IT WAS A YEAR AGO YESTERDAY that my grandfather left this world behind. It was not long after midnight when the first call went out from a hospital ward in Pittsburgh, and not much longer after that when I learned from my brother that all was lost. That message from Ohio was the last in a series which he and I had sent back and forth during the night, and contained in them was all the grief which we both felt.
Looking back, the days which followed seemed to pass much quicker than that dark hour; and the memories of those days seem sharper in comparison. Perhaps the trip back to Pennsylvania and the time I spent with my family was responsible for that, or perhaps it was my grandfatherís funeral, with its implicit message that now was the time when one began to heal. Perhaps it was all the hours during the long drives with which I was able to think in quiet, or the beautiful letters from a dear friend I found waiting for me when I returned home. I canít say I can pinpoint a cause, but now that time has soothed the anguish of that awful week, I would argue that all of those things gave me strength Ė strength enough so I could write about what my grandfather meant to me.
Yesterday, I read again what I had written last year about Grandpap, my motherís father. It was a pretty humbling experience, to be perfectly honest. For one thing, as the above picture shows, my grandfather cut a far more dashing figure than I ever will. True, people dressed better back then, but stillóthat photo was taken when he was 24 years old. He looked like Sinatra. Also, like most folks from that time, he was developing what I call the Swell Post-War Look, which sure as hell beats tie-dye.
But I guess I feel pretty humbled because when I look at someone I really and truly admire, like my grandfathers and my father and other relations, I end up comparing how I live my life with how they live their lives. And Grandpap left some pretty big shoes to fill in that regard. It wasnít just that he had his priorities straight or that he lived a good life; it was that he was a fundamentally good person. And I donít know if Iíve truly lived up to his example as of late.
Iíve personally thought Ė at least over the past few months Ė that Iíve kind of developed a hard edge to my personality, and I really donít like that. Thatís not to say that I think Iíve suddenly turned into a jerk. I guess itís just that when I find myself under the gun, I get a bit Ö um, strident. Iíve found myself less forgiving when things donít go the way they ought go, and at times Iím getting downright snippy. There are plenty of reasons for this Ė the Latest Great Attempt to Quit Smoking Ė hasnít helped my disposition any, and Iíve probably got a touch of depression again. Still, though, it bothers meóand I really feel as if Iíve dropped the ball when it comes to religious matters.
I donít know if Grandpap is keeping an eye on me, but if he is, Iíd like him to know that Iím trying. And I miss him greatly.
I was also thinking about Grandpap a few weeks ago, when I went back to western Pennsylvania, the land where my grandfather built his life. It is a place with a timeless quality to it, a place in which the memories of the past have not yet faded into history. Things are still very much as they have always been. For instance, my Aunt Carol and Uncle Bill still live in the small town of Scottdale, and Uncle Bill still gets up at 4:30 a.m. every day. I still stay at the Howard Johnsonís motel in New Stanton, and I still eat at the EatíníPark across from it for dinner. Now, thatís not to say the place exists in a time warp Ė for instance, I noticed a Wal-Mart set up shop, and thereís a new Bob Evans restaurant in New Stanton. Generally, though, itís still the same western Pennsylvania I remember visiting as a boy.
Itís just that so many intangible things have changed.
No longer do I take the old road, US 119 South, down to Connellsville to visit my grandparents; no longer do I visit the small but comfortable home which my grandfather had built the old-fashioned way and in which my grandparents lived for so many decades. For after my grandfather died, my family had to deal with a second heartbreak: facing the true and stark reality that my grandmother was no longer the person she once was.
And so, on a hot and muggy Monday during my vacation last month, I drove from Wilmington, Del., to Mount Pleasant, Pa., to see my grandmother. She lives there now, in a small personal-care home. It is a nice place, well-kept and well-staffed and comfortable. But despite knowing she was always in good hands there, I was very much afraid about visiting her. You see, it was the last visit which I wouldówillóever have with my grandmother; the last visit which truly mattered, the last visit in which I could truly say goodbye.
Oh, God, Alzheimerís is a cruel disease. It is the most vicious and brutal and rapacious thing. It takes and it takes and it takes but it leaves just enough left so that it stabs you right in the heart and twists the knife again and again, over and over, without pity or remorse or mercy. Good God, I felt like such a fraud! I couldnít just say why I was there, of course; I couldnít no matter what the disease, but at least with the others I could have rationalized it to myself!
For it really was the last visit which I will ever have with her Ė the next time, if there is one, it will be too late. I hadnít seen her since Thankgsiving, but the physical and mental decline since then was readily apparent. When I first saw her, oh, she looked so much older. She was walking into her room at the home, ever so slowly, when the aide mentioned that someone was there to see her. She turned around and exclaimed, ďBen!Ē
I really wasnít prepared for that Ė at least not emotionally. On an intellectual level, I had thought I might have to explain who I was at first, or I might need the aideís assistance, or what not. But the real reason I wasnít prepared was because that really made it hit home that my grandmother was hanging on as best she could. In my mind, I suppose I hadnít really considered that; I guess I made myself believe the decline had gone farther than it had. It really weighed on me as she and I talked for the next forty-five minutes out in the parlor, although that conversation was more along the lines of that for which I had been prepared.
The best way I can describe that talk is by comparing it to a scene in Asimovís novel Foundation, when the scientists have a state visit from an important dignitary. The dignitary spends three days on the scientistsí planet, and in the end, makes all the scientists feel happy and optimistic and sure of future support. Then their analysts report that an examination of the dignitaryís words show that he didnít say a damn thing, and did it so the scientists never noticed. The only difference between that conversation, and the talk I had with my grandmother, was that I tried to boil things down so she would understand. I donít know how well I did at that, and I know the important thing was the time I spent with her. I had brightened her day by being there, and what really felt good was that after I had left, she remembered I had visited. Still, I just felt so guilty about the whole thing.
I especially felt this way when it was time for me to go. She didnít want me to leave. And so, she offered to walk me out to my car (which I appreciated, but I wasnít about to let an Alzheimerís patient out of the house), and then she offered to show me to the front, and so on. This went on for perhaps ten minutes, with a lot of hugs and goodbyes in between, and was only interrupted when a real-estate assessor came to the door. Thatís when the real heartbreaking moment came. I gave my grandmother a last hug goodbye and told her I loved her. She hugged me back.
ďDonít forget me,Ē she said.
ďI wonít,Ē I replied. ďI promise.Ē
New Stanton, Pa. Ė Manchester, N.H.
June 14 Ė July 4, 2004.