Sunday, November 11, 2007

man of steel

since my great-grandmother passed away, i've taken to calling my great-grandfather on sunday afternoons.

it's not easy to find a time that fits into both our schedules. disbelieve me if you like, but my grandfather doesn't exactly sit around. he reads his paper, he compares music, he goes visiting, attends events, davens at shul, goes to his meals, watches the game. the way we figured it there's about a half-hour between three-thirty and four on a sunday that he's available. perhaps this will sound like a familiar story to you, what with my father's mother (known in vernacular as the mother of my father) having so many 'affairs' herself. but it isn't the same kind of busy at all. i'm not sure i can explain even to myself why this is so.

it sounds strange to me now, but i always saw my great-grandfather as this kind of indestructable force. when i was little, my great-grandparents babysat for us all the time. my grandfather drove us to school, he folded our laundry, he took me on the slide - there was nothing he couldn't do. my grandma would sit on the couch and have tea-parties with us or sing to us, but it was my grandfather who would hoist us over his shoulder and put us on the top of the slide, or reach up and carry us down when we occasionally panicked. the two of them were just a part of my house. when he was angry he could bellow like anything, but i don't remember him being angry at us so often. i just know that when he was even i wised up, and i was something of a snot in my early grade school years.

it never, ever occurred to me to worry about my grandpa. nothing made him cry. nothing ever frightened him. there were no stairs he couldn't climb. i think even then he would talk about when he was gone, in the annoying and abstract tone adults take when they want to communicate to you vague life lessons for 'when you're older.' like, 'when i'm gone, you'll wish you'd paid more attention to this tape i made of my organ playing', or if that failed to get your attention, 'listen! years from now that tape will be worth money!'

i say it's strange now because then i didn't realize not everyone got to have great-grandparents. people made the term sound really old, but i never found anything particularly old about either of them. for crying out loud, the man lifted more laundry baskets than i did. my grandma was a little different; she used to fret about things. i don't think she let me go down the stairs by myself till i was eight. but my grandfather? i remember telling my counselors in summer camp that if they didn't play the game i wanted to play i'd run down the block and recruit my great-grandfather to beat them up. and then being mystified by their doubled-over laughter.

there was a time when i was 12 or 13, a brief, brief window of time, when i was old enough to communicate with them as people rather than guardians and they were not yet so old as to have lost any of the capabilities they had when i was young. these are the days that i will probably always have in my mind when i think of my great-grandparents. i used to go over to visit them on shabbos afternoons, usually by myself, climb up to their apartment over my regular grandparents. my grandma would be sitting on that awful green couch, looking through coupons with a magnifying glass. my grandfather would be reading the paper in his stiff armchair. and i would sit in the space between them, on the couch next to my grandma. and i'd just probe one tiny bit - "grandpa, did you read the article about the-" and he'd go off on a complete and informed tirade about something, while my grandmother tried to steer the conversation back to something she actually cared about. they'd get out picture books and she'd clip my bangs with bobby pins like the hairdresser she'd been and my grandfather would recite jokes straight out of bob hope's 1960's-era autobiography with the communist yellow binding.

or i'd come on a weekday or something like thanksgiving and find him in the back bedroom with his organ - his "fun machine" - playing a tune which quite frankly sounded ghastly to me. i would sit there myself many times when i got bored downstairs, frustrated with the keys; i could never get any sound out of the bottom half, where he could make flutes and violins and hawaiin guitars (even though they all sort of sounded the same with your eyes closed.)

i think i was in tenth grade when my great-grandparents moved into the nursing home. it happened overnight. he had a stroke that left him with some speech problems, which i don't hear much in his talk anymore, and a bad leg he still can't walk much on, a bad arm; my grandmother, never an easy-going woman, could not be left to herself, and her arthritis was pretty bad. their move to the home stunned me at first, and then, when i saw for myself over repeated visits that being in a facility hadn't really changed who they were, my alarm lessened. okay, so he couldn't walk so good. still, you'd have had to be an idiot to pick a fight with my grandfather. nobody was going no place.

i don't know if you want to consider it luck that i was already away in college when my grandmother began slipping away. every time i came back she would be slightly more confused, slightly more sleepy, slightly more deaf. out of all us kids, she retained her recognition of me and the boys the longest because i think we'd been part of her world for longer, and she could touch my curly hair and know me at once, and then she'd talk to me. but that was a different kind of talking. i watched my grandmother become a little girl again, come down to the simplest and brightest emotions - "you're so beautiful!" "i'm so happy!" - and then fade away. for years i didn't speak to my grandfather very much because whenever i visited, i spoke to my grandmother. i remember thinking vaguely that my grandfather was alright and he'd understand, but she needed to see me and hold my hand.

and then, you know, there's new york, and school, and work, and the things you worry ceaselessly about when you lose perspective of things. months went by when i didn't speak to either of them. i made it home the day before my grandmother died, but i didn't see her. my father still says that that's probably a good thing.

but anyway, as i said, her funeral woke something up inside of me. my grandfather cried. after 67 years of marriage, of course he cried, but somehow i didn't want him to. i didn't want him to cry. i didn't want him to not be able to get up the steps to my grandparents' house, the steps i watched him go up a million times with no problem when i was a kid.

and that realization has only grown when i talk to him on the phone on sundays. it has taken 18 years, but slowly, i am realizing that nobody is made of steel. and it terrifies me.

