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.

A New Invention

“You have got to see this” Grandpa said, as I came through the front door, “It’s just the strangest thing!  I’ve never seen anything like it!”

I let him lead me past the kitchen, through the laundry room and into the hall bathroom.  “Look.” He said eyes bugging from his skull.  I followed his out stretched hand, my eyes landing on the reassembled pink toilet.  “You see this new…this new invention?”

“Uh huh.”  I looked at the toilet.  Then looked at Grandpa.

“Aaaaand…” he drew out the word, possibly attempting to create suspense, “Watch.”  His fingers grasped the silver handle and pulled down, his pinky lingering as his eyes widened in anticipation.  The water swirled as the flushing sound was drowned out by my grandpa’s exclamation of glee.

It’s truly hard to tell if he was pleased by the mysterious repair of his toilet or if he really thought it was a new invention but one thing’s for sure – as long as there is a toilet around, my Grandpa will be one happy son of a gun.

Grandpa Magoo

“I think you underestimate my sneakiness. I am very very sneaky.”
– Mr. Deeds

My grandpa has always been a smart man.  He made a stable living, supported four kids and a wife, invested his savings into promising stocks (like “apples” – i.e. Apple), bought reliable cars, always paid for warranties, and insured every inch of his life.  But Grandpa has never really been known as particularly cunning; never been considered a think tank.

Case in point: Once when my sister and I were very young, we pulled into the driveway with my Grandpa, covered in mud from head to toe, towing a brand new black Labrador in the back of the van.  My grandpa had found the dog lounging on the side of the road and promptly decided to save the poor stray.

“Where did you get the dog?” my Grandma demanded, her skinny hands grasping her hips.

“It was lost!” He replied proudly.  “We saved it!” I shook my head, ensuring my Grandma knew I had absolutely nothing to do with this.

“Well it has a collar.” Grandma discovered, relieved.  “I’m calling the owner.”

Just twenty minutes later, our new dog’s, old owner came rolling into the drive.  “Where did you find him?” The stout lady asked, gratefulness and cleavage overflowing from above her neckline.

“Well it’s funny,” Grandpa told her, “Right along the edge of Hollybrooke Drive, near the curve.  He was just playing in the grass.  Good thing I drove by when I did!”

The lady blinked.  My Grandma covered her mouth to hide a smile.

“That’s my front yard.” The woman told my grandpa, closing the door of her truck with force.  “You took him.  You took him from my front yard.”

We watched her bob down the hill, hiding our giggles in the sleeves of our muddy jumpers.

“Baab…” my Grandma laughed, “You’re so DENSE!”  She smacked his back lovingly, as the stout little lady returned home with her stolen property.

And that’s what we have always expected from my Grandpa.  A loving, caring, dense old man who was sure to show you a good time, but who you could never count on to find his way home.  He tipped every canoe he paddled, he drove 40 mph in a 40 kmph zone and could barely contain his shock when we told him he drives like an old man.  He lets 3 year olds bait a fishing hook, gives chewing gum to kindergarteners, and has been known for tracking mud across every clean white floor in the tri-state area.  As I said before, he has always been smart in a prepared and pleasant to be around kind of way, but reason, sensibility and planning have been left on the back burner for quite some time.

Until now.

Weeks ago, my mom made the decision to take my Grandpa’s car keys.  As could be expected, all hell broke loose.  He threw every weapon in his artillery at mom; anger, yelling, silent treatment, pouting, arguing, reasoning, and even the occasional blackmailing.

And then Thursday night, my Grandpa calls my mom breaking weeks of the silent treatment.

“I can’t find the deeds.” Came through the other end of the line.

“The deeds?” my mom asked.

“Yes.  Can you please come help me?”

My Grandpa was pacing the kitchen by the time my mom arrived.  He had emptied out every basket, cabinet, and bread box, looking for something.
My mom evaluated the situation.  “Do you mean your keys?”  She asked, worried she would have to remind him he is no longer allowed to drive.  It’s a never ending battle we choose to avoid whenever possible.

“No!” He shook his head furiously, “What I’m looking for…what it is…well I use them at the cur!”  He exclaimed, making up words or possibly borrowing them from a German dictionary, “You take them and put them in and other people use them.  Sometimes he writes on them.”  His ability to be completely and utterly vague is really astonishing.

My mom carefully watched him draw across the air when his words failed him.  “Your checks, Dad?” She held out the check book we had taken from the bread box earlier that week.

His shoulders relaxed and he slumped down in his chair.  A wave of relief passed through his eyes.  “Oh thank you!  Thank you so much!  There it is!”  He hugged my mom and sighed, exhausted from worry.

Pleased, my mom returned home.  “We can let him keep his check book if it helps.” She told me later, “What can it hurt?  If something goes wrong, we can just cancel it or something.”  What could go wrong indeed.

The next morning, my mom arrived at her usual time to put my Grandpa’s Exelon patch on.  “I’m hereeeeee.” She called into the quiet house.
There was rustling coming from the pink hall bathroom.  She followed the sound and found my Grandpa in a war zone of pumps and chains and levers.  The entire contents of the toilet were spread out over the counter tops and throw rug.

“DAD!” She exclaimed, “What did you do?”

“It’s funny,” he replied, “I’m not sure what’s wrong with it.”

“It’s disassembled.”  She thought to herself, “THAT’S what’s wrong with it.  You took it apart.”  But she stayed quiet.  After all, at least he was holding a some-what reasonable conversation with her that didn’t involve the return of “his engines”.

