Jenny Adkins JASS 310 3/22/10
Childhood is hailed as one of the safest and happiest times of a personâ€™s entire timeline. For me, it provided a mixture of confusion and isolation from peers, and selftherapy in my bedroom playing with toys. I acted out entire plays with a cast all my own. But in the midst of this lonely existence, far across the expense of the Michigan-Ohio border, I had a friend. My earliest memory of Grandpa remains fogged in a childâ€™s perceptive haze. There are of course his visits, alongside grandma, to our duplex, hauling their luggage up a flight of narrow steps. And there are the visits in which the family packs into our broken-down compact car, about to go on the greatest voyage of our lives. We never traveled much. Trips to Grandpaâ€™s Ohio farm are tantamount to visiting Disney World. The bags are packed and tossed into the trunk, and my older brother and I stretch out in the back seat as though we have all the room in the world. We begin the grueling drive down south, with each of us demanding to know when we'll finally arrive. I know the trip is ending every time I see what appears to be a large water tower, but in fact says something suggesting that it contains sugar. Excitement flares through me. We're almost there! Just another half hour, maybe, which is really just another episode of The Rugrats, and we will be driving down that narrow road overlooking a valley so deep it is practically a gorge. Only one car can fit on this pass at a time, and there are no guardrails protecting travelers from making the journey down the valley.
We pull into the long driveway on the hill and take note of the trailer sitting at the crest. A pudgy man emerges with his trousers pulled over the peak of his gut, and blue suspenders holding them in place. He wears large, round-rimmed glasses on a bulbous nose. His face turns red even in the slightest change in weather. These vacations are among the most memorable. We explore the forests behind his trailer, and he tells me about the footprints in the soil. He knows exactly which animals roam here. Somewhere in the middle of these hikes, we rest at a shallow creek, where minnows swim desperately upstream. We dig our hands into the water, and I marvel at my new connections to nature. A fish living out in the wild, and not encased in a crystal-clear aquarium in the pet store, is different than the sanitized world I'm used to. We even explore his woodwork in the shed he took ten years to build. It stands two stories tall, with big, gaping windows overlooking the vast property. During one of these visits, he smiles and pulls a house from his pile of works. Each little wooden brick forms a ranch-style mini paradise with a shingled green roof. â€œThis is for you,â€? he says. My chubby fingers roam his creation in wonder. How creative of him, how thoughtful. I stare back up at him and bury my face in his stomach. There are multitudes of other visits like this. One year, as we make for the car at the end of the driveway, we take note of the wasp nest under a nearby tree. But we think nothing of it and we begin to climb into a car, only to find my cheek flaring with a painful sensation. Soon I'm in tears, getting carried up the long, slanted driveway by my dad, while Grandpa rushes after him. His kitchen becomes a primitive emergency room. He gathers a bag of potatoes and begins slicing into them with the deftness of a country boy. My parents exchange
puzzled glances after grandpa has finished, and I have a potato slice taped to my cheek. “It'll take out that venom,” he explains. Everyone regards his remedy skeptically until we go to a nearby store, where I walk in with my taped cheek. The clerk chuckles. “Oh, bug bite?” he says.” “Yeap,” says Grandpa. “I put a 'tater on it.” “Oh yeah,” says the clerk. They chit-chat a while and make it clear that this is the treatment of choice in this region of Ohio, where the southerners have only made a slight northern migration from Kentucky. I grew up in the suburbs of Detroit, digging for ants in the soil. Aside from that, Grandpa and I are worlds apart in interests. I prefer dancing, acting, and writing, and the thought of dirtying my hands too much bothers me. I enjoy writing most of all, and keep tedious records of my daily life in myriads of journals that gradually go into the dumpyard. I was nine when the family gathered for nervous chatter in the kitchen. Pulling myself from a chair in the living room, I wandered among them and tried to listen it. It was something about Grandpa. An aneurysm, whatever that was, and it was dangerous. Surgery. And then one of the adults in the group turned to me with a pat on the shoulder and said something about how it was routine. Living in the country where a man was most likely to lay dead for hours before an ambulance could reach him was no ideal place for an elderly couple. Grandpa and Grandma had lived there for ten years, since defecting from Ohio for their retirement. But the retirement was cut short with health problems, and the duo made a return to Michigan.
