Dancing in the Streets

Last Winter (2011)

“I’m a really great dancer.” Grandpa said, rubbing his nose.  “They have dancing at uhh that place down the road that I like to ride my bike to.”

“Hithergreen?” I asked, already knowing the answer.

“Yep.”  He settled back, adjusting his hat.

“Well let’s go sometime Grandpa!” I smiled.  “I’d like to see these famous moves you’re always talking about.”  I did a few disco finger points and laughed.

“Well…I can do this one.” He was up out his chair, shuffling around in his socks.

I leaned against the counter, laughing.  It looked more like he was forming bumble bee mating patterns on the kitchen floor than dancing a waltz.

“You do a one-two.  A one-two.” He directed me, moving his socks along the floor, one toe peeking through a hole.

I clapped a bit as he did a turn, catching his balance mid-way on the counter.

“And ohhh…what is this one called.” He threw his arms up and took a few deep, long steps with his head thrown back.  The moves of the senior citizen tango.

“The tango.” I laughed.  “There isn’t any music though!  You have to have dramatic music for the tango Grandpa!”

“Not when it’s in here.” He patted his chest where his pace maker was as he lunged off into the laundry room.

Bob would have loved being a part of this: Senior Citizen Flash Mob


Old Gardeners Never Die They Just Spade Away

Written in July, 2011:

“Do you like my pond?”

“Yea.  It’s a good one.  You dug it yourself didn’t you?” I asked him, squatting down near the edge.

“I did.  Do you like my rock?” He asked, pointing to a stone near the water.  On the front was carved the quote “Old gardeners never die, they just spade away.”  It’s funny because his last name is Spade.  It’s not funny because I never want to lose him.  His face became furrowed, as you could see him processing the quote on the level that made me quiet for so long.

I gave a half smile.  “It’s very clever.” I reassured him as I settled down in the chair he had carried out for me.

We sat staring for a minute as squirrels ran by and the water ran through the pond.

“I love you.” I told him softly and put my hand on his arm.

He laughed his nervous laugh and gave me a sideways glance.  “I love you too.” He said, and patted my hand.


The Great Grandpa Capers

There’s a scene in the Romantic Comedy “You’ve Got Mail” where Meg Ryan and Tom Hanks are trying to guess what the “152” stands for in a mystery man’s screen name.

 “Mr. 152 Felony indictments…152 insights into my soul…He’s a hundred and fifty-two years old…He’s had one hundred and fifty-two moles removed, so now he’s got one hundred fifty-two pock marks on his face…”

Their random guessing using such vague clues mirrors the way my mom and I guess at what my grandpa’s trying to say, do, eat.  What are his motives?  What is he thinking?  If he is carrying around a bottle of ranch dressing, what is he really thinking?  It’s white, it’s from the fridge.  He probably wants a glass of milk.  Sometimes our guesses are practical; food?  relocation?  water?  bathroom?  Sometimes they’re dramatic; Are you mad? In pain? Trying to tell me you hate me?  But more often than not, we find ourselves (and our wild imaginations) creating a story that helps us with how he is behaving.    Whether as an explanation or self medicating with laughter, our versions are interpretations of my grandpa – based on years of (grand)daughterhood.

And so, as a twist away from the norm (because what is really normal these days) I give you Bob’s thoughts on the events of Wednesday, October 25th as interpreted by my mother and myself.

“Shit.  That had to have woken the dead.  Annnnnnnnnnd there’s blood.”  The right side of Bob’s body felt like it was made of cast iron, hot and heavy, weighing down his right leg, his words, his vision, his thoughts.

“Bob?!  Are you okay?” Destiny’s voice was tiny, faraway, hiding underneath the pain of the fall.

“Yes.” Bob grumbled.

“Did you fall?” He could hear her pressed against his bedroom door.

“Leave me alone.” He thought, collecting himself from the floor and trying to wipe the blood from his arm.  “NO.” He hollered back.  He was not going to let her see this mess.

The stairs creaked as she headed back down.  Bob slid through the door and hurried to the bathroom, locking the latch behind him.  As the water ran over his cuts he imagined Destiny finding the blood covered bedroom.  “Served her right.” He thought,  “Served them all right.  Why won’t they just leave him be?”  Sometimes, if he thought hard enough, he remembered why they were there.  Sometimes he couldn’t.  His left hand rubbed his bald head, the very thing he was trying to remember impeading his ability to do just that.