“Ok,” she said after some thought, “I’ll have Jim come by and see if he can fix it.”

“Who?” he asked, turning around hopefully.

“Your son.  Jim.”

“Oh…ok.”  He wandered from the bathroom and flipped on the television, acting casual.  My mom surveyed the damage.  The bathroom looked as though someone was attempting to construct a bomb.  The scene was odd, and his behavior even more so, bordering on suspicious even.  But how do you judge what is abnormal when dinner conversation normally includes a discussion about “the sisters he met while transferring down the train tracks after lunch”?

Now whether or not these preceding events were connected to what followed just an hour later, we will never know.  With hindsight being 20/20, there are some of us who think he used the toilet as a distraction, to confuse his enemy like a suicide bomber.  Sometimes you have to sacrifice an asset for the good of the cause.  Others think he was plotting his next move since the recovery of his check book and renewal of monetary power.  And then of course it’s also quite possible that he just randomly took a shot in the dark and landed on a truly genius idea.
However much preparation went into his plan of attack, there is no one that can deny the sneakiness.  It was the D-Day of this war.  He snuck up on us from the water when we were looking the other way, at the disassembled toilet.

Heather, my Grandpa’s new home health care professional, was the first line of defense for “Team Family”.  She arrived an hour after my mom left and found my Grandpa in the driveway with a serviceman from AAA.  The gentleman was elbow deep in the guts of my Grandpa’s car, attempting to hotwire the vehicle for the nice man who so unfortunately “lost his keys”.  If I have ever doubted the security or benefits of being a Triple A member, I doubt it no longer.  They really will do just about anything to get you moving again, save buying you a whole new car.
No one spoke for a minute.  Grandpa kicked the doorstep, knowing he was in trouble.  The Triple A serviceman continued to work.

Heather broke the silence.  “You can’t do this.  You’re not allowed to drive!”  She dialed her boss, who promptly arrived, just as my Grandpa, frustrated that his plan had been foiled and “the fruit” had showed back up at his house, took off on his bike.

“Follow him.” Heather’s boss directed.  “See where he goes.”

Grandpa wobbled along on his bike, darting across streets, diving in front of traffic and whipping around corners (helmet not included) all the way to the Senior Center to play bridge.   Somehow, just like Mr. Magoo, he somehow made it alive and unharmed, most likely leaving wreckage, chaos and carnage behind him.

Luckily we know a guy, who knows a guy, who works at Triple A and said that this would never happen again and quite honestly told us that it probably should never have happened in the first place.
The moral of this story?  Taking the keys from a senior citizen isn’t enough.  They can’t be fooled.  Even if they regularly steal dogs from people’s front yards, watch the news 3 times in a row and keep their personal belongings in the bread box.  Those old people, they are a different kind of smart than us.  Street smart.  Must be because they never had Google.

Sugar and Spice and Puppy Dog Tails

Ensuring that my grandpa receives adequate nutrition slash doesn’t die from food poisoning is almost exactly like trying to tempt the palette of a dog.  He will eat just about anything that he finds lying around, but he most certainly does not have any interest in what you have planned for him to consume.  He is a huge fan of meat, as any true man is, though he has a habit of buying 4 lamb chops, 2 ribeyes, and some veal all at the same time, and all (of course) within 2 days of expiration.  Now, I’m not positive if ya’ll are good at math but I’m sure you can imagine the meat to meal number ratio that is created when you leave Grandpa to his own devices while at the grocery.  You’d think he was actually shopping for a pack of rabid dogs, not a single old man with the appetite of a sparrow.

Now, critics may say that I should just freeze the excess.
And I have.
However, I have learned my lesson.  Because while rummaging through the freezer looking for either ice cream, or his keys, my grandpa has come across my secretly stashed frozen meat, each and every time.  And though just barely, he does in fact know that this was not where he had originally put his prized purchase.  In an attempt to right the wrong that I have created, the chops, steaks etc end up reassigned to the counter, the silverware drawer or the ever-surprising dumping ground that is the bread box.

Carbs are a whole ‘nother can of worms (though canned goods themselves, on the other hand, are like Pandora’s box).  Somewhere deep in the recesses of grandpa’s mind, underneath the cobwebs, and his wife’s name, wedged carefully next to his anger at my mother for taking his keys, is the lecture given to every newly diagnosed diabetic.  “Limit carbohydrates, sugars, everything delicious.  If you want it, it probably isn’t good for you.  If you eat it, you will die.”  Of course, when confronted with the oh-so-tempting, Gramps always reaches for the serving spoon, but something more often than not nags him into obedience.  Maybe it’s my grandma’s voice, still echoing in annoyance, “Baaaaaaaaab” as he scuffs his dirty shoes over the clean white floor to reach his hidden stash of cookies.  Or maybe it’s his own realization that eating too much of the stuff doesn’t make him feel so hot, but time after time, those carefully portioned carbs end up a wasted course.

“I don’t like that stuff.” He’ll say, eyeing a bowl of spaghetti.
He pokes at rice, pushes around his baked potato and scrapes his cheesey noodles into the trash when you’re not looking.  But, without fail, he will buy carton after carton of pre-mashed potatoes, and sneak off to the kitchen to make a giant bowl of ice cream when you are otherwise occupied.  It’s a mystery of his mind that may never be solved but will forever taunt us from his chocolate stained lips and his glucose meter readings.