thank G-d, my grandfather's alright now. usually when i'm speaking to him and he says, 'what? i can't hear you,' it's because my cell phone, whose battery is not nearly as long as my grandfather's, has given up the ghost after thirty-six whole minutes off the charger. but even though i know this, it always leaves me with a sudden spark of panic. for the first time, i see my great-grandfather as something fragile and tenuous, though he gives me only the faintest signs of weakness.

we have more in common than you'd think. we both live in facilities of some kind. we compare the food and have a kind of loser's competition over who eats worse (i'm winning). we talk about my classes and my friends and his friends and his classes that he took in high school or that my mother took or even my grandfather. everything kind of runs together. i have found lately that i can't get off the phone with him, even when i know i should, that i must be wearing him out.

i just want him to stay the way he is, who he is, forever, and always be just a phone call away. but that's the thing about being a great-granddaughter and not just a regular one - you tend to come in a little late in the action. and it's normal for people to leave you a little bit at a time in their old age; we usually think of it as one of the happiest endings a person could have. but i feel like it's not fair. a little part of my brain is sitting in that theater going, 'hey, listen! i'm going to be here awhile, i got a lot ahead of me! stick around!'

in the meanwhile, when i get off the phone with him lately, i'm like this. i am happy to have the grandfather i've always had, this man who is a cornerstone of my family, who has seen two or three or depending on how you count them five world wars, who was there before all of us yet still shoots the breeze with me over my teenage angst for however long i want.

if comic books could come true, i would have one of those freeze-guns or crystal tanks all the evil supervillains always seem to have, where they can preserve the people they love for all time. but i guess life was never meant to be that way.

the funny thing is that he still thinks i'm calling for his sake.


Blogger Stubborn and Strong said...

one thing, i am little confused, when you mention your grandfather, u mean great grandfather? all of this post is your great grandfather not grandfather? I am little mixed up.

But i know what you mean a man of steel, i see my father a man as steel but as i get older, i no longer really need to depend on him to fix my problems bec i could do it easily so i don't really NEED him, but WANT him, of course i want him. But my father realize that i don't NEED him, he have mixed feeling like he is proud of me that i could handle myself but same time he is not being "useful" to me but he knows i want him around forever and he'll try his best. Your great grandfather is molded as a man as steel because u and maybe others need and want him to do these things and expect still do it that's make his life going and live his life richer because he have purpose to live. Keep going, even though he may not as he used to be but treat him as a man as steel is good for his sake and your sake.

7:45 AM  
Blogger fudge said...

good point, stubborn: unless i say something like 'regular grandparents', i mean my great-grandfather throughout.

i think you're right about the last part, as well.

8:18 AM  
Blogger Ezzie said...

;'( As someone who used to visit his grandmother all the time in her house, and now is dealing with the idea that she doesn't know who I am while she lives in a nursing home... that's all I could think about reading this.

It's why that last line resonated so strongly with me - for *my* sake, I try to avoid calling there too often; I can't visit more than once on any given trip back home. It would shatter in my mind how I think of my grandmother.

But I should still do it for her sake, I know, and I'm horrible.

8:58 AM  
Blogger Halfnutcase said...

... I'm jealous. I hardly even knew one set of my grandparents, much less any of my greatgrandparents.

wow you are increadibly lucky, and so are your grandparents.

(fortunately my mother comes from a line of people who just don't know how to die, and I'm thinking that it is likely that my children will have at least her, if not my grandchildren as well. (her parents died in a car crash with a drunk driver when she was three.))

4:41 PM  
Blogger Hila said...

i can identify so much with this post, though in my case it is with my regular grandparents. it's hard to see people you thought were invincible become vulnerable and almost frail, because you just don't know how to integrate who they were with who they are now. my grandmother (my father's mother) is very child-like now, and speaking with her can be very exhausting because i have to repeat everything five or six times, and even then it seems as though the lights are on but nobody's home. my grandfather is getting weaker on a daily basis, it seems, and his memory is faltering. i remember the grandparents who took me hiking and sailing and skiing, and i just do not know how to interact with them now that they are showing their 86 years.

anyway, enough about me. i think it is great that you call your grandfather on a regular basis, even if he doesn't seem to be the same grandfather of your childhood. his spirit is still the same, even if it doesn't come through as much these days. it's hard to think that the people we love will one day be gone, but at least we can try to connect with them as much as possible before that day comes.

8:09 PM  
Blogger Steg (dos iz nit der ┼íteg) said...

i barely knew one grandparent... only met her twice that i can remember. the idea of having great-grandparents, much less communicative ones, just boggles my mind.

6:57 AM  
Blogger Rafiki said...

you're better off than we are. we never even got the shot you had when you were 13, but we get to visit him every week, so we're even.

or are we?

7:34 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I just lost my grandma this year, and I have to tell you, she had the spunk like your grandma...I called her three times a week, and she liked to say things like, "Don't people your age have better things to do?" No matter who's sake you are calling/visiting for, those memories are such a blessing when they are as much as you can! I still pick up the phone occasionally to tell her something and can't believe it when she is gone...

9:15 PM  
Blogger outofAMMO said...

I see him every friday.

8:24 AM  
Blogger RaggedyMom said...

This is such a poignant and moving piece. Thanks for being bold enough to be personal.

5:01 PM  

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