I’m going to tell you about my trip home to see my Granddad. I’m doing this so I remember. Apologies now for shifts in verb tense and the like — it’s not the most edited of posts, and that’s all right.
We left Thursday night, in Kate’s car, because it’s a little roomier. The plan was to drive to North Platte that night (four hours), stay at a hotel there, then finish the rest of the trip (another six hours) on Friday morning, and that’s basically what we did.
Kate had her iPod wired into the car’s stereo. The soundtrack for Dr. Horrible’s Sing-along Blog made an appearance during each leg of the trip, as did songs from our wedding reception and an extensive exploration of Johnny Cash hits that fit right into the grass-over-sand of Nebraska. Kaylee turns out to be an excellent highway traveler; almost perpetually self-entertaining and quite able to get a laugh out of her friends in the front seat.
I drove most of the way on Friday (for some reason I was in the mood to drive). We got into Miller about three in the afternoon, and drove straight to the nursing home. My folks spotted us as we pulled up and walked out to greet us while we were still unfolding from the car.
We talked a bit outside and I got the current updates on Grandpa’s health and Grandma’s state of mind. (She has Alzheimer’s, and it has progressed quite a bit since I’ve last seen her.)
I’m one of the first of the grandkids to make it into town (one of the reasons I set out so early), but I’m told nearly everyone will be here this weekend. Friday may be the first and best chance to talk to him on my own before interruptions and before he gets too tired.
He’s in pain, you see, and he hasn’t quite acclimated to the pain medication, so he dozes often and his speech is sluggish when he’s awake.
Dad also tells me to be ready for what he’ll say.
The facility is nice, and the staff is friendly and helpful and personable.
The commemorative plaques for those who have donated to the facility are permanently affixed to each door; the names of the room’s occupants are printed on sheets of paper, attached with scotch tape.
“What’s all this nonsense about you being sick?” I call out as I walk into the room.
He gestures at himself in his recliner. He’s thinner — mostly in his face and neck — and paler. “I’m done,” he says. He grips my hand as I sit down next to him. “I’m tired of this. I just want to be done.”
I don’t know what to say to that. He is tired, and he doesn’t want to go out in a recliner, unable to walk where he will and go where he likes. He is stoic and unapologetic for his desire to see an end to things, and if nothing else, I respect his courage and honesty about it. Right now, he’s not going to have a conversation with me — he’s trying to tell one more person in his family that he’s ready to go; that he’d speed things up if he could.
Not that there’s much more that could be done in that regard — he’s not on a respirator or any kind of machinery; the medicine given to him is for comfort, not longevity — the cancer is beyond any available treatment even if he were strong enough for it, which he is not. We are playing a waiting game; a balance of comfort and control – quality of life over quantity. This is not when he and I can talk; he is speaking, and everyone else in the room is trying to convince him that they hear what he’s saying.
I hold his hand, and introduce Kate and his great-granddaughter to him; Kaylee is shy on my lap, but says hello to him and holds his hand. Over a dozen great-grandchildren will see him this weekend (his great-great-grandson will play at his feet that evening), but he is charmed by this blue-eyed redhead, and tugs at her finger and gasps at her in mock surprise — a game I remember from thirty years ago — that I have played with her since she was old enough to giggle, not realizing who I’d learned it from.
I have trouble understanding him through the slur that the pain medication puts in his words, and we don’t talk much, but I spend time with him until some of the rest of the family arrives, then make room for another cousin to take my seat.
I walk down the hall to my grandmother’s room and visit her. She doesn’t remember me, but admits that I look quite a bit like my dad, which is ‘interesting’.
We go back to the farm with my folks, and spend the evening going through some of the boxes of photos my grandparents have accumulated in the last six decades or more. Photos of my grandfather as the third oldest in a family of nine(!). Another of my great-great-grandfather, as a child. Photos of a young man in an army uniform. Dad tells me about things he’s learned since my last visit about Grandpa’s service in World War Two; it’s a shared piece of detective work for him and I, as Grandpa will tell other visitors about his time in Europe, but rarely speaks of the time to his family; it seems he had command of 20 other men, and was a forward observer during the Allied offensive into eastern Czechoslovakia toward the end of the war. He used to tell us he never even saw the front lines; apparently that was because they were behind him.
I can’t sleep when the house gets quiet. Dad and I stay up til midnight; I ask questions about my grandfather’s more recent past. Dad answers anything he can and corrects incorrect assumptions I’d made here and there. I know him, perhaps, best of all the grandkids — I’ve spent the most time with him, at least — but it seems at times that I barely know a fraction.
By the time we’re back into town in the morning, most of the rest of the family is there. Grandpa refused the pain medication ‘patch’ when it was brought in by the staff in the night, and it isn’t until my dad talks to him and reassures him that it is not prolonging anything and just for his comfort that he lets them apply it. His schedule is now askew, and the first wave of medicine washes over him mid-morning instead of midnight; he’s very drowsy. Few real conversations take place between him and anyone, let alone me.
In fact, he barely seems to know who, specifically, is there.
Grandma doesn’t know me, or even if I look like family, but opines that I look strong enough to help her walk around the building a bit.
My sister arrives just after lunch, and the room’s visitors magically clear when she arrives — it’s either consideration for her first visit, or a welcome excuse for those in the room to take a break.
I follow her into the room after a minute and find her bent halfway over his chair, within inches of his ear — trust her to know exactly what she needed to do to get her words to him. She is just finishing when I walk in.
“– we spent all our childhood with you,” I hear. “We wouldn’t be the people we are, without you. I love you.”
She steps away, and another cousin walks in, and I walk with her out of the room. We hug.
“I’m so glad you could tell him that,” I say, thinking of everything I want to say to him and somehow can’t find the time or the words.