And then there is the meal location.  Location, location, location.  As of late, lunch has been on his own; Ziploc container filled with leftovers, a sandwich wrapped in clear plastic wrap, a salad with too much dressing and soggy leaves, all with a note plastered to the front reading “LUNCH” with subsequent heating/eating directions.

But the real challenge comes at suppa-time.  As it goes, approximately every Monday, and third Tuesday he is too mad at my mom for taking his keys to walk the block and a half to her house for dinner.  The rest of the time, he’ll walk the walk, but he most certainly will not talk the talk.  Or talk any sort of talk for that matter, unless it has to do with returning his keys/freedom/fatherly dominance over the oldest, but softest daughter in the bunch.  As you can imagine, this silent treatment makes for a solemn, short affair as far as dinners goes.
The other days of the week, dinner duty falls on me.  When I can, I try to cook the usual, and coax him away from the 6/6:30/7 o’clock news long enough to eat dinner at the kitchen table.  If that is impossible, as it almost always is, I at least lead him with a glass of sugar free chocolate milk to a TV tray.

Now, lets go back to that Pandora’s box of cans.  There is this cabinet in the corner of the kitchen that, quite frankly, I believe my Grandpa has dubbed his endless pit of things he might need one day.  Inside are trash bags, Swifers, wood polish, carpet cleaner, old grocery sacks, water jugs, and canned goods.

And there in that last item, lies the problem.

The canned goods with their expirations dating all the way back to 2003.  It’s a regular schmorgasboard inside those wooden doors.  Templton the rat would have a field day.  I’m talking spaghetti sauce, tuna, stuffing mix, cranberries, peeled potatoes, green beans, Hungry Man, and anchovies.  You name it, he’s storing it.  Until the apocalypse?  Armagedon?  Saturday?  There’s no telling.  I have slowly, but surely, started throwing things away.  One by one, sometimes taking a few home with me to toss in my own bin.  But whether my Grandpa notices that the trash is feeling awfully heavy or he really does keep tabs on his expired non-perishables, 9 times out of 10 those sticky, previously trashed cans end up in the cupboard again.  If he was a sucker for starving children I would pretend like we were donating them to a youth center or homeless shelter, but my Grandpa’s charitable contributions normally go to park preservation and schools, so we’re out of luck.  Suggestions welcome.

If the cabinet is Pandora’s box, the old icebox is more like Where’s Waldo after a hit of LSD.  Now, aside from the Listerine, salt shakers, Idaho spuds, tooth brushes and 16 bags of carrots that you will find inside (see “Kitchen Finds” post), it’s a pretty normal fridge.  The door handles get sticky like only the personal refrigerator of my grandpa or a tubby little 3 year old might, but otherwise, it’s doing alright.  It’s what you don’t find inside that will screw with your mind.  The butter is often half melted on the countertop, the milk (poured from the jug into a separate pitcher) found curdled on top of the fridge, ice trays in the cupboard (water still inside), petrified mixed greens in the bread box, wrinkled grapes in the oven and mustard under the sink, snuggled next to the Drain-o MAX and other toxic cleaners.  It’s a fight to the finish to keep things where they belong.  Unfortunately the mustard doesn’t have a habit of wearing red and white striped sweaters and ski caps.  That would make finding it in time to make a sandwich so very much easier for my semi-professional Waldo seeking mind.

But in spite of, or rather, because of all of this, cooking in the Bob household can truly be a hilarious experience, if you let it be.  Caring.com has a wide range of suggestions for anyone struggling to feed their Alzheimer’s loved ones.  One I particularly took to heart is their suggestion for spillage: Lower expectations and look the other way as much as you can. Spilled food can always be cleaned up.”  Though crumbs have never been a personal vendetta for me, I was pleased at the two word introduction to that suggestion. 
Lower expectations
.
Everyone has a tendency to carry a torch for their grandmas, grandpas, moms, dads, older (and sometimes younger) sisters and brothers long after they have aged into versions less akin to their former selves.  It may be frustrating to cook the same meal every night, to have the same fight every day, to see them put on the same clothes every morning, but that frustration comes from the expectation that it might be like it used to be.  That it might somehow be different today.  Different than yesterday.  Different than the day they were diagnosed.  But, however much you love them, however fun their semi-sedated selves are, they are forever changed, forever different.  After all, you must have noticed that now it is you calling them to make sure they made it home alright, you checking their temperature when they feel warm, you carting them to doctor’s appointments and remembering to pay the cable bill.  The shoe is on the other foot and you’re about to walk a mile or two in that shoe.

So, lower our expectations we must.  Expect that it will be hard.  Expect that you will cry.  Expect that you will fight, yell, slam doors.  Expect deep down they love you.  Deep down they understand.  And expect that you will make it through.

So these expectations in hand, I will continue to cook dinner even though the lamb is rather greasy and the veal makes me want to gag, the requested meals are unbalanced and the mint jelly has the potential to make my grandpa’s blood sugar sky rocket.  I will cook it.  Whatever he wants.  Because who, at this point, is really going to deny an 85 year old man’s true pleasure in life by trying to count calories or worry about animal rights?  (Sorry PETA).

And when the meal is done being seared or baked or grilled or toasted, I will sit with my arms folded on the stained tablecloth and expect the inevitable:

“You know, people don’t eat this stuff very much around here.” He will say.

“Lamb?”  I’ll ask, gesturing at whatever meat is on his plate, for no matter what animal it originally was, it’s always lamb to Grandpa.

“Yea.  I wonder why nobody around here likes it?  It’s so good!”  He’ll reply.

