My grandfather passed away today, at the age of 88. Here is something I wrote last month:
Grave men, near death, who see with blinding sight
Blind eyes could blaze like meteors and be gay,
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.
Blind eyes could blaze like meteors and be gay,
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.
My paternal grandmother lived in Florida when she died, in 2005. She’d been living there for years, since I was a child so I didn’t have to watch her age. Her aging came in spurts, during visits to New York or my visits to Florida. Her hair went from a dyed copper to a silvery-gray. A cane appeared. Her skin sagged a little. Words seemed to get lost on the tip of her tongue. Yes, her aging came in small, manageable bites that I could handle. I didn’t think too much about it from my grandmother’s perspective. When she died, I was sad, yes but I didn’t feel much grief. She’d had a long, fulfilling life, or at least, I hoped she felt that way.
The story is the same with my paternal grandfather, who is still alive and kicking, as much as a 93-year-old fellow can, with a young lady friend to keep him company and nag him about his health. His aging, too, comes in spurts. Every time I see him, his hair is a little thinner along with the rest of him but he’s still a handsome guy, as I always see him in my mind’s eye.
I’ve come face to face with aging, with no room for denial, this past week. My maternal grandfather, my Grandpa Sol, as fate would have it, was transferred to a short-term rehab facility here in Riverdale, after a week-long hospital stay. He’s lived out on Long Island my whole life, and alone since my uncle passed away in 2006. He’s been a widow since my mother was 17, and never remarried. Grandpa Sol exists in my mind as a strong, rugged guy who worked with his hands. A veteran of World War II, he looks swarthy and handsome in old pictures. Because he lived on Long Island when I was growing up, I saw him more often than I saw my Florida grandparents. My memories of Grandpa Sol are more vivid– trips to KFC, sitting on his lap while he drove (It was the 80’s!), shopping trips to Toys ‘R’ Us.
Then, for nearly ten years, I didn’t see him at all. He and my mother were estranged, a story that is not mine to tell, but after being reunited, I felt that I didn’t know him. I felt a little anger, based on what I knew about the estrangement. But mostly, I felt that he and I were strangers. I still didn’t see him very often and when I did see him, I didn’t know what to talk to him about.
I began visiting him at the rehab facility, with trepidation. I am not an “old people” person. I’m afraid of offending their sensibilities. I worry about not being able to hear them or understand them. I suppose I don’t give them nearly enough credit. Diminished physical capacity doesn’t always mean that intellectual capacity has suffered the same fate. Often, sure, but not always. I started out with small talk: “How are you feeling today? Are they taking care of you? Are you getting what you need?” Grandpa Sol is a quiet guy, and with a paralyzed vocal cord, conversation is difficult for him, I think. His voice comes out raspy, jagged, the effort visible. He’s not used to my speech impediment. He says, “We have to talk more often. So I can get used to the way you talk.”
He has trouble eating. He complains about the blandness of the food, having subsisted on a diet of processed foods and fast food for years. His skinny-ness is alarming. A photograph hangs on the wall, of Grandpa Sol with two of his great-grandchildren on his lap. Taken only two years ago, his face is noticeably fuller and his eyes have more light in them. When I see him now, his face is haggard, his cheeks sunken in. I see his eyes light up when I walk in with my daughters in tow. He reaches out to them while they hide shyly behind my legs or in my shoulder. Alice confesses to me later that “old people are scary” and I understand what she means. By the time we leave, Grandpa is able to get a handshake from his great-granddaughters and maybe a kiss on the cheek, too.
This is what aging looks like.
He reaches out for support as he stands up. He asks for help cutting his chicken. He complains about his already-roomy pants being tight and uncomfortable. Young, pretty speech therapists tell him how to eat. Attendants help him shower. The PT directs him around the room as he pushes his walker obediently. Later, he complains to my sister, “I get more exercise at home.”