After 35 minutes his clothes were button, zipped and belted.

“Bob, let me see where you cut yourself!” Destiny pleaded as he entered the hallway.

He waved her away. “I’m fine.  I’m fine.” he thought, and stumbled past her.  “What a mess.  Are you hungry?  Do you want a cigar?  Time for bed?  I’m 85 – not 5.” he grumbled under his breath.

He could hear her on the phone.  Probably calling that man in the suits that keeps trying to sell him things.  He always comes over and sits in the blue chair and talks about options and choices and care.  “I don’t want to buy any of that.” Bob thought to himself.  “Gosh.” He said aloud.

He stumbled past the ground floor bathroom, then paused.  The wood floor was creaking as Destiny came down the hallway.

“Oh Bo-” He cut her off, locking the bathroom door in her face.

“I’ll just shave while I’m waiting for her to forget that I’m in here.” He thought, scooping up his razor and a can of shaving cream.  He pressed on the lid of the can.  Nothing happened.


“She’s gonna break down my door!” He thought.  “One minute!” He called, looking down at the can in his hand.  “What’s this?” He thought, and rattled the silver tube near his ear, pressing on the lid.  White foam spilled onto the counter.

“Bob!  Please!  Are you okay?!” She was worried, he could tell.  But she should just leave him alone.  He was doing just fine.

The foam continued to spill.  On the mirror, the counter, the bathmat.  Filling the sink, coating the toilet.

“Bob!  I want to make sure you’re okay!  Please!” She called.

“Leave me alone!” He mumbled, spreading the white foam around.  He scratched his 5 o’clock shadow.  “I need to shave.” He thought, surveying the damage and spreading the cream with his fingertips.


“Yes?” He poked his head out of the door.

“Are you alright?” Destiny asked, examining the visible parts of his body as quickly as she could.

Bob slid through the door and stumbled down the hall, smiling to himself as he heard Destiny discovering the foam mess.

It would be another hour before Destiny was free from the foam fiasco to check on Bob.  She found him sitting silently in the family room, proudly smiling in his alone-ness.

*a few hours later*

Bob stretched his legs out on the couch, pleased with the water he had poured on the kitchen floor, that distracted Destiny for the remainder of her stay.  As he did, he noticed a man fiddling with the locks on the door leading to the garage.

Bob stumbled to the kitchen.  His daughter and the brunette caretaker, Heather, were chatting at the kitchen table.  “What is this man doing?” He tried to say, but his words blended together.  He pointed furiously at the door.

“Lunch?” Heather asked cheerily.

Bob shook his head and turned the kitchen door knob back and forth.

“We are having them all changed to the same key, dad.” His daughter said calmly, as though she were expecting this to happen for years.

“Why!?” He wanted to scream.  What were they doing to him?  Why won’t they just leave his house alone!?  Every day they are taking something out, putting something in.  People are always here.  Always coming and going and smiling and cooking and helping and cleaning.

He stood in the kitchen, watching the man change knobs and locks and keys from hand to hand until Heather took him out to the porch, and convinced him to have a cigar.  She was always trying to change his mind about this that or the other thing.  When she wasn’t looking he tried the knob.  It wouldn’t turn.  He hurried to the kitchen and tried the knob there.  It wouldn’t turn.  The red key-chain wasn’t hanging from the door anymore.  He was trapped.  His mind became a blur.  Heather was saying something about keeping him safe.  That he needed to wait for her to go anywhere.  That he was too sneaky.  Sneaky?  He just wanted to go on a walk.  Alone.  He tried to door again then sat fiercely on the couch, waiting for Heather to leave.

She was mopping in the small room outside near the washer and dryer.  He had just enough time to remove the screen from the window.  “Where was it I wanted to go?” He thought to himself as he pulled on the screen.  He couldn’t remember.  To buy cigars?  The grocery?  The screen came lose with ease.  His hands felt along the frame for sharp parts.  Not finding any, he began to lift himself into the window, just as Heather came around the corner.

“BOB!” She shouted.  “What are you doing!?”