Fact: the only evidence my grandpa actually has to support the idea that Mid-Westerners aren’t fond of lamb chops is that my mom once told him it wasn’t her favorite, and a faint memory that I used to watch a show by the same name before grandma took me to ballet practice.

And then, “You know,” he’ll say spreading mint jelly over his feast, “This stuff comes from [insert: the Netherlands/India/Russia/some ‘Oriental country’], over there by Austria.”

“It comes from Australia?”  I’ll say, correcting him.

And as always, he will agree then add, “They must make lots of money sending out all this meat to every one all over the world.  I thought that they only had kangaroos and bears but apparently they have lots and lots of lambs.”

“Apparently.” I’ll say and laugh, knowing, expecting, what always comes next.

A smile that spreads slowly across his face, a chuckle from deep inside, and then, lamb still stuffed in the corner of his mouth, “I’m sorry, Mary, I hope this wasn’t YOUR little lamb.”

A different kind of Swing

“Do you want to go to the park with the pond?  Since it’s hot?”  I waited to hear his seat belt click.

“No no no!  We have to go this way!  Go that way!”  He was pointing out his window towards our usual park.

“Okay okay okay!  Calm yourself!”  I turned out of his driveway, preparing for the obligatory U-turn.

“Turn here!  Turn all the way around here!  Now!”

“I GOT it Grandpa!”  I rolled my eyes.

“Slow down!  Slow down!” He said after a bit.

I looked at my speedometer.  I was under the speed limit, every one was passing me, probably shaking their fist too until they saw my grandpa’s white hair peeking up over the seat.

“TURN HERE!”  He pointed at small store in an otherwise empty strip mall.  “WINE, CIGARS, BEER, MILK” plaster in white across the green awning.

“What are we doing here, Grandpa?” I asked, pulling into an empty space.

“I need a rocket.”  He was already opening his door and struggling to unfold his long legs from my mini hatchback.

“A what?”  I trotted after him.

“One of these!”  He drew his fingers to his lips and sucked in and then blew out, tilting his chin up.  Cigars.

Back in the car my Grandpa patted me on the shoulder.  “Thanks for taking me!  You’re a good…a good…”  He blinked a bit, “Well what are you?”

“I’m a good granddaughter?”  I asked.

“That’ll work.”  He replied, unsure if that’s what I really was.  “Boy that woman at the desk sure is friendly!”  She clearly knew him from his recent months of cigar smoking.

After we arrived we took a short walk to my grandpa’s favorite spot.  It’s a wooden porch swing, donated by the Boy Scouts, deep on the trails of a nearby metro park.

“There’s someone in our spot!”  He looked surprised at the idea that anyone else might ever sit there, as though it were actually located on his own back porch.  His eyes narrowed at the two year old and his mother who swung violently  on the swing, laughing and drooling (the child not the mother).

“Well let’s wander a bit further down the path and then we will come back and sit there for awhile when they are gone.”  I guided him gently away from the swing, worried that if we didn’t get moving there might be a throw down despite the 83 year age difference.  Grandpa followed me, glancing back over his shoulder at the mother and son.  After we descended a bit down the hill we stopped.  “Can I take a picture of you?”  I held up my SLR, hoping to use up the semi-expired black and white film inside.

He eyed the camera.  “Okay.”  He put his arms at his side and gave me a big goofy grin.

After a few minutes of idly waiting just out of sight from the wicked mother and son on our swing, I was kneeling down, trying to focus on a flower.  I somehow lost the ability to take pictures manually and was verbally cursing the digital age.

“Hey!  Over here!” Grandpa called, standing in front of a few trees.  “Take my picture with this behind me!”  He threw his thumb over his shoulder, gesturing at a giant tree, eyes wide with pleasure at his new find.  Next we took a picture of him on a bench, then in front of a field, then grinning, then looking pensive, one solemn, one happy.

Grandpa and the large tree (quite accidentally hidden behind him)

Grandpa posing for me in a field.

This is my grandpa, laughing as I cursed the digital age.

Grandpa doing the Captain Morgan pose. (ish)

“Your turn!”  He grabbed the camera from me, but before he could snap a picture the cursed mother and son came over the crest of the hill, the boy falling over some roots.  “IT’S FREE!” he hollered.  “Hurry let’s get it!”  He jumped a bit as he hurried toward the swing, stumbling as he fell back on the seat.

Swing dominance. Thank you Boy Scouts of America.

We swung for a bit, talked about the weather, the economy, his brother, dogs.  “You know that guy that tried to sell me stuff yesterday?” He asked, referencing the gentleman from the home care facility we met with the day before to talk about hiring extra help.

“Yea, I can’t remember his name though…” I replied, wondering if Alzheimer’s is contagious.

“I think he was a fruit.” Grandpa replied, decidedly.

I laughed.  “You do?!”

“Well don’t you?!”  He looked at me.  Expectantly.  “I suppose that’s ok though.  He wasn’t trying to sell me work.  Just people.”

I let it lie, allowing the steady rocking of the swing relax me a bit.

“You know, I love these walks.” He said after a bit.  He folded his fingers, rubbing his index finger back and forth in an uneven rhythm.

I patted his leg.  “I do too.”

“I haven’t done much since my grandma died.”  He thought for a bit scratching his melanoma scar on his forehead.  “My wife.”  He said, editing his last thought.  He had pointed out the hospital she was taken to after breaking her arm on our drive to the park.  “That’s where we lost my friend.” He had said, pointing out the passenger side window.  “She went there and never came home again.”

