Almost a year after we moved in together—five days before Halloween 2007 and five days after he turned 86—Granddad died. The two preceding months were horrible for him, as he completely degenerated, unable to speak or eat, never mind the loss of bowel control. When he finally passed away on October 26, it was a relief for me—it was too painful to watch the once defiantly proud man humbled so much, and I think he was relieved, too, to be done with the suffering.
As I walked out of the hospital that night my focus was still on Granddad but in the ensuing days and weeks my attention turned to the brand new. My girlfriend of six years was a few months pregnant with my baby. A year later I would be immersed in fatherhood, performing many of the same tasks I had for Granddad but with baby B, preparing his food, for instance, or changing his diapers, or just trying to communicate with a human being unable to reciprocate. Now with six-month-old G I’m doing it all again.
Even though so much time has transpired my mind often returns to that year. Thanks to living with Granddad (and Paul–who died this past spring at a nearby nursing home–to an extent), I learned what it was like to take care of someone other than myself and I can’t help but feel that my stint with my grandfather was instrumental in my developing the ability—let alone the patience—to nurture my two boys. So even though Granddad never got to meet my two kids (or them him), he’s still a part of their lives every day.
As summer came along, Granddad’s health worsened. Most significantly, he lost control of his bowels and was going to the bathroom on himself an average of three times a day–sometimes in an adult diaper, but even then it got everywhere. Despite all the humiliations increased old age had brought to him I could tell this latest development hurt–it certainly explained his deteriorating mood.
One July afternoon I noticed that the two old men were missing for some time so I walked back to their bathroom to see my grandfather standing in front of his toilet, holding his shirt up. He had no pants on and Paul was wiping his butt off. “Did Granddad go on himself again,” I said, asking an obvious question. “Yeah, but we’re getting him cleaned up,” Paul replied. “I apologize,” Granddad said.
Only in recent weeks had my great uncle begun to help with Granddad’s care. As a “caregiver” and someone in need of care, Paul was a bridge between granddad and myself. “If I’d known I was gonna live this long I would have taken better care of myself,” he would always say. At 74 then, Paul was a bit long in the tooth but all in all in decent shape. Of course, his mind was not as preserved and that presented its own problems.
Another afternoon in July I returned home from a trip outside our closed-in world and upon walking in the door found Paul in his recliner but Granddad absent. “Where’s the old man,” I asked. “Back there,” he said. I guess I knew already. I dropped my stuff in my room and ventured back to theirs. The door to the bathroom was open about a foot but the light was off. As I approached I could see movement in the dark and pushing the door open saw Granddad with his pants partially down, fiddling with his adult diaper. He had another movement and seemed befuddled. “Granddad, we gotta get your clothes off, buddy,” I said, and proceeded to undress his lower half. Then it was time to wipe him off. “Granddad,” I said with a sense of emphatic urgency. “You’ve got to go to the bathroom in the toilet.” He replied instantly, “I know how to do that.”
Paul and I tried to cope but it was hard—being Granddad’s caregiver was wearing us both down. Only twenty-four hours later, I walked in the front door to find Paul flustered, a diaper in his hand. “He did it again,” he said. Just then Granddad sauntered in with only a shirt and socks on. “You having fun doing that,” I said, prodding him, and he lashed back. “Does it look like I’m laughing?”
If that was a typical day, the rest of a week could provide exceptions to the general mundane rhythm. Just a few days later, Granddad lost his wallet. The whole time we lived together, he was obsessed with his leather fold-up billfold which he routinely yanked out and opened, fiddled with, sometimes pulling out his pictures or insurance cards. He was worried about his money and constantly said he had none. On this day, though, he had merely put the billfold aside somewhere when undressing to take his afternoon shower. Cleaned up and clothes changed, he could not find it anywhere and was somewhat frantic, at least for Granddad, displaying a determination rarely seen. He was in my room rifling through a stack of clothes, then in the laundry room going through his pants in the washer, then back to his room.
I was his companion in this mad pursuit. “Granddad, why don’t you just sit down,” I pleaded. “It’s gotta be in here somewhere. It’ll turn up.” My words fell flat as he headed back to his room. We sifted through a pile of clothes in his room. Not there. I went into the bathroom and opened the counter drawers. Then I heard a bang and turned to see Granddad trying to walk into the mirrored door of his closet. He had mistaken the reflection of the bathroom door for the actual passageway. He pushed his knuckles against it as I grabbed him by the backs of his arms and led him back into his room and returned to the bathroom in the search. Then I heard him say something and looked up. He was holding his wallet; it was on a shelf under the bill of a baseball cap. “Right where you left it,” I chided. He nodded and spoke: “Like a damned old man.”