Grandma and I never came to much of an understanding. She was mired in her hypochondria and bothered by any interference from children. When she returned to Michigan, she delighted in having a ready-made cleaning and care service in her grandchildren. Most of my teenage years were spent pampering her and loathing her for how very unlike a typical grandma she was. Where were the cookies? The talks? Speaking to Grandma meant clearing up hours of time per week for doctor's appointments, trips to see her friends, cleaning her apartment, washing dishes... She seemed particularly fond of criticizing the way I looked. Occasionally it was my hair, and my complexion, but she took great pride in criticizing my weight. I was too fat to be successful in any career, she said. And after I lost dozens of pounds five years ago, she smiled proudly at me. “Good,” she said. “Now maybe the boys will like you.” Suffice to say, we were always unspoken enemies. But I thought I was lucky with Grandpa. His brilliant sense of humor and kindly expressions were a breath of fresh air. I was happy to see his return to Michigan. After the aneurysm was cared for, life returned to a very pleasant normalness. We enjoyed birthday parties at my house, where the family packed in “like a can of sardines,” according to Mom. But even parties and celebrations have to end, and so did our peace of mind. Grandpa’s sudden malaise and forgetfulness was caused by a buddy he was carrying around. Alzheimer’s. One of the worst parts of having something good is waiting for the day it will turn
sour. Maybe this morbid anticipation is only human nature, and everyone resigns themselves to waiting. The news that my grandpa's forgetfulness was because of a progressive disease like Alzheimer's made little sense. I was 11 when the illness was formally diagnosed, and soon the symptoms began to manifest. First, grandpa's thoughts became jumbled and sentences went unfinished. If I had been older, I may have better understood the gravity and permanence of this gradual decay. At the time, I mourned what seemed only a temporary loss. When I was 14, grandma boldly announced that he was going to a nursing home. “I can't take care of him anymore,” she said. “We'll take him in,” Mom offered. “Cora, just give us a few hundred dollars a month to cover his medications. I'll turn the back kitchen into a home for him. Please.” “We can't do that. We have to be strong,” Grandma pursued. Inevitably, she won out. Marian Manor in Riverview became my grandpa's
permanent home two days after his 76
birthday. We visited only to find him sitting in
the dark before a tray of cold food. “Dad, why aren't the lights on?” Mom asked. He fumbled as he stared at his food. “Well, I don't know,” he said. We flicked the lights on, and after some complaints, the staff brought a plate of hot food. We fed grandpa together, trying to remind him of the fun times we'd had together, but he wasn't having it. “I want my Cory. What is this place?” “It's a hospital,” we said. “The doctors here are going to take care of you.” “Am I sick?”
We exchanged glances, uncertain of how to answer. The way he looked at us was most painful, as though we had betrayed him. After the visit, we climbed into the car. Mom fell against the steering wheel and cried. I did the same. At least at home, we could bring him hot plates of food and leave the lights on for him. At least we could do that. Our complaints to Grandma fell on deaf ears, and she remained adamant that he would stay there. We managed anyhow. Grandpa came home for a visit once a week to play with my cat and to play games with my dad. Grandpa was particularly fond of playing Trouble, and even more fond of forgetting which pieces were his. He would sometimes end up playing complete games by himself. Our visits at the nursing home were spent coloring pictures, playing games, reading, or sitting outside beneath a gazebo. In the spring, rabbits emerged from beneath the wood structure and scattered over the green grass. We talked about old times, and Grandpa's stories of the past became more fantastic and fictional. His past and present melded together into a strange portrayal of how things had happened. Brothers and sisters who died in childhood served as groomsmen and bridesmaids at his wedding, and their specters appeared to him for a friendly chat at night. By the time Grandpa went into the nursing home, I had completely lost the grandfather who let me ride a tractor on his Ohio property, and told me everything about the wild. I spent many nights crying and my faith wavered for the first time. There were many things wrong, but Grandpa's illness was particularly troublesome. My entire view
of the world hinged on a picturesque view, complete with Christianity to provide sanity to the insanity. A world without rules, without a God, seemed better than justifying God's laziness in handling his children's troubles. Years passed and Grandpa's downward spiral slowed. We plastered a board full of our pictures before him. Every time we visited, he stared at me, then turned to his board. A few of my school pictures stared back at him. “I know you,” he said with a laugh, pointing to a picture. “You're my Jinny.” He was very proud of his pictures, and especially proud of me. He always asked about school, to which any answer I gave invariably concluded with: “Well that's real good, you goin' to school. I only went to the third grade, but I wish I could a gone on.” The years passed relatively pleasantly, but my visits began to wane. Even now I wonder what exactly got in the way; work? Dating? I began trickling away from visiting, spending more and more time engrossed in my own life. A few months passed and I hadn't visited. When I returned, I was aghast. Grandpa was strapped into a chair. He had stopped speaking and spent his hours screaming. His eyes scarcely followed what was around him. The jovial laughter, the cheesy jokes, and the kindness were gone. I had just turned 20. Five months earlier, we brought grandpa home for Thanksgiving. He had needed trouble getting into the house, but it was expected of an 80year-old man. But he wasn't like this! He wasn't a vegetable in a chair, his tongue lolling out of his mouth, his mind oblivious to the world changing around him. We visited in August with my Grandma as he lay on a stretcher, breathing deeply.
