and her kids.
“No that’s ANNIE.” I replied, and showed him another picture of her.
“Oh right. Like this.” He held his hand high up near his eyes.
“Yep! The tall one!” I laughed. I continued with the guest list for the weekend. “And then last but not least is Bezuayehu.” I found a picture of my little cousin, brought from Ethiopia to an overly excited bunch of aunts and uncles and cousins all waiting eagerly to learn how to pronounce her native name, buy her presents, and play with her hair.
“What?” He furrowed his brow and touched the picture.
“Your granddaughter. Bezuayehu.” I waited a minute, looking at him, “BEZUAYEHU.” I repeated.
“Yes.” He agreed, clearly recognizing the face. He held the picture close and looked over his glasses. “Grand..grandsister…granddaughter…You’re right.” He stopped and looked up at me. “You’re right, but…but that’s just not a word.”