The next night, my brother Joel came over to watch Granddad while I took Paul for a drink at a local bar. Previous to the move, Paul was a member of the Elks Lodge for twenty years and barring the odd day, he could be found there in his customary seat at the counter for two hours every afternoon, swigging “lite” beer and joking with his drunk buddies. The move had smashed this rhythm and while he seemed to enjoy the break for a few months in recent weeks he had begged me to take him out.
Ensconced on our bar stools, Paul and I guzzled a pitcher of beer and stared at the TV screen. Alzheimer’s affects different people differently, in Paul’s case it had wiped out his ability to form short-term memories. As a result, he was unlikely to remember the story he told five minutes previously, or once a day for the last year. So to sit with my great-uncle at a bar was to undergo the life of Paul, whether it was a tale of his days at Caterpillar or a remembrance of his favorite football coach, Alabama’s Bear Bryant. As he recounted, I drank and nodded. I knew about the time Paul’s supervisor got him a better job or when Bryant kicked Joe Namath in the butt for not hustling, but I sat listening anyway, my thoughts wafting along the tops of the bar-taps and the TV overhead. An hour later, and a few more mugs, we stumbled out into the bright light and headed home.
The next morning, Paul woke to find Granddad wide-eyed but in bed. When asked if he was going to get up my grandfather somberly replied, “I’m gonna lay in bed until I die.” Paul whispered as he told me this story later that morning. Granddad sat nearby, gobbling the bacon and eggs (taking care to sop up the runny yoke with his buttered toast)—his favorite meal—I fixed him most Sundays.
Later in the afternoon, the three of us sat in silence watching Tiger Woods win a golf tournament when Granddad interrupted. “You two can go out if you want to. Don’t wait here on account of me.” I just looked at him, and Paul laughed absent mindedly. “I’m on my way out of this world.” I stood up and put my hand on his shoulder. “Why are you so sad today,” I asked. He looked up into my eyes. “I’m a day older,” he said.
The first couple months in Charlottesville were a blur of doctor’s visits as Paul and Granddad were initiated and immersed into the area’s medical system. Each underwent cat scans, there was a colonoscopy at some point for Paul, and we found out Granddad needed a new defibrillator (his third). In those first few weeks, he was also discovered to have a nasty rash on his rear, and a cream was prescribed which I administered once a day, disposable gloves on my hands. When it was all said and done, the two had both been officially diagnosed with Alzheimer’s, and in Granddad’s case, a touch of dementia.
Those early winter months were also a period of acclimation as daily routines were quickly established. I had recently started working for a weekly paper and writing for a living allowed me to spend an unusual amount of time at home, freeing me to tend to the old guys’ needs. I already knew that Granddad was very particular about when he performed his daily tasks, in particular his meal times. Despite his decline, he was still exact about a schedule he had followed for decades. He liked to eat lunch around 11, dinner around 5 and I tried to stick to this.
A typical day might be like one I recorded in a notebook around that time. This one began around 7 am when Granddad emerged from the room he shared with Paul. I heard him clinking around the coffee pot and went into the kitchen to help him pour his coffee. On this morn, though, he was doing alright so I let him finish, then poured a bit of milk into his cup to cloud the coffee, just the way he liked it. Next, I prepared his breakfast: a bowl of cereal, half a banana and a pill of some sort.
For the next few hours Granddad assumed his place on the living room couch, drifting in and out of sleep. His only interruption was the thirty minutes he and Paul spent on the treadmill. For the last few years the two had dispensed with exercise altogether. Now I had them walking nearly four to five times a week.
After lunch, Granddad meandered into my room again, mumbling something. It was his usual bath time so I pointed him towards his room. “Take your clothes off, Granddad,” I told him. Five minutes later I drifted into his room and there he was, stark naked. Seeing an 85-year-old man unclothed was a startling site every time as gravity and increasingly deteriorating health had taken their toll. Stripped of any excess flesh, skin hung loosely off his hunched frame. The defibrillator—his motor and engine—protruded from his chest like an extra-large square wart. I turned the water on and helped him into the shower. “Whoo, that’s cold,” he exclaimed. He always found the temperature of the water either too hot or cold. “That’s okay, it’s warming up,” I assured him. Cautiously, he stepped under the nozzle to let the water run over his hair. “Make sure you use soap,” I shouted at him.
20 or 30 minutes later, he was back in my room with underwear and socks on but struggling with his undershirt so I grabbed it, found the head and arm holes and held it for him to slip into. Paul finally noticed from his recliner in the living room, drifted in, and took his brother back into their room to finish dressing him. [To be continued…] Part One