He stared at us. Mom gestured to me and turned to him. “Dad, do you know who this is? Do you know who came to see you?” He stared at me. “It's Jenny,” mom added. Recognition seemed to spark momentarily. “Jenny,” he said. I reached out and touched his big hands. The fingertips were coarse from a lifetime of manual labor. I longed to have them around me again, hauling me onto his big tractor. I wanted him to carry me again. More than anything, I just wanted to talk to him again. What I wouldn't give just to color a picture again, or talk about the weather, or see if he knew what month it was. Anything but hearing my grandpa's voice for the last time. A few more months passed and the inevitable became more obvious. The nursing home called several times over a few weeks, saying that Grandpa's vital signs had dropped and we needed to come immediately. The man who had saved a pair of drowning boys in the river and car crash victims on the way to church was gone. When he stopped eating, the home began serving him liquified food. At first, he greedily took this in. And inevitably, as I continued to feed him, he stopped swallowing. He often choked. And I had the unenviable task of putting on gloves and clearing out any food that he hadn't swallowed. Very often, he didn't eat at all. With hospice's sudden entrance, the unthinkable became an even greater reality. As I stood over my grandpa's bed for the last time, watching his eyes roll back into his head, his black tongue peeking out from his gaping mouth, I whispered my thanks and
good-byes. Even now the words I spoke elude me; maybe the passion of my feelings got the better of me. I do know I hugged him and felt his rasping breath against my face. It was Christmas Eve when I last saw him. The few days after passed glumly. By now, my life was drastically different than what it was when grandpa's diagnosis first came in. I was no longer a fifth grader concerned with acne and boys. I was in my final steps of university, pursuing a degree in journalism. I was in a fledgling relationship that has since blossomed into the greatest blessing of my life. The phone rang very early one morning, disrupting the oasis my home had been turned into. I approached the phone with an abiding sense of fear, longing to see some other, disconnected name on the phone. Anything but the nursing home’s name etched so coldly in that stoic font, uncaring of the news’ delivery. But the news had to come some way, and that was the way it chose, at quarter after one in the morning. I dressed and headed to Grandma’s apartment to deliver the news in person an hour later. She knew as soon as she answered the door. The few days of funeral activities afterward were a blur. I woke up in numbness, pulling the day's dress clothes on before I went out. Losing Grandpa the first time was hard enough, when he was first diagnosed with Alzheimer's. And when he fell into a vegetative state, I lost him. When he died, I lost him again – but there was almost a painful sense of relief in that he wouldn't writhe and scream on that bed anymore. His viewing lasted for two days as a lifetime's worth of friends and acquaintances poured in. Some were from the steel mill he retired from more than 20 years earlier.
Some were childhood friends, neighbors from grandpa's first stint in Michigan. Of course it's always said that no one says anything bad about the dead – but no one said anything bad about Grandpa when he was living, either. He was the sort of man to come out on a zero degree day to climb under your car and tinker to help you out. The sort of guy to visit the sick for church. And the sort of guy with an undeniably friendly demeanor whose greatness followed him all through life. Grandma chose a black coffin with golden handles decorated with angels. A spread of red roses decorated the top of the coffin. Grandpa was a religious man who always read his Bible even after he was sick. And when those final moments came as we carried his coffin to its final resting place and set him down, a heaviness fell into my chest. When we climbed into the car and began to drive around a hill, I stared out the back of the car. The last thing I saw were those red roses staring at me. And I could only think of one verse that I’d always heard and read: Psalms 23:6 “Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life, and I shall dwell in the House of the Lord forever.” My Grandpa's goodness certainly followed me all through my youth; and the legacy of his goodness will continue to shape and mold my life and the lives of those after me even long after I am gone.