Friday, June 1, 2012

An Old Man on Water Skis

 I've been thinking a lot about my grandpa, the one who read every decent book in the local library, the one who had emphysema, the one I lost when I was nineteen. By then, I'd lost my dad and my other grandpa. I had thought it would get easier, but it wasn't. I think I still hadn't learned about grief. God knows, my family and the Pollyanna approach they 'encouraged' just made it all the more difficult. I was thirty, with Todd when he lost his mother, before I began the real work of grief.  After her funeral, I was a mess. I remember sitting at my desk at work, trimming my split ends one by one. It's a wonder I had any hair left. Finally, I went in to talk to my boss and told her I just wasn't being productive. Can you believe that this wonderful woman sent me to the company library to get books on grieving? Can you believe that my company, AT&T Bell Labs, had a library, one with books on grieving? In 2004, when I heard that Elisabeth Kubler-Ross had died, I burst into tears all over again for the help she had given me through her books. 

Grandpa liked to talk and when he wasn't talking, when he was trying to cough up all the black scum in his lungs, when he was just gasping for breath, I knew he didn't feel well.  That sounds ridiculous, but Grandpa had a way of being that didn't broadcast to people just how sick he was.

When I was pretty small, he had his first heart attack.  I remember because we visited him in the hospital.  They had given him too much Coumadin to thin his blood and his hospital gown was still faintly bloody under his arms where he had sweated blood.  It was all too gory for the little girl that I was.  Then, on the way home, the weather seemed to reflect my emotions with a violent thunderstorm all around our car.  That was when I first saw a ball of lightening, and the last.  The wide plain was filled with low clouds and lightening struck all around us.  I could even hear a hint of fear in Daddy's voice.  The rubber tires would protect us, he repeated.  This man, Grandpa, wasn't his own dad, but the two of them got along so well.  Grandpa settled some tension that my dad held in his shoulders. We didn't talk about how Grandpa could die.  That wasn't our way.  The unspoken rule was to stay cheerful or to be silent.  Except for his reassurance about the tires protecting us, Daddy was silent. 

Later that summer, we all pretended that Grandpa had never been sick.  He pretended.  When we went camping, he even learned to water ski.  Can you picture a sixty-five year old man standing up, finally, on water skis?  I remember him, kind of leaned forward, his swim trunks threatening to fall off his narrow butt, the white hair on his barrel chest glistening in the sun, his whole body jolting with every tiny wave because he didn't know the trick of letting your knees be shock absorbers.  He was a glory, his dark skin gleaming in the sun, a half-grin on his face before he was pulled too far forward and did a face plant in the boat's wake. 

It was a couple more years, after Daddy had been diagnosed with colon cancer, when we extended our effort to appear normal, that Grandpa had his second heart attack.  The doctors told him that odd numbered heart attacks were worse.  The doctors didn't count past the third. 

A while after he came home from the hospital, I remember Grandpa sitting in his chair by the kitchen.  My mother, Daddy, Grandma, and I were all there.  Were my brother and sister there too?  I only remember the adults.  Grandpa, for the first time I ever remember, got angry.  Even still, it was a quiet, firm sort of anger.  There was no lashing out, just an embarrassment that they were focusing on his illness this way.  Grandma was trying to convince my mother and Daddy to argue with him about his fishing trips.  She wanted them to tell him it wasn't safe for him to go fishing by himself at five in the morning any more.  His face showed that wasn't going to be treated like a child.

"If I don't go fishing any more, I might as well just die right here and now.  If I die in that damn boat, fishing all by myself, I'll die doing what I love to do," he said.  Then he stopped talking and refused to argue any more.  Daddy saw the logic in this and stopped, but Grandma kept on pushing.

"Woman!" he shouted, and then stopped.  His gaze turned inward.  I never heard Grandma say another word, though I knew she how much she wanted to. 

In every one of these scenes, Grandpa had a cigarette in his hand.  He'd tried to stop smoking after the first heart attack, but said that it just made him too nervous.  I wouldn't have been surprised to see him smoking as he was out there water skiing too.  It's funny how the movements of a man become so much a part of him that you don't see them any more. 

It's what he said that got to me, that taught me. 

"If I'd known I'd never be able to stop, I never would have started smoking."  He wasn't too forceful about lecturing us kids not to smoke, but he was earnest.

"There's oxygen all around me and I just can't get to it.  You don't know how that feels." 

His morning fits of coughing was all the testament I needed not to smoke.

After my sophomore year at Purdue ended, I went to visit him.  I told him I was going to take a road trip to New Jersey with my friends to see my roommate.  Grandpa didn't want me to go.  I had never seen him so vehement except for the time he laid down the rules about his fishing trips.  I could be just as stubborn.  I refused to see what was before my eyes.

I went on that road trip.  I had a miserable time.  My friends were rude to me, I thought, but what was really happening was that I didn't want to be there.  I knew I should have stayed at home.  I don't remember enjoying a single moment on that trip, not time in New York city, not time at the shore or walking the boardwalk.  Oh, I blamed my friend I had brought, who made out with a boy I liked right in front of me.  The boy was cruel and demeaning where he'd been gentle the summer before.  I blamed him too. I could not end that road trip fast enough. 

The day after I got back, I went to see Grandpa.  He sat in his chair, as if nothing was wrong.  But this time, I could see that everything was wrong.  He was gray.  His eyes were dull.  He didn't finish coughing at noon the way he usually did. 

He was quiet.

When I got into the car to leave him, I burst into tears and realized I was exhausted.  I'd been unconsciously trying to sync up my breathing to his and it hurt. 

This is what Grandma told us happened the next morning:  He woke her up and went through some papers, the papers she would need to look at for the first time in her life.  He talked about the money.  She had never managed the money.  He told her where everything was and what she should do, knowing that all of this would confuse her. 

When Grandpa was done, he said, "Now, you need to take me to the hospital.  I'm going to die now." It was a very hard time to live through.

A few years later, I was having a lot of difficulty with my life.  My boss was making life miserable.  My roommate stole all of my money and credit cards while I was in traction in the hospital.  One night, I dreamed about Grandpa.  In it, he silently hugged me.  It was a deep and comforting hug, a hug I can still remember if I sit quietly.  His message was that, despite all my hardships, everything would be okay. 

I still lean into that hug now and then.  I still need to feel its love and its message.  I was very lucky to have had a grandpa like this.  I will never forget how lucky. 

Thank you for listening, jb

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