I looked at him swinging, lost in thought, possibly trying to organize his words, possibly trying to remember them.  “You have done a few things that were fun.”  I reminded him of his trip to Michigan, playing bridge every afternoon, and riding his bike, anything to smudge out the gloom on his face.

“Yes but I don’t have her to play with anymore.  I have to play alone.”

I stayed silent, uncertain how to respond.

“You know, I like to combine things.”

“What kind of things, Grandpa?  Like when you’re shopping?”  I turned toward him, trying to gauge if we had changed the subject or not.

“No.  Not shopping.  Like…you know…this.”  He squeezed his fingers together and moved them up and down against the air.

“You like to write?”  I asked him, following his hand with my eyes.

He nodded, lips pressed tightly.  “I’m a good writer!”  He smiled at me, “I’m like Allen Edgar Post!”

“Just like him?”  I was laughing now.  “Do you write about ravens too?”

“No!  No no no!  I don’t write about birds.  I like people.  And the sky.”  He was very concerned with this.  “We could exercise together!”  He seemed excited.

“Like we are doing on this walk?”  I asked, trying to connect this to birds, or writing, or anything really.

“No.  You know for money.  I’ll do this,” he scribbled at the air, “and you’ll do that.” He finished, pointing at my camera.  “Together.”

When we got home he rummaged through the end table drawer next to his faded leather couch.  “Here.  See?” he said, handing me a birthday card.  “I designed this..this rocket.”  I took it from him, already knowing it’s contents from my hours of snooping and organizing as I cleaned his house.

A Poem by Bob
To N:
When the cool Spring air has warmed into Summer’s heat,
When all the leaves have fallen and Winter’s silence descends,
I will love you still.
And when the city lights have dimmed,
And the city’s hum has hushed,
When all the music has been played,
And life’s beat has left,
I will love you still.

Happy Birthday,
Your husband

Swinging

*HONK*HONK*

I apparently had drifted off in thought at the stop light, watching the first leaf of fall drift lazily to the ground and failed to notice that it had turned to green.  I had just left Grandpa’s.  I had quickly dropped by to leave some lunch for tomorrow.

“I’m sorry you had a bad day today, Grandpa.”  I hugged him tightly around the middle.

“It’s okay,” he said patting my back, “I have had a few bad days in my time.”

“You’re still smiling, though.” I pointed out, noticing he still had his chin up.

“Well, things aren’t always great, but I’d like to go down swinging.”

“Swinging, hm?” I joked, nudging him in the side.

“Yea, swinging.” He gave the air a good one-two, then added, “You know, that kind of swinging, not this.”  He shook his hands out to the side and did a bit of a jig.

“What about this kind of swinging?” I asked, swinging my arms like I was hitting a homerun.

“Well maybe that one.  But I mean this one.”  He gave the space in front of him a few more good punches then smiled again, waiting for me to leave.

“Well, I’ll see you Wednesday!”  I hugged him once, quickly and headed for the door.  Before I cleared the doorway I turned, my hand still on the knob.  “Still smiling?” I asked, one eyebrow raised.

“I’ll keep my teeth like this until you leave.” He said, bucking his teeth out over his bottom lip.  He stood in the doorway waving, a goofy grin plastered across his face until I reached the bottom of the drive.  Then he dropped his arm, slumped his shoulders and disappeared into the shadows, undoubtedly contemplating his plan of attack and the strength of his 85-year old left hook.

Lost in Thought

My eyes were watering from the lack of sleep and the stench of cigar in the room.  “You haven’t eaten anything today right?”  I raised my chin a little as I spoke to ensure he knew I meant business.

“Well,” he began, scratching his head at the absurdity of it all, “I went to go eat this morning and then I saw this poster on the fridge so I didn’t.”

“Good!  I put that sign there to make sure you remembered.”

He tilted his head to the side and narrowed his eyes, “Why can’t I eat?”

“Because you have a VERY important doctor’s appointment and you can’t have a single thing in your stomach.” I told him, over emphasizing the importance.

His eyebrows shot up in surprise, “Oh is that it?  What time are we going?”

“Around 9:00.” I tell him.

He looks down at this wrist watch, pretending to adjust the band so I don’t know he is having difficulty reading the time.  “That’s in…that’s in about two hours.  Is mom coming?”

“Yep, my mom is taking you and when you are all done you can eat as much as you like!”  I smiled encouragingly.  It was already 7:15 am and I had been playing the role of the refrigerator gestapo since 5:30.  I could almost hear his stomach growling at me from across the room.

He adjusted his position on the couch, the squeak of the old leather the only sound in the room.  Waiting on an empty stomach is like watching a pot boil; it just makes you hungrier and has little concern for theory of relativity.  After some thought my grandpa decided to make an attempt at conversation.  “I think I’m going to take a bike ride, because there really isn’t much else to do, is there?”  He looked at me, almost hopeful I’d have a better idea, possibly one that secretly involved food.

“Not much else.  A bike ride might help make the time go faster!”

He looked around, lost in thought, quite literally I imagine.  “I have been down in the yard all week digging at those vines.” He gestured to the front yard at a patch of weeds that refuse to kick the bucket.

“Yea, those things just won’t die will they?”

“Gosh!  They sure won’t!  Do you have one of these?” He was still looking toward the front yard.

“A yard?” I asked.

“Yea, a yard.” He confirmed.

“No, I live in an apartment.  They don’t usually have yards.”