He jumped, and hit his head on the window frame.  “I just have a bit farther.  And then I can get where I’m going.” He thought to himself, tightening his grip on the sill as Heather pulled on his waist.  “Where am I going?” He thought.  He clung to the brick, pieces falling under the pressure of his nails.  “The park?  The store?  To get a shave?” He thought, holding tighter.  She was saying things about coming down.  Trying to change his mind.  He couldn’t tell how long he’d been clinging there, but the next thing he knew, the man with all of the suits that tried to sell him things was helping Heather pull him down from the window.

“We need you to stay here.” He was saying, wrinkles around his eyes.  He was more friendly than the last time he saw him, but Bob knew he was nasty.  What sort of man would try to lock a grown man in his house and then try to sell him things.

Heather was soothing. “Now Bob, I don’t need you running off.  We like you here.  If you want to go somewhere, well I’ll just go with you!” She smiled.  She was always smiling.  It rarely helped but it was nice.

Bob pouted.  “I hate this.” He thought, crossing his leg and breaking eye contact with the man in the suit.  He found that if he looked away, his granddaughter or one of his children normally filled in the missing parts.  “When did they get so good at reading my mind?” He thought, staring out the window.

He drifted out, dreaming of snow and Labrador Retrievers and some sort of ginger bread cake.

“Grandpa….hey….hey it’s me.”

Mary was leaning over him with her hand on his arm, her brow furrowed.

“I heard you had a hard day.” She laughed, sitting on the edge of the cushion near his shoulder.

“Humph.” He grunted, coming out of the haze.

“I’m going to make you dinner now.” She said, as she always said when she came over.

Bob sat up and looked at his watch.  “Just about time for the 6 o’clock news.” He thought, as he watched Mary grab the remote and change the channel to PBS.  She was getting the hang of it.

“So…how about lamb.” She was saying, covering his toes with the blue afgan.

“Humph.” Bob replied again, scratching his head.  His eyes wandered over towards the window, where he had tried to escape earlier.

“No.” She said matter of factly.  “No windows, no shaving cream.  Nothing.  You’re staying right here.  Like it or not, we love you and you are going to stay right here and eat the lamb I make you and….and….like it!”

“When did she get so fierce?” Bob thought and turned toward her laughing.  “They were all starting to sound a lot like Nancy.  Bob this and Bob that.  Wipe your feet, wipe your mouth, close the door, sit down.”

She smiled.  “I’ll be in the kitchen cooking if you need me.”

He sat up and looked at his watch again, it was 6:15.

“I know.” She said, patting his arm, “I’ll be back in ten minutes.” She held 10 fingers up to his face, “TEN MINUTES and I’ll change the channel.”

“Good.”  He thought.  “I won’t need to cause any more distractions for the evening.”  He settled back on the couch and let the jumble of words from the TV set pour over his ears.  Words like “Dow, Afghanistan, Kardasian” rolled around his brain as he closed his eyes.  “Good.” He thought.


Last Pair of Shoes

Note: It becomes increasingly difficult to write about my grandpa as his condition worsens.  On the one hand, our conversations are limited to a few grunts and a couple painful games of charades, and on the other hand, I just don’t have the energy to come up with anything witty, heartfelt or worthwhile.  Over the last month my grandpa’s mobility has diminished, his words have faded and his thoughts have become as jumbled as the newspapers on his coffee table.  As a general rule, his condition is expected and we as a family are well prepared, understanding, and armed.  As individuals, however, we are weak, confused and hoping for more time.

I take pride in our resilience.  It can be found in my mom’s courage when my Grandpa yells, or in my aunt’s “nurse’s face” when she’s forced to help her father put on a clean pair of pants.  Dealing with these changes is hard, and preparing for the ultimate change, even harder.  I have an entertaining story up my sleeve somewhere.  It involves shaving cream, and window escapes.  But today, that’s not the one I feel like telling.

So this note, is just that.
Note: I am trying to deal.

Note: It is hard.  It is sad.

And Note: In case you want to avoid it, this isn’t one with shaving cream and window escapes.



Grandpa has taken to falling.  I joked with him, as I pulled the end table off his right arm and collected him out of the Christmas tree that he does it for the attention.  He laughed at me and climbed onto the couch.

