Sep 29, 2015

The fading of older relatives

First post on this topic here. Second one here.

My grandfather isn't going to die. Not imminently, anyway.

Over the week of my visit, Grandpa's health improved quite markedly. When I first saw him last Monday, he was barely conscious in a hospital bed, frail and curled up. The bedsheets obscured the form of his legs, so it appeared as if he were half a man – his body ending just below his small paunch.

That Friday, he was fully formed again. When we came to visit, he was seated in a wheelchair in his room at the rehab facility. He greeted us in a hoarse voice as my dad and I seated ourselves in chairs by the wheelchair. We asked him how he was feeling. He was feeling fine. Then we stared at each other, and at other things in the room, for the next several minutes.

At one point, Grandpa mentioned that the University of Michigan had sure paid a lot for their new football coach. My dad and I agreed. When my dad left the room a few moments later, Grandpa mentioned that the University of Michigan had sure paid a lot for their new football coach. I agreed.

We concluded that visit with a wheel-walk through the facility's garden. It is a beautiful garden, well kept by MSU Horticulture students (as my dad learned from a very old woman who was wandering about with clippers, attempting to deadhead roses that were too close to the ground for her to safely reach).

We returned to the facility on Sunday. It was a whole family affair this time – my mom joined my dad and I for the trip, and my aunt was visiting with Grandpa when we arrived.

Grandpa was in the room's recliner. I took a seat in the wheelchair, my parents seated themselves along the wall. We all watched the Tigers lose to the Twins (a 7-1 blowout, with the Twins getting 6 runs in the first inning). I've never been more excited about watching a sports game. You need something in that situation, some external content to grasp onto. Without some external stimulus, a great gulf opens up between the people in the room. Conversation consists of half-whispered strategizing among the adults, punctuated every three sentences by a theatrically loud, vapid question pitched to Grandpa. If the strategizing was successful, or if we just get lucky, the question hits and we have something to talk about for a few minutes. "California? Well I drove my 1930 Packard out to California! To San Francisco, in fact. The oldest car to make the trip."

And we are all thankful for the topic, even if it is one of three topics in endless rotation. Because the rehash of an old memory is infinitely better than a stark, silent acknowledgement of the great gulf, which consists entirely of staring at another person, at their hands and forearms, their hair and brow and eyes that don't contact yours. Staring, and wondering: "Is anyone in there? How far distant has he grown?"

It wasn't all grim. There were good moments, too. Good to help him eat lunch, in the hospital when he was too frail to manage it capably by himself. Good to walk along a garden path, wheeling him ahead of me. And when we returned to his comfortable, neutral room, good to hear him ask with a smile: "So who's handsomer – me or your dad?"

But goodness wasn't the bulk of it. The bulk of it was just empty. And that emptiness is sad. There isn't any there there.

[rereads:1, edits: cut some words, phrasing tweaks]