When I went to visit my Gramps today, I expected to see him sitting by the sunny window in his wheelchair. But, instead, I found my beautiful, 94 year old grandfather lying under his covers in his nursing home bed, writhing in pain from his long-time aching back. True, he was feeling more confused than usual and looking smaller than he really is, but he was still as stubborn as always.
It was 1 p.m., but with the shades drawn, the room was so dark it seemed like night. Because the cranky Irishman had refused to get washed and dressed, he missed breakfast and lunch in the dining room, the social heart of his universe, and his cold lunch was still sitting on a tray in the corner.
I’m not used to seeing Grandpa when he wakes up in the morning, without his teeth, with extra-watery eyes, and in a confused, bed-drowsy state. So, seeing him like that at this hour was even tougher. Of course, I did not live with Gramps like my brother did. He’s seen it all, and probably wouldn’t have flinched had he walked in on him like that.
“Who’s that there?” he asked when I came to his bedside, though I was inches from his face, stroking his hair.
Grandpa is always confused these days. He’s 94, so it’s expected. But, he also has late-stage cancer and, lately, his confusion is getting worse.
“It’s Brenda, Gramps. Why aren’t you up yet?”
“Oh, hi Bren…my back hurts too much, I told them I don’t feel like getting up today.”
“Come on, not even to eat?”
“I don’t want anything,” he said with an air of defiant dismissal. “But stay here and visit me….”
And then, without missing a beat, “…Hey who are you? Are you a nurse?”
“No, Gramps, it’s me, Brenda. I’m going to sit here with you, okay?” I love this man so much. I can feel my heart break.
In blessed few seconds, an aide scrambled in, obviously relieved for back up. It’s not one of the regulars. The regulars know my family. One of us is there every day, especially my parents and brother.
He tells me my grandfather wouldn’t listen to him this morning. “Maybe he will listen to you though?…”
You betcha he will. That tough old goat knows better than to refuse any of us.
Without as much as a grunt, Gramps allowed himself to be washed and readied for the day. And, soon enough, the room was bright, the bed made and he was getting ready to sit in his sunny spot for a late lunch.
“So…uh…are you here alone?” he asked me for the tenth time since I arrived. He is fishing for the whereabouts of the boys.
Even when Grandpa is so confused he doesn’t remember any of our names, he always – always – remembers Eddie and Billy. The boys adore him too. He is their special treasure, their “Grandpa Red.” They don’t see him as a frail old man who struggles to get around and can’t remember things. Instead, they see the man I have always known – the tough-talking, big-hearted grandpa who never pulls a punch, yet somehow always managed, as we were growing up, to practice restraint with us whenever we needed the unconditional love of a grandparent…even when what we really deserved was a smack on the butt.
“They’re spending time with Papa today, making their own special memories, just like we did with you and Nana,” I tell him for the tenth time. The boys are luckier than they realize. Someday, they will fully appreciate the blessing of having two sets of grandparents, grandparents who are crazy about them and move mountains to ensure they are a regular and constant part of their lives.
I did not fully understand what I had as a youngster and young adult either, until I lost almost all of it.
Ten years ago, we lost my 56 year old aunt, my mother’s only sibling, and then, a year and a half later, our Nana, leaving only Grandpa behind. Our biggest fans at the ball field, the school and anywhere else we may be, they were always there. No occasion was too small.
“You know, Bren, I knew when one of you guys came up here today you weren’t going to let me get away with staying in bed all day, but I wasn’t gonna let THEM make me get up,” he said, with a gruff nod toward the staff station.
Yep, that’s our Gramps. We call him a punk, a big ol’ grump. And, even though he is anything but, he does enjoying putting up that front.
“You know Bren, you and the rest of the gang are always running up here, making a big deal over things, taking care of me…I don’t want you to have to make that kind of fuss.”
Flashes of all sorts of seemingly mundane moments from years past fly through my memory. He’s been a part of so many. I think of all the ways he made our lives better, safer, and filled with love.
“Gramps, you’ve done it for us the whole of our lives. Please let us do it for you, okay?”
I think he’s forgotten our conversation as he settles into his chair for his lunch, because he doesn’t say anything in return.
And then, “Well, you know what that’s called, don’t you, Bren? It’s called family,” he says.
“Yes, Gramps, it is.”
He may be increasingly forgetful and confused, but he is still sharp about the things that count.