“Please Grandpa.  Stay here.” I begged, holding his hands in my lap and forcing him to look me in the face.  I rubbed his chest, trying to slow his breathing.  “I’ll always help you up if you need.  Please, you have to let me help you.”

He looked at me sadly.  I new the fall had to have hurt, though maybe more his pride than anything else.


The next day he seemed agitated by my presence.  I assumed he was embarrassed, but we haven’t had the conversation directly.  He waved me off when I tried to help him from the couch, ignored the lunch I placed in front of him and continually tried to leave whichever room I was in.

He wandered into the kitchen away from me and I let him open the front door, but stopped him as he ran into the screen.

“If you want to go outside Grandpa, we have to put on some shoes.”

He stared at me blankly and ran once more into the screen door, reminding me of those strange birds that continually fly at their reflections in the window.  I picked up a shoe and waved it in his face.

“Shoes!” I shouted.

He pulled out a chair and sat down.

I crouched down on the floor and shoved his left foot into a shoe.  The right foot, the side that is effected most by the tumor, was more difficult.  He handed me a shoe horn.  I looked at it, turning it over in my hands carefully but couldn’t figure out how it worked.  Grumbling, he put it back on the table and we squeezed his foot into his shoe the old fashioned way.  After I wrapped him in a coat, tied a scarf around his neck and found a hat, we tackled the step.

It’s just one step, but it’s a big one.  Brick and menacing.  It might as well be a cliff the way it hangs outside his front door and prevents anyone  who is walking impaired from proceeding.  After a waltz of teetering and pausing, shifting and supporting, guiding and finally stepping, we were on the driveway.  Once outside he scooted along quickly, leaning heavily on my arm and dragging his right foot.

“It’s beautiful outside, isn’t it?” I breathed deeply.  “Fall smells like leaves, doesn’t it?”

He stopped, looked down at me and shook his head.  “I guess we aren’t talking.” I mumbled.

We continued about three houses down in silence.  Me grimacing beneath his 6 foot frame, Grandpa hobbling like a witch in a fairy tale and ignoring my attempts at conversation.  On the third house he stopped, using my arm as a tether, he turned like a horse in a pony ride until he was facing back towards home.

After this hour and a half ordeal, I sighed as a slumped down in the chair across from him, preparing to reverse the shoes, coat, scarf and hat.  He shook his head and began to stand.  Before he could fall, once again, into the Christmas tree I grabbed his elbow, gripping tighter as he tried to shake me off.

“Grandpa.” I said, determined to keep my hold.

“Nonono.” He shook my arm.

“Bob.  STOP THAT.” I stared into his face.

He looked down at me.

“Grandpa.” I was quieter now.  “You have to let me help you.  Please.”

He sat back down, looking away from me in defiance.

I don’t know what came over me.  I wasn’t annoyed, or agitated with his behavior, but wasn’t going to settle for it.
“Get up.” I demanded. “We aren’t doing this.”  I took hold of his arm and helped him off the couch.  It’s the worst kind of couch for someone who has difficulty standing.  When you sit in it, you sink into it like water, the leather cushions sliding against each other until you end up awkwardly squeezed into a crack between two of them.

After a bit of a struggle, I guided him down the hall to the porch.  Flipping on the space heater, I settled him into a chair.  He looked at me, pouting, as I rifled through his box of tapes.

“Now, I know it’s hard.” I told him, “But you’re just going to have enjoy yourself today.”

I pulled out a tape labeled “Jazz #52”.  For as long as I can remember, my grandpa has been taping music from the radio and those free music stations on T.V.  I slid it into the tape deck and reverted back to 7th grade as I figured out how to rewind an audio cassette.

Finally, the saxophone began to echo off the walls, as high as the volume would allow, rattling the windows and vibrating under my feet.  My grandpa mistakenly threw me a lopsided smile, forgetting for a brief second that he was trying to make me leave.

“There.” I thought.  “Bliss.”

Not tempting fate, I returned a quick smile and turned away, the closest thing to privacy I was going to allow on this particularly wobbly day.
We sat like that for awhile.  He rocked in the wicker chair and I stared out the window at the leaves blowing around the yard, thinking.