“No regrets,” she replies, repeating a conversation we had not more than a week ago, before we knew any of this was about to happen.
We take a break from the visits, and go to the bed and breakfast that the family has taken over a few blocks away. I spend several hours catching up with cousins I haven’t seen in years; over a decade in some cases — since I moved to Denver. I and one of the oldest of ‘my’ generation — beautiful and funny and (unbelievably) already a grandmother — spend a half-hour in the kitchen cutting up vegetables for a salad and talking about some of my stories and why I always seem to write about someone losing a loved one.
I decide to walk back over to the nursing home. My dad comes with me and we talk about time lines and what’s most likely with Grandpa’s prognosis. We are not pessimists, he and I, but I think it’s fair to say that we are realists.
I hope to talk to grandpa when I get there, but he’s asleep when I arrive and needs help from the nurses when he wakes up — I do my best to stay out of the way and let the professionals do their work (despite my aunt telling them from the doorway that I’ve had “Training” (a CNA for a year during college) and can help them).
Two hours go by, but having to move around the room with the nurses help has wiped him out and he is never fully awake in that time. I sit with him while the rest of the family stays down in the building’s day-room and catches up with one another — I’m not the only one who rarely makes it home. My sister walks in to find me sitting next to him, holding his hand and staring at the ceiling, tears tracking quietly down my cheeks. She tells me we’re getting out of the building, informs the family, and off we go.
Bonnie takes me to the city park, where Kate and Mom have brought a couple of the younger kids, including Kaylee.
(I am not writing enough about Kate and her part in this trip, during which she somehow kept me facing the right direction at all times and kept me from misplacing everything from my wallet to my keys to my daughter. She is a rock throughout this whole recounting.)
As Bonnie expected, I spend the better part of an hour clambering over the the ladders and slides and rings and fireman poles and slides with my daughter and get things back into perspective. She and Kate visit at the side of the park, watching me and the rest of the kids playing.
We are a mid-western family, and that means when someone is sick, the rest of us eat. It’s a logistical impossibility that we could have missed supper no matter how long we’d have stayed at the park. I visit a bit, and make the rounds of each cluster of relatives, then make my excuses and walk back to the nursing home to see Grandpa before it’s time for bed.
I wait while he dozes (the mis-timed medication in the morning has thrown the whole day off), and when he wakes up he’s agitated and needs the nurse. I step out while they work and visit my grandmother, who has also just woken from a nap.
She doesn’t know who I am – the boy she babysat for well over a decade – and doesn’t recognize my name when my aunt reminds her, but says “he looks pretty smart”.
Grandpa is in bed when I go back to his room, and the talk in the hallway is that he probably won’t be gotten back out of bed in the morning – moving him around is getting to be too much for him. He is fast asleep when I go in to see him, and only stirs a bit when I take his hand.
I try to tell him something – anything – while he’s still awake; one of the dozen things spinning around in my head.
I tell him we have to go back to Denver in the morning.
I leave the room defeated, and nod agreement when my aunt asks if I will stop in for one more visit in the morning before we go.
We are doing the whole trip back to Denver in one day, rather than the two it took to come out, so we try for an early start. Someone calls from town while we’re having breakfast and tells us that Grandpa was awake and alert in the morning and wanted out of bed; his slight fever from the day before is down and he’s feeling better. Good news.
We get into town by eight-thirty.
The room is mostly mine when I get there; everyone knows we’re heading back and they want to give me time to say goodbyes.
Grandma is there as well, sitting next to him, and he is dozing.
She looks over when I sit down, and pats his hand and says “Russel, it’s Doyce.” By her expression, it is the most natural thing in the world for her to recognize me; hardly worthy of comment.
He stirs and looks me over. I take his hand, and once again, there’s too much to say.
“We have to go back to Denver today.” Banal trivia. It makes me angry with myself.
He nods and squeezes my hand. “I know,” he murmurs.
I’m already breaking up a bit. I lean in, emulating my sister, who understands loss much better than I do. “I Wish I Could Stay.” I manage, and sag back into my chair.
We don’t say anything for a bit. I stopped to think of everything I need to say and it overwhelms me – mutes me.
But my granddad is the First Storyteller among a family of storytellers. I write, but he knows words. One more time – one last time – he helps me.
“It’s a good life,” he says, and squeezes my hand. I look up. “A good life,” he repeats. He inclines his head toward mine, as though he’s sharing a secret. “No bad parts.”
There is no way you can encapsulate what this man has done for you. It is a hundred million moments that spill over you at once — things he said, things he did, and things you only knew years later.
I stand up, and I lean in, and I tell him exactly what I’m feeling, and it is foolish and exactly right.
“I am so proud of you,” I tell him, and I kiss his forehead, and hug him as best as I can. “So very proud of you.”
And he chuckles, because it’s silly, isn’t it? But it’s true, and in the end it is the most important thing I have to say.
We have a long drive home, and we started later than I’d hoped. We take a longer route home, also, because Kate has yet to see the Black Hills during the day, and after years of summer vacations, I feel I know it better than most. We drive by Wall Drug, and take a picture of Crazy Horse, and watch some mountain sheep climb a rock wall along a winding road, and drive from Wyoming into Colorado as the sun sets.
Kaylee is a trooper even during this much longer drive, and the last hour of trip she decides she will sing for us — not Itsy Bitsy Spider or Twinkle Twinkle — but new songs that she makes up as she goes, integrating everything she knows in the world into brand new tunes that are, I say with only a hint of bias or irony, genius.
“A duck on a bike is very tough,” she sings, “and everyone’s a hero in their own way…” Who are we to argue?
It’s a good life.
No bad parts.