“I swore you had one.  I just swear it were true.”  He was truly befuddled by this but I can’t seem to remember a time that I’ve ever discussed having or not having a yard with him.  And I most certainly never want one.  I’m not much for grass or digging.

“Well you could buy one.”  He seemed so hopeful, a look of excitement dancing in his eyes.  At the prospect of me having a yard?  Perhaps one that was better than his that he could sit in and smoke cigars?  Maybe one without weeds or neighbors trying to fight him?

“It’s a bit hard to buy a yard for a building I don’t own.”  I thought for a bit.  I’ve never mentioned to my grandpa that I live downtown in the heart of the city.  I feel like that’s a can of worms better left un-cracked.  I choose my words carefully.  “Plus, there isn’t a lot of space to put a yard around my building.  There is mostly just streets and sidewalks around it.”  Perfectly vague.

“No.  The thing is I swear that you had one.  And it was at this place.” He was urgently pointing East.  “Right over there.”

“My mom’s house?” I asked, laughing at bit.  Sure, I suppose you could say that I kind of have a yard at my mom’s house.  If she’ll share…

“Yea.  At your mom’s house, and you took it around.  It was very dangerous too, where you took it around.  Down by the sidewalk but not on it.  And you went like this.”  His arms were out now, held firmly in front of him as he peddled his feet furiously, trying to get his point across.

“A bike?  Are you talking about my bike?”  Things were getting a bit clearer now.

“Well YES!  A bike.”

“You said yard, grandpa.”  I couldn’t let that one pass.  He was looking at me like I were completely off my rocker.

“I did?” He thought for a minute.  “I did.  You’re right.  Well I meant bike.  No wonder you were acting like a lunatic!”  He smiled then and laughed.  “You have a bike don’t you?”

“Yea I have one.”  I avoid that topic as well.  There aren’t enough hours in the day to satisfy my grandpa’s need for bike riding.

“Why can’t I eat?” His growling stomach saved me from a lecture on exercise habits and his daily trip down the “bike bath”.

I sighed, stuck partially between relief and exhaustion.  “Because you have a very, VERY important doctor’s appointment.  They are running some tests and your stomach needs to be empty.”

“What time?”

“9:00.”

“That’s in…2 hours.”  He played with his watch band.  Paused and chuckled to himself.  Part of me wonders for a brief moment if he knew along that we had just had this same conversation and is just playing a trick on me.  Then he looks up, a deep confusion behind his eyes, “Do you have a yard?”

I smile.  “I do.”

Aged Whiskey

There are two things that I look forward to about becoming a Senior Citizen in Ohio.

1) The Golden Buckeye Discount: According to the Ohio Department of Aging, Ohioans have saved over $2 billion using their Golden Buckeye Cards since 1976.  That’s a lot of dough.

2) Unconditional love.

Aside from the road rage you occasionally see encircling the 1996 Buick Century driving 25 mph on the freeway, most people adore the elderly.  I suppose I may be lying about “most people” but I know that at least I do.  Old people are odd, I’ll give them that, but in a way, it’s incredibly endearing.

There was an old man who used to come to the restaurant I worked at every other Sunday, like clockwork.  His name was Mr. Smalls.  He smelled like cigar smoke and peppermints, insisted on sitting in the same spot (table 55 near the door) and ordering the same thing.  Every single time.  He was grumpy and rude, and acted like he knew better than you did about anything and everything.  But the thing was, 9 times out of 10, he probably did know better.  And he was old and lonely and from time to time said something hilarious like, “In my day, women weren’t allowed to wear slutty clothes like that” as he pointed to a possible hooker at the host stand.  So, because we found all of those things simultaneously annoying and adorable, we served him with a smile, jumped through hoops to make his dinner as perfect as possible and always had table 55 waiting .

Of course, he was also an ESD (Elderly Single Diner).  Those are a rare and depressing breed.  They brave the pain of solidarity and widowerism for that one meal that they just cannot live without, though of course they bring their newspapers and their paperback romances to keep them company.  Those ESD’s, they always, without fail, tug at my heart strings.

I may be alone on this, but I just genuinely get a kick out of old people.  Maybe I  hold a special place in my heart for the aged and wrinkly because I spent the better part of my toddler years following one around like a puppy dog.  Or maybe it’s because I watched Darkwing Duck escort one too many old ladies across a busy street before flying off to save the world.  Whatever the reason, I love me some old people.

On the ride to my grandpa’s the other day, I passed an old couple waiting on the bus.  I was stopped at a red light right as the bus pulled up to the curb.  The old man stood and reached to help his wife to her feet.  She bobble a bit and fell back on the bench, laughing hysterically.  The old man hitched up his pants by the belt loop, adjusted his horn rimmed glasses and tried again with two hands, a huge grin spreading across his face.  Again she fell back on the bench, tears rolling down her face in amusement.  Finally, a young man with a skateboard gave a helping hand, but their laughter never stopped, even as they slowly hobbled onto the bus, canes in hand.  I grinned the entire way to my grandpa’s, in amusement, in jealousy and in admiration.  Of both their love for life and their enjoyment of each other.

Not two days later I passed a police car parked up on the grass.  I did the obligatory speedometer check and sighed in relief as I braked at the stop sign.  As I slyly peeked out my window at the cop I noticed in bright orange letters painted on the side of the car: “Volunteer”.  Inside sat a man who couldn’t have been younger than 80 ( and who, I might add, was a dead ringer for Jack Nicholson), eyes wide, both hands on the gun, tracking speeds that flashed in warning beside him as the traffic pushed towards home.  There was no doubt in my mind that that was a check mark on that man’s bucket list.

