I opened the screen door and glanced at my grandpa eating leftover alfredo noodles at the kitchen counter and smiled, wondering if he feels normal when there’s no one around to make him feel strange. He turned toward me with a chocolatey grin, revealing a carton of milk on the counter behind him. I looked closer at the bowl in front of him. Sure enough there was about 2 cups of milk carefully poured on top of the noodles like cereal.
I thought quickly, not wanting to disrupt his peace. After all, just because General Mills hasn’t launched a line of alfredo cereals, doesn’t mean it’s poisonous. “Hi Grandpa!” I said casually.
“Hi Grandpa!” he mimicked.
I laughed. “You’re Grandpa.” I said poking his chest. “Me, Mary.” I added simply, lying my hand against my own. It worked for Tarzan, why not for senile old men?
He cocked his head to the side in confusion, his chocolate moustache coated with drops of alfredo milk. Maybe you have to have a one syllable name like “Jane” for that to work?
“Well! It’s time for your Exelon patch!” I chimed, changing the subject from introductions to something more familiar to him. He remained seated, smiling at me, so I patted my arm, our sign language for “patch”. I watched for recognition then headed to obtain our secret stash of things we don’t want Grandpa to find. When I came back to the kitchen he stood topless in front of the microwave, his three layers of shirts on the floor, scratching his head.
“Yo gramps!” I chuckled and wiggled the patch in the air.
“Oh yea!” He remembered, laughing with relief and pulled the old patch off.
“You know,” he said as I cut open his new meds, “I need a new viper….no….a new Alabama….”
“What would use that for?” I asked, searching.
“Well to go places!”
I smiled. “We aren’t going to give you your car keys back Grandpa.” There was no use being anything but frank about it anymore.
“Of course not!” he agreed and stood up, buttoning his fleece pullover. “That’s not it. Oh just COME HERE!” He shook his head in disbelief as I followed him out to the garage. “Waaaatch.” He began flipping the light switch up and down, up and down, the flashing overhead revealing a well organized garage, a lonely Infinite and two bikes. “These dang things won’t travel!” He shook his head again.
I bit my lip to keep from laughing. “That’s the light switch Grandpa! These buttons here,” I said pointing a bit further up the wall, “should make the garage door work.”
He jabbed one, then the other. Both doors ran, making a mechanical grinding sound, but sure enough, the doors didn’t go up. “SEE!” He looked at me indignantly and smirked as I tossed a few possible scenarios around in my head. Had someone fiddled with the mechanics so that we could still get in when he locked the screen door? Were the doors re-programmed for a new garage door opener? Or most likely, I concluded, did my mom disable the doors so that he couldn’t try to steal his car again?
I wasn’t sure, and I didn’t want to blow my anyone’s cover so I did the only thing I could think of to stall for time while I tried to get a hold of my mom. I threw my hands in the air and violently and repeatedly shrugged my shoulders, trying to make my face look as clueless as possible. Grandpa’s face sagged in disappointment and he nodded slowly, probably agreeing in his head that I was just a dumb girl who didn’t know how to fix anything. Not toilets or dishwashers or furnaces or the economy.
Inside, I snuck to the sun porch and called my mom. “Heeeey.” I whispered.
“Hello!” She seemed glad to hear from me.
“Ummmm what’s going on with the garage doors?” I waited through the silence from the other end.
“What do you mean?” She sounded disappointed, which means this was just another thing that was falling apart in my Grandpa’s house. What a lemon.
“It won’t go up. Either side!”
She sighed. We both knew how distressing this must be to my Grandpa to not be able to take his bike out through the front garage. “I’ll be over soon.”
As we waited for my mom I sat quietly in the family room, watching my grandpa pace around. My eyes wandered and followed a deep crack that was spreading out over the corner window and landing on the all-season Christmas tree that stood on the opposite wall. How many Christmases have I spent in this family room fighting over the Santa hat? How many afternoons did I spend stretching for ballet on the very oriental rug that spread out across the floor? How many Birthdays and Easters? How many Thanksgivings and funerals and family reunions?
