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.