I suppose that’s what being old is really about; enjoying each other, fulfilling your dreams, putting things in order, and relaxing enough to make the 50 calendar’s worth of time spent working, worth while.  Maybe it’s this peaceful agenda that makes those elder ones so endearing.

I really think that they are all generally alike, those geezers.  Whether they have blue hair, black hair, white hair, grey hair, curly hair, straight hair, red hair or no hair, they are all generally the same.  They take naps holding fishing poles, teach their grandkids ridiculous jokes, take too many vacations, cook the best cakes, let you lick the spoon, play bridge in their neighbor’s kitchen and cheer when they win a dollar.  They tell their deepest secrets to their hair dressers and barbers, drink liquor straight up, keep all their receipts in filing cabinets in the attic, throw quilts on furniture that needs reupholstering, smell like tobacco and shampoo and grab you too hard when they want you to listen.  And listen we should, because they have years of wisdom and hardship and grade A scotch behind those eyes.  They know more than we will ever know.  That is, of course, unless we listen.

So here is where I make a plug.  Though, this isn’t a plug for me or for my blog or for a teaching job.  This is a plug for the old, the tired (though this time not for the poor or those huddled masses).
Whether the elderly one in your life is your mom, your sister, your grandpa, your uncle or your dog, there is never a day so short that you simply can not find time for them.  Of course they are odd, of course they are finicky, of course (most humans excluded) they drool.  Of course they are going to lecture you to sit up straight, drink your milk and stop fidgeting. (And I’m sorry, this won’t even stop when your 54.)  Maybe it’s inconvenient to stop by, or maybe you’re worried it will lower your self esteem 6 notches to be criticized, or maybe you’re just avoiding that big sloppy kiss that comes right before you leave.  Whatever the reason, it’s inconsequential.  Because these are the people who drove you to ballet, scrubbed the dirt out of your scrapes, can their fruit for you every fall, write you checks every birthday, buy you sweaters that are hideous, donate to charities you love and always remember how you take your coffee.  They love you unconditionally, and without pause.  They adore hearing about your life, even if they can’t actually hear.

Of the roughly 39 million of people in the United States over the age of 65, somewhere around 5 million have Alzheimer’s.  These 5 million still make their weekly trip to the beauty parlor, still buy their favorite cigars, still attend bridge parties, hold their grand babies, secretly break their diabetic diets, ride their bikes and still eat at table 55 every second Sunday.  There isn’t a cure for Alzheimer’s (yet), but there is a mentality that you can subscribe to, and that is rooted in support.

You can support those little wise cracking, soup slurping, wrinkly old people who for years have taught you life lessons and lovingly pinched your cheeks raw, by taking a cue from Bing Crosby and trying a little tenderness.  You can support them by taking them to dinner with their Golden Buckeye card, popping in with a jigsaw puzzle, joining them for their daily dose of As the World Turns, and paying attention.

Visit the old person in your life today, tomorrow, Maunday, Tuesday, Thursday, Wednesday.  I promise you’ll have a good time and I swear that it will be riot, if you let it.  Because like whiskey, people just get better with age.

You can find the 10 warning signs of Alzheimer’s here:
http://www.alz.org/alzheimers_disease_10_signs_of_alzheimers.asp

He’s down, like the economy

There are three things my grandpa does EVERY day, if possible.

1)   Ride his bike – It could be pushing 90 degrees and sure as the corn is high, he will pedal somewhere.  If there is snow?  Rain?  Sleet?  Hail?  He wears a hat, of course.
Additionally, he is ridiculously obsessed with where/when/how I ride my own bike.  He believes that bike riding is the only thing that has kept him alive for his 85 years of life, and I don’t really think that he is wrong.  However that does not mean that everyone else (my friends, family, co-workers, boyfriend, and cashiers at the supermarket included) has to ride their bike every day or THEY will die.  But you can’t argue with the man.  As established before, he is crotchety, old, set in his ways, and sometimes, though rarely, quite grumpy.  Especially if you try to mess with his bike riding.

2)   Play bridge – Lately he has been complaining that people at bridge don’t like other people at bridge.  I’m beginning to wonder if the people they don’t like are him.  He forgets a lot of things; where his keys are, my name, my mom’s name, how to read a clock, the year, the succession of the three meals in a day, where he keeps his cigars, what goes in the refrigerator, and what must certainly does not, etc.  It is doubtful to me that he can remember terms like dealing, auctioning, bidding, pass, double, diamonds.  Ironically, under “skills required” for the Wikipedia page on Bridge, the first skills is memory.

3)   Watches the news – Three times.  Every day at 6 o’clock (or shortly thereafter) my grandpa sits down to watch the PBS news station.  (It’s channel 16 ‘round these parts but sometimes it takes a few minutes to remember if it’s 19, 61, 14 or 16 – and, quite frankly, how to get the danged TV to change to that station.)  Well, like many 30 minute news briefs, they are repetitious.  The PBS news program plays at 6:00, 6:30 and 7:00.  And although they may vary in name (PBS news hour, Nightly Business Report, etc) they are all relatively, if not exactly, identical.
This Wednesday, while watching the biographical introduction of Texas governor, Rick Perry, my grandpa decided to have a one-on-one about politics and of course, the economy.  Of course the news was on at the maximum level, causing static and ear ringing.  My grandpa was shouting over the noise, insisting that his ears worked just fine.