“Ohhhhh I just can’t find it. Can’t find it.” Grandpa mumbled.
“Need some help Grandpa?” I waited. He ignored me and wandered out into the kitchen.
I lay down on the rug, pointing my toes and stretching my arms above my head. There’s a distinct smell to his family room. Wood floors, old furniture. That kind of smell, in general. But to me it smells like ballet shoes, wrapping paper, family. This is the room where my uncle proposed to my aunt. Where I met my second cousin, Noah. It’s the room where my Grandpa showed me his poetry and where he watches crime shows all day. This is the room where we ate cookies after my Grandma’s funeral. Where I opened my American Girl doll on Christmas when I was 9. It holds the couch where I took a hundred naps while watching Ureka’s Castle and Fraggle Rock. It’s the room where I shared gum with my Grandpa. Played pickup sticks. Did puzzles. It’s where w told him he had to have help come into the house, told him he has brain cancer. It’s the room where I serve him dinner on a tray so he can watch the news. Where he reads the newspaper. Where his pill machine spits out his meds twice a day. It’s the floor where my uncle would lay when I used to walk on his back, the rug where we spent hours trying to construct Anthony’s train set. That’s the chair where my cousin used to braid my hair and tell me I was lucky it was straight. It’s where we test my Grandpa’s blood sugar, where he loses his keys and trips over his shoe laces. When my Grandparents bought the house did they think of all that?
Grandpa circled back through and stepped over me, hardly noticing me on the floor. He picked up a quarter and examined it closely. Then moved an knitted blue afghan, shuffled through the newspaper sections and pushed a few buttons on the remote.
I sat up. “You sure I can’t help you find anything Grandpa?”
He stopped and looked at me. “What?” he asked.
“WHAT ARE YOU LOOKING FOR?” I yelled over the T.V.
“Ohhh….ohhh it’s just this thing.” He made a circle with his hands, “It’s…well. It’s a thing I use. You know I mean.
I shook my head sadly.
“Well yes you do! And well….I can’t explain it. I’m just going to have to keep looking. I’m sorry.” He left the room again and I laid back down, mentally check marking all the things he normally loses. Glasses. Remote. Keys. Shoes. Jacket. Hat. Really, not much different than the average person. I stood, collected all the usual missing items and found him in the bedroom. “These?” I asked, hopefully. He studied each one, then shook his head.
“No. I’m sorry.”
“It’s okay. You keep looking and I’m going to check on the garage door.” I thought I had heard my mom and dad arrive.
He followed me outside, stopping to look at the trash can on the way. “Maybe you can get them?” He asked.
“Anything you want. What is it you’d like me get?” I replied.
“They are like this.” He made a circle with his hands again and looked at me through the hole.
“What else are they like?” I asked, looking for more information, anything really.
“Well if you don’t know, than I can’t help you.” he said curtly. Without stopping, he looked under the car, hopped on his bike and rode out the back door. Guess he was going on a bike ride.
An hour later, two garage doors unstuck by mom, 2 cups of noodles cooked, and 24 years of reminiscing about the pies, back rubs, arguments, rough housing, muddy footprints and laughing that took place in the kitchen, my Grandpa came home. He seemed surprised to see me, though his short term memory has been worse than that of a goldfish lately.
“Hey Grandpa, dinner is ready.”
“I got em!” he held out a box of cigars, sweat on his forehead.
“Oh! God! Did you ride all that way to the cigar shop?!” I was startled. It wasn’t too far but there was a hill involved and he gets tired pretty easily. “I could have driven you grandpa!”
“Well I asked you. But you didn’t know what I was talking about!” He made a face and scrunched his nose as he carried his plate out to the family room. The room where I learned to do a somersault. Where the family met my sister’s fiance. Where we’ve passed around countless cups of Bourbon Slush. Where my grandpa feels normal because there’s no one there to make him feel strange.