I found my mind wandering back to a couple of years ago when I taught a session to a group of 5th graders who were dealing with a death of a classmate.  As part of the therapy, we watched a clip from Mr. Magorium’s Wonder Emporium, a movie about an eccentric toy store owner who has decided it is his time to pass.  “I’m leaving.” Mr. Magorium says to his accountant.  “The store?” His accountant asks.  “The world.” Mr. Magorium replies and then continues, matter of factly, “You see these shoes?  I found these in a tiny little shop in Tuscany and fell in love with them so entirely I bought enough to last my *whole life*….These are my last pair.”  The kids responded well to the clip, gathering insight from each other about what Mr. Magorium meant about his last pair of shoes.  They began to share their personal stories.  They sat together, hugged one another, and cried over their loss, finding comfort in this story of a fictional man, just barely tangent to their own lives.  (A very poor YouTube video of this clip can be found here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OKj7i7RprqQ )

The sun was beating through the window, warming my arms.  It’s a wonder, I thought to myself, the things that help us understand.  Our lives are littered with personal examples of beauty and truth, but we continually turn to these outside sources to make sense of them all.  And I’ve noticed that we humans particularly like to use texts to verbalize what our hearts can’t turn to words.  Christians turn to scripture when they need guidance.  Teenagers turn to lyrics when they are heartbroken.  Recently single moms turn to the Oprah Winfrey book list (or the nutritional facts on a bottle of wine) when they need hope.  The words of someone else always find a way to say it right.

A quiet melody brought me back to reality, barely audible over the blare of the jazz tape.  I turned and smiled, with tears and with acceptance.  The words of someone else making sense of what I saw.

It was quiet, but it was in tune.  My grandpa sat, humming along to the sounds of Coltrane with his eyes closed, happily tapping his last pair of shoes on the floor.

My Stocks Are Going Up

“Soooo uhhh….” he laughed a bit, as he always does when he feels uncomfortable.

“Soooooo.” I mimicked, “Soooooo I started my new job today.”

“Oooooh.” He replied, the end of his response going up an octave in unison with his eyebrows.  “What…uh…what is it that you are….that is happening?”

“Well, I’m teaching!” I summed up to keep it simple.

“Are your stocks up?” He asked.

“Well….” I pondered the question, looking for a translation.  When I couldn’t think of one, I decided to interpret it as though he were just being poetic.  “Well I suppose I would say yes.  I’m much more stable than I was before and my future is looking positive.  I’d invest in me.”

He laughed as I broke into a smile.

“Were they good kids?” He asked standing and bumping his head on the chandelier.  As the tumor grows and the dementia progresses Grandpa has started losing certain functions like speech, spatial reasoning, and his shoes.  He’s been stumbling around like a drunkard, bumping into the door frames and tripping over his untied shoelaces.  Heather also caught him eating Noxema, though I can’t say I blame him.  It really looks like whipped dream heaven in a cute little single-serving blue jar.

“Sure…the kids are pretty good.” I was making my first attempt at breading a porkchop.  I knew it involved rubbing the meat in butter and could only assume the next step was lathering on the bread crumbs.

“Are you making it?” He asked sincerely. “The…the stuff.”  He reached into his pocket and pulled out his wallet.

Laughing I told him that yes, I was making money.

“It’s a big kid job.” He determined.

“Yep!” I was pleased, “My first big kid job.”

“Well, at least you got the chance to take a chance.” He concluded.

“HaHa!  I’ll say!” I patted him on the back.  “Now what do you think?” I dangled my sadly breaded pork chop in the air for his approval.

“Ohhhhh WOW!” He drooled, eyes soaking in the vision of my soggy bread job.  He is always so flattering.  You’d think I was Bobby Flay.

He watched as I shoved the pork chop into the oven to bake.  “Whatchoo getchoo whatchoo whatchoo eh?” He said, peering over my shoulder.

“HaHa.  Pardon?” I turned to look at him.

“Where’s the pairway?” He asked leaning back on the counter.

“Ummm…” I paused, “Yea…I don’t know what you mean.”

“The pairway.”

“In Springfield?  That’s where the school is.”

“No.” He gave me an exasperated sigh and careened violently off into the darkness like a drunken sailor, only to reappear again in a few minutes with the remote control.  “The PAIRWAY.” He put it on the counter.

Laughing I glanced at the clock.  Time for the News.