“My brother wants to come back.  Don’t you think?” he yelled at me, lying back down after taking a sip of coffee.

“I didn’t know your brother left.  Where is he?” I asked, wondering what old Uncle Lee was up to.

“Washington D.C., of course.” He said, pointing to Barack Obama giving a speech in rural Iowa on TV.

“The President?” I laughed, “Obama isn’t your brother, Grandpa.”

“Oh yes he is!  He is everyone’s brother.  We picked him.  Well I didn’t, but all the others did.  Gosh.  I don’t know why!  It’s not like he is doing anything but talking.”

I stayed quiet.  We don’t always see eye to eye on politics, and by not always I mean practically never.

“Do you have opinions on all this stuff?” he asked, suspiciously eyeing me and my silent demeanor.  Secretly I think he knows that I (gasp) subscribe to a liberal agenda.  But publicly, we just don’t talk about that.

“I don’t know much about economics.  I know about social stuff but not economics.” I answered, quite truthfully.

He leaned back and put his arms behind his head, quite satisfied with my answer, “That’s alright.  You’re a woman so it’s not as important for your future.”

I laughed nervously and continued to dust the book shelves as the news anchor announced that the market rose again and was at it’s highest level since 2009, whatever that all means.  My grandpa jumped up and cheered, clapping his hands above his head in excitement.

“The Dow recently went up 429 points,” the anchor added over my grandpa’s cheers, “It’s been touch and go these past few weeks.  We waited to see if it would go down, and it did.  Then we waited to see if it would go up, and it did that too.”

My grandpa gave another little cheer and turned toward me as he settled back in his seat.  “It’s just been going all over the place.” He said, parroting the news anchor, “Just up and down, up and down, up and down.” He moved his finger back and forth, into the air and back to the ground, looking more like John Travolta than my grandpa.  I laughed.

“You know,” he shouted at me over the commercials, “There is one thing that I think this bad economic downturn is helping.  They have always been letting lots of those guys…those Mexican guys, into the US.” He said, using his vague pronouns like always.  “They are letting them come over.  You know what I mean?  Those guys, you see them all the time banging on the roofs and things.  Boy they are doing real well.  I never see one of them unemployed.  They are just hard workers.  I bet if everyone were to act like Mexicans they wouldn’t be laid off left and right.  Mexicans would never shred private documents.  Mexicans would never be late to work.  Mexicans.  We could all learn a little from those guys.”

“You think so?” I asked him, trying to remain as neutral as possible.

“Yea, I really do.  They shouldn’t say ‘work like a dog’ they should say ‘work like a Mexican.’”  He paused and then looked over at me.  “Well you know what I mean.  Work…work hard.”

“I know what you mean, gramps.”

He changed the subject.  “I’m going to Florida with your mom.”  His smile was big.

“You mean Columbus?” I asked him, knowing that he had a date set to visit his brother who lived near the capitol on Friday.

“Yea,” he said, disappointed, “Columbus.  That will be Fridee, of course.  I guess it’s probably not as nice as Florida, but it will be ok.”

Grandpa’s new ears

Everyone knows how hard it is to fix your TV when the cable is out, but only somewhere between 2.4 million and 5.1 million Americans know how hard it is to fix the TV when the cable is out, AND have Alzheimer’s (Alzheimer’s Disease Education and Referral Center).  Yesterday, my grandpa was one of those 2.4/5.1 million Americans.  He had the cable box upside-down, the remote batteries out, and was sitting in the middle of the living room grumbling about the weather.

“Whatcha doing Grandpa?” I asked casually, though it was pretty clear what was going on.
“Well the electricity won’t work!” my Grandpa shouted, as though I were the deaf one.  He was pointing at the TV, his eyes narrowed.  “How will I be able to watch the news if this danged thing doesn’t start to work?!”

“Can I see the remote?” I asked, “Maybe I can help you a bit?”

“Well I don’t think you can.  It’s been like this all day.” (and you’re a woman) he added mentally.

I pried the remote from his ninja grasp just as my phone began to ring.  “One second Grandpa, my phone is ringing!” I said, pointing at my phone.  Of course this all fell on, quite literally, deaf ears.  He couldn’t hear my phone ringing or what I had said, all he knew is that I pointed at my phone.  He smiled and nodded, pretending to understand.

After a quick call, I popped back into the living room, stuck out the remote and tried the first logical solution: the power button.  Low and behold, the color grew on the screen and the cable started up.

“How did you DO that?” my Grandpa’s eyes were wide and his mouth hung open in astonishment.

“Oh I just tried a couple buttons.” I said, trying not to make it seem so obvious.

“How did you know what to do?  Who did you call?” he was suspicious now, looking at me from under his eyebrows, pondering what outside help this silly woman must have contacted.

“That was my work calling.  It didn’t have to do with the TV.”

He stared some more, clearly not able to hear me.  “But how did they know to call you.  How did they know my TV wasn’t working?”

“They didn’t, Grandpa.  That was COMPLETELY unrelated!”  I laughed, though I knew my explanations were useless.

“I don’t know….” Grandpa replied, letting the last syllable drag, “I think you had help.” (because you’re a woman) he added mentally.

He folded himself up on the couch and turned the volume up to max.

“Can you hear that?” he asked me, barely audible over the screaming of the television.

I nodded.

“You know, I think I’m getting better ears.  I don’t know why but all of a sudden I can just about hear everything!  I don’t have a problem at all!”