And it’s true. At home, he was often found in his backyard, tending to his bamboo. But that was before it became apparent that he was not taking care of himself. He seemed to age tremendously during that week in the hospital. He seemed to lose confidence in his ability to walk, to go to the bathroom on his own. At the rehab facility, he stays in his room all day. He talks to no one except his visitors. The nurse at the front desk asks me one day as I leave, “Is he always this quiet?” “Yes,” I say.
Observing Grandpa Sol this past week, I’ve come to realize: aging is one thing. Accepting that you’re aging is another entirely. Of course, he knows he’s growing older. “I’m almost 90 years old. I should be able to eat whatever I want.” “I’m going to be 100. I don’t need to be here.” “Slow down, ” I tell him, noting that irony only in afterthought. “Slow down. Let’s get to 89 first. We’ll worry about getting to 100 later, Grandpa,” I say, as I sit on his bed, holding his outstretched hand, his arm laying slack on the bed. I study his paper-thin, dry skin, his tattoos now shrunken, colors faded.
He says to my mother, “How did I get here?” He’s still figuring it out. When he tells me he doesn’t need to be there, I give him a little lesson in how his poor nutrition is a contributing factor. I don’t know if he understands that. He doesn’t watch documentaries about America’s obesity epidemic. He doesn’t think about the pitfalls of the corn-based American diet. He has no wife or girlfriend nagging him about his health. All he knows that after years of eating whatever he wanted and doing whatever he wanted, he’s being served food with no salt, and drinking coffee that’s been thickened to a sludge. He’s getting more attention now, on a daily basis, than he’s ever gotten before. I don’t know how he feels about that. But I know he wants out. He wants to be back home, where he can do what he wants and go where he wants, without approval from anyone, except maybe Mickey, his gentle pitbull.
On Thursday, I stop in with a sleeping Stella, only meaning to stay for a short time. I want to find out how his ENT appointment went and I hope to meet the doctor on his floor. When I arrive, he is being interrogated by a nurse-practitioner, who is trying to fill in the blanks on his charts, his records having not yet arrived. I fill her in on the throat cancer, the quadruple bypass, the valve replacements. There is still more to his medical history that I would find out later, from my mother. At lunchtime, he is visited by a speech therapist, one that had visited him the Saturday after he arrived. She notes that he seemed better on Saturday than he does at this moment, Thursday. She watches him eat his food, coaches him to keep his chin down as he swallows, so that his airway will close and block the food. He eats all his food, having been granted the gift of margarine for his mashed potatoes, and the chicken being a flavorful thigh, smothered in a tomato sauce. I see him eat more in that one sitting than I have all those previous days I’d been there. He finishes off a cup of peaches in syrup, and a container of apple sauce. He finishes his food, looks down at his tray and says, “I ate a lot,” a hint of surprise in his voice, and maybe a need for approval. I wonder, did he eat to please us or was he hungry? Was the food finally tasting better to him? I hope for the latter.
I want to take him on a walk. I wait while he cleans his dentures, and cautiously takes hold of his walker while I push a still-sleeping Stella in her stroller. I lead him out to the patio, where there is a warm breeze and a bright sun. We sit in the shade for awhile, Stella having woken up from her nap grumpy and anti-social. She buries her head in my shoulder while I watch Grandpa take in breaths of fresh air. He tries to engage Stella, to no avail. Feeling guilty, I make excuses for her but he seems to understand. He basks in the sun, pointing out the Long Island Rail Road. I gently correct him, “Yes, the metro-north, Grandpa but it’s on the other side.” I lead him over to the side of the patio where he can see the water but the tracks are not visible. “The Hudson River, Grandpa, and the Palisades. Do you see them?” He squints through his glasses and nods.
He is getting tired and it’s time to pick up Alice from school, so we shuffle back inside, where I help him get settled into bed. Stella and I say our goodbyes as his eyes close for a nap. “Get some rest, Grandpa,” I say, by way of parting.