Back in the family room, as I snuggled into the side chair and watched Grandpa awkwardly arrange himself behind his TV tray, he ordered me to “raise the controls”.

“You want to volume up?” I asked.

“What?” He asked me, as though I were the one speaking in my own version of pig latin.

“The VOLUME!” I said distinctly, “Do you want it LOUDER!”

“Oh this is what you mean!” He stood and went to the TV, adjusting the volume manually with ease.  He gave me a curt nod, pleased with his display of manliness in my time of need, then lopped back down behind his TV tray.

“Sure.  Good.  Thank you so much!” I nodded my approval.

“Bob Saget.” He replied, throwing his hat onto the coffee table and tucking the pairway into his shirt pocket.



My Grandpa threw down a puzzle piece he had been trying to connect for 5 minutes and looked up at his new TV set.  The news blared at a volume level of 49, “Thousands of Apple Employees gathered today at 1 Infinite Loop, the Apple Headquarters, to honor the former Apple CEO, Steve Jobs who passed away 2 weeks ago….”

My Grandpa looked over at me, “Well that doesn’t make sense.” He said matter of factly.

“What doesn’t?” I asked.

He scratched his head and turned back to the TV.  “A CEO of Apples.  Does he eat…own…all of them?  Or just…just…one flavor?”

Old Dogs, New Tricks

I was running late and my Grandpa hadn’t answered the phone any of the 14 times that I had called.  This either meant he was out, asleep, critically injured, or completely ignoring the phone ringing.  The last time I was late he had attempted to bake a pork chop and ended up setting the oven to the cleaning cycle.  I scrambled for my keys and burst into the kitchen.

Nothing burned.  Nothing broken.  Nothing missing.  No pork chops.

I rounded the corner to the living room and found him snug in his “dinner chair”, the TV tray pulled up in front of him.  I sighed as I patted him on the shoulder.

“Hey.” I smiled with relief.

“Oh hey!  Good.  Good, good, good.  You can do this.” He stood up, putting down what appeared to be a bowl of Granny Smith apples covered in chocolate sauce.  Apparently he had constructed his own dinner, thankfully without burning the house down. He patted my back, probably leaving a good brown smudge between my shoulder blades.

I wiggled around, trying to check my shirt. “You want me to change the channel to the news?” I asked, not wanting to make him go through the charade of telling me what he needed.

“Yes.”  He nodded curtly.

I looked for the remote control on the coffee table and under the newspaper.  Not finding it, I used the buttons on the front of the TV, pounding down until I got to PBS. “There!” Is said, as I turned back around to face him.

“How did you do that?” He asked.  He knelt down at eye level with the buttons on the TV and ran his finger over them gently.

“You want me to make you something good?” I asked, gesturing at the chocolately mess on the TV tray, and attempting to change the subject.  Re-teaching my grandpa how to work the T.V. has been a never ending battle as of late.  As the saying goes, you can’t teach an old dog his old tricks.  Or something like that.

He nodded, looking sadly at his unbalanced meal.

“How about I put some milk in this for you?” I laughed, holding up a glass of chocolate sauce.

“I don’t like that stuff.” He said defiantly.

“I’m sure you don’t!  That’s because you’re supposed to put milk in it Grandpa.  You’re just drinking chocolate sauce.  And it’s sugar FREE chocolate sauce, which is even worse.”  I crinkled my nose and he laughed in agreement.

I shook my head at the full glass of brown sludge and headed back to the kitchen, noticing the chocolate fingerprint trail along the way.  After wiping off the handles of the fridge, I looked inside and rustled around the Tupperware containers of salad, potatoes, soup.

Grandpa’s head popped over my left shoulder, eyes wide with anticipation.

“What are we making?  Hmmmmm?”

I jumped back surprised.  “HaHa!  You scared me Grandpa!” I laughed, slapping his arm and turning back to the fridge, “I don’t know yet.  Probably meat, and a vegetable.  That sound good?…Grandpa?  What kind of vegetable—”  I looked back.  He was already gone.  Laughing quietly to myself, I pulled out some steak, a “Just For One” packet of corn, and the fixings for some salad.

“Excuse me.” He was back.

“Yea?” I said, not looking up.

“Well…I can’t make this thing cooperate.  It won’t…cooperate.  How do you cooperate it?”

