This summer, my grandparents moved out of the home my father grew up in, and into a retirement home. It was time. Grandpa has been suffering from failing eyesight and Parkinson’s disease, and living at home was becoming too much. There were too many falls. There was a night spent on the bathroom floor before Grandma was able to call for help. So they left North York and found a place in a retirement home in Kitchener, near Dad.
Things just kinda got worse from there. There were more falls. First Grandpa and then Grandma landed in hospital at the beginning of September, and they haven’t actually seen each other since. Grandpa’s hip was broken and required a partial replacement. Grandma’s vertigo suddenly worsened. And all this happened just before my trip to France, so I couldn’t go and see them.
After that, I got sick. The kids got sick. ζach got sick. We couldn’t risk visiting and making anyone else sick. Finally, a few weeks ago, nobody was sick. On Tuesday morning I rented a car and headed for Kitchener.
I saw Grandpa on Tuesday night. As Dad walked past the nurse’s station, Anne, my step mom, took me gently by the arm and asked me if I was prepared for what I was about to see. All the way into the hospital I had been chattering away about nothing important and said that no, I was not prepared, and that I figured if I didn’t stop talking that would save me from having to start thinking.
Grandpa was lying on the bed in a hospital gown. Never before have I truly understood what it means for a body to be wasting away. His arms were shriveled and sinewy, there was almost nothing under the blanket indicating there was a person under there.
So I didn’t focus on that. Instead I focused on his face. The part of Grandpa that was still Grandpa.
That was when the first wave of real grief hit me: I realized how much my father looks like his father. The jawline, the trim salt and pepper beard. The curve of his mouth, the shape of his nose. I could have been looking at my own father. I walked to the window and stared into the dark, and waited for that wave to finally set me down again; feet in the shifting sand, surrounded in turbulence, but at least stable enough to come back to the bed.
To call what followed a “conversation” would be a bit of a stretch. Sometimes we could almost understand bits of what Grandpa was saying. Was that last word “outsourcing”? What on earth could that mean? Was he telling us about being in the Air Force, or telling us that his feet are cold? Is it the Parkinson’s mangling his words, or dementia mangling his thoughts? He was hot, so we pulled back the sheet. No, actually cold – pull it back up. Over and over.
At times he would just stop, eyes closed, mouth open, just trying to breathe. It was scary.
After several, clearly futile, attempts to make him comfortable, he said something we all understood: “I think I need to cry now.” My Grandpa doesn’t cry. And he didn’t cry. His body wouldn’t even let him cry.
So the rest of us did instead.
He is in pain. The last time he fell, the pin from the prosthetic was driven into the top of his femur, cracking it. But his heart is operating at thirty percent capacity, and they’re afraid that surgery will kill him.
What does that mean, thirty percent? Is the other seventy percent gone? Can any of it come back?
It sounds Awful. But Awful is not the right word. Distressing might be closer. Awful feels disrespectful of the human being I know him to be. Monsters are awful. Awful feels like I’m robbing him of what dignity he still has left. I’m still looking for the right word.
As we were about to leave, he managed to say one more thing. The clearly formed words, after all that effort to understand and to be understood, felt like a gift.
“Sasha, I want to tell you something.”
I leaned in close and took his hand.
“What is it Grandpa?”
“… I can’t remember”