I glanced the hunk of black and white plastic my Grandpa was waving around in the air and squinted.  “What IS that Grandpa?”

“It’s for the living room.  I use it to cooperate.  Can you help me?”  He sounded sad, having to admit defeat.

“Yea…sure.”  I took it from him and immediately started laughing.  “Oh my god, Grandpa!  What did you do to it?!” I was holding the remote control to his TV, which looked as though it had been used to stir a pot of mashed potatoes and then was sprinkled with bread crumbs for good measure.  I can only assume he had intended bake it on the oven cleaning setting for dinner if I hadn’t showed up.

“I used it.” He said matter of factly.

“Clearly,” I mumbled, “But for what?”

Using the tips of my finger, so as to try for only minimal contact with the strange white crusty stuff on his remote, I adjusted the volume.

“I’M GOING TO CLEAN THIS!” I shouted over the TV, wiggling the dirty side in front of his face.

“Well, ok.” He replied, leaning around me to catch the report of the Dow.

I hate to report that the remote was a tough fix.  I always wondered why it cost so much to rent the remotes and cable boxes, but if all Grandpas make a practice of sticking their channel changing devices into vats of mashed potatoes, it all makes sense now.  I scrubbed it clean the best I could, trying to shake the water out from under the buttons and crossing my fingers that it wouldn’t ruin the controls.

“Can you show me how you…how you…that thing…” He was back behind my shoulder, pointing down at the remote in the drying rack.

I glanced behind me at the steak on the stove.  It had a few more minutes.  “Sure, come on!” I sighed.

I sat him down in front of the TV.  “You like this channel.” I pointed at the 1 and the 6 on the remote. “SIXTEEN!” I said loudly, moving my finger over the buttons.  “ONE – SIX!”

“Sixteen…” he mumbled, running his fingers over the keypad.  He sat up, “Good!  I think…”

I headed back to the kitchen, flipping the slightly over seared steak and popping the veggies in the microwave.

“Can you…I’m sorry…can you help again?” He was back in the doorway.

“Sure…whatcha need Grandpa?” I turned slightly as I was putting plates into the dishwasher.  He was silent.

Turning around, I saw the remote in his hands, held out like an offering to me.

I took him back in the living room, bringing along his bowl of salad with extra ranch dressing.  “ONE – SIX.” I said twice.  “ONE — SIX!”

He repeated after me a few times then asked, “And what comes next?”

“SEVEN.” I said.

“Seven?” He asked, pointing at the 3 on the remote.

“No SEVEN.” I pointed back at the 7.

“I’m sorry, I just don’t think I’m understanding.” He shook his head.

“Here,” I said, grabbing a notepad. I scribbled PBS 1 – 6 and CNN 7 on the front of the page in block letters.  “Use this.  Match the picture to the remote.”  He looked at the picture and found a 1 and a 6 on his remote.

“Good!” I patted him on the back.  “If you need anything, just come get me.”

I hurried into the kitchen, already smelling the burnt edges of the steak.  As I tried to salvage his dinner, cutting off the burned fat and removing the chunks of bone to help him navigate the meat, he appeared in the doorway again.

“You okay Grandpa?” I asked, glancing at the clock.  It wasn’t quite 6:30 yet, so he couldn’t need the channel changed again.

He nodded, and slipped into the chair at the table.

“Do you want to eat here?  At the table?” I asked.

“No…no.” He shook his head and repeated the word a few times, probably searching for any others.

“What can I help you with?” I sat down along side of him, his dinner in my hand.

“Is that for me?” He asked, pointing at the plate.

“Yep!” I replied, “And this too!” I held up the big glass of chocolate milk.

“Well thanks!” He took the plate from me, “Would you mind staying?” He added.

“Sure.  How long do you want me to stay?  I don’t have any plans.  I can stay as long as you want.”  That was a lie, but my friends would understand.

“Not long.  I like to be alone.  I like to be alone probably soon.  Just remain long enough to change the thing I watch.”  He disappeared into the living room, and I followed after, laughing.  I’m his channel changing slave I guess.

He settled down into his chair, tripping on his shoe laces and placing his food shakily on his tray.  “Oh here!”

“Whatcha got Grandpa?” I asked, leaning forward.

“I still can’t make this work.” He reached over to the side table next to the couch, collected his things and turned back toward me.  In his out stretched hand was his bowl of salad, the remote stuck snuggly in the middle of the extra ranch dressing.

The room where…

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.

Cur, Cur, Cur – I said Cur is the Word.

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.”

The Circus Came to Town

I opened the door slowly and stumbled into the kitchen, juggling my laptop, a change of clothes and my purse.

“Well hello!” my grandpa said, greeting me cheerfully.  This was a pleasant change from the last time I saw him when he had decided he was going to “lay me off”.  Apparently his personal aide, Heather, is so wonderful, he doesn’t need granddaughters anymore.  “The circus came to town today!” he chimed with a grin.

“It did?!” I asked, surprised.  “Did you go to the circus or did it come here?”  I tried to evaluate the situation and looked around for any sign of visitors. Nothing stood out.  Damn Heather and her amazing cleaning abilities.  I swear, she’s like a tiny, little Martha Stewart, minus the federal offenses and hardened exterior from jail time.

“Well it came here of course.” He laughed at my blatant silliness.  I should have guessed, since almost every day is a circus at grandpa’s.  He started to push me out of the kitchen.  “Lets go see!  There’s a new alligator in the back room.”

I followed him down the hall to the scene of last week’s toilet disaster, prepared to find a similar scene but hoping for Siegfried and Roy.  Instead I found a shiny new white throne.

“Look at THAT.” He smiled proudly and gave his hands a small clap.  “It’s better than the old one.  Remember when you broke it?”

I blinked, surprised at the surfacing of a memory.  As the story goes, my sister had been giving me a piggy back ride around the house and when she threw me off her back onto the toilet seat in exhaustion, my head flew back and cracked the rim of the tank.  My skull was fine but the toilet suffered some physical damage.  There were tears and lectures and threats of a life-time’s worth of allowance being saved to buy my grandma a new toilet.  In the end, some super glue and a sincere and tearful apology was the peace treaty.

I laughed out loud at the memory.  “Yea, it’s all in one piece!  I promise I won’t break it!”  I admired his new fixture.

“Look how long it is!” He pointed to the oval shaped bowl which was much larger than his old pink toilet, and less reminiscent of the poor tastes and tacky drug habits of 1980.

“Yea.  It’s a bit bigger, huh?” I patted his back, “I’ll bet it’s because people are larger now.”

“They’re what?” He widened his eyes and put his hand to his ear to signify he hadn’t understood.

“People are…well they’re bigger!” I said a bit louder, holding my arms out and puffing my cheeks.

“Yea.  I see fat people everywhere.” He agreed, then patted his belly in concern.  As though on cue, he wandered back to the kitchen.  A toilet for “fat” people only means one thing in my grandpa’s mind; he can eat more cookies.

“Oh look!” I exclaimed as we came across the shining tiled floor, “A new dishwasher!”  I don’t know how I missed it on my first examination, but there it stood.  My fingers wiggled in anticipation after a month of pruney hands and smelly, crusty dishes being left on the counter.

“Where?” Grandpa asked, wandering further into the kitchen.

“Over there!” I pointed into the far corner of the kitchen where the beautiful piece of machinery winked in the sunlight.

He wandered in the direction I was pointing, examining the microwave, the cabinets, checking the breadbox, the dish towels.

I giggled.  “The DISHWASHER, Grandpa.” I said, enunciating each syllable.

“Well we don’t HAVE a dishwasher.” He exclaimed, remembering somewhere deep down that his had been removed.

I pointed down towards the machine, two inches from his belt.  “Right here!”

He looked down and backed up in surprised.  “Well I’ll BE!”  He bent over at the waist and pushed a few buttons, making the numbers blink on the panel.  “I’ve NEVER seen this before.  The circus must have brought this!  I was here but you know, I let that boy handle everything.  I don’t care too much for circus folk.”  He stood up matter of factly.  “Well.  Good for us!”

I laughed.  “What shall we do now?”

“I think….” He twisted his mouth to the side and tapped his finger on his bottom lip.  “Well I think we should take a nap.”  With a quick nod of his head he went straight back towards the welcoming arms of his large leather couch, exhausted from all the circus ruckus and technological discoveries of the day.