My memories of my grandfather begin and end with his voice. Deep and sturdy, when he laughed, the room shook, as though struggling to hold the strength of his robust personality. At 6’3, he towered over us grandchildren, casting a shadow you didn’t want to be in when he asked who spilled the juice. Not that he couldn’t be fun, I have many fond memories of him loading us up on the trailer and pulling us around the yard on the riding lawn mower, or showing family slide shows while we all howled with laughter.
Through most of my childhood, most of what I knew about Papa was that he liked golf. So each year for Christmas, friends and family showered him with all things golf: golf ties, balls, tees, toys, cups, gadgets, you name it, he got it. Luckily, he really did like golf, and he gave all of us grandkids lessons. Some of us paid more attention than others, which became evident when I sliced my ball into the woods and then wrecked the golf cart into a tree looking for it.
It wasn’t until I was a teenager, after my parents moved to Texas and I moved into my grandparent’s basement that I began to peel off the layers that were my grandpa. There, the three of us enjoyed warm dinners and casual conversations and I got a peek at this warm and fuzzy side of my imposing grandpa.
During one of those dinners I mentioned something about saving for a car. With that, Papa hopped up, returning with a legal pad and a freshly sharpened pencil. With a lick of his finger, he scratched out an old fashioned spreadsheet and I fed him the information of my meager earnings and expenses while he scrawled away. When the dust cleared, I had myself a budget, one that I still adhere to today.
He was funny and quirky. More than once, when I arrived home after a late night out with friends, I’d pop upstairs for a midnight snack and find him in his pajamas, munching on a bowl of cereal while listening to a sermon on his headphones. Grabbing a snack of my own, I’d sit down and we’d talk quietly about everything under the stars.
He regaled me with stories of his years in school, in the service, at the job place, and raising three kids. The more I listened the more fascinating he became. I’d always thought that my dad and grandfather were nothing alike, but the more I got to know him I found that they had more in common than I’d ever realized.
When I finally bought that car, Papa was thrilled. In fact he drove me to get it, standing to the side and nodding when I made my offer. Never mind that it had a million miles on the odometer or hardly made it home, as far as Papa was concerned it just needed a tune up. And he was right. Whenever the car gave me trouble he’d be outside, hauling an old battery charger out of the basement. He taught me how to tinker, lugging out his red tool box with W FANNING stenciled in the side—the one that now sits in my basement. He had something in his shop for any occasion: belt cleaners, spark plug cleaners, carburetor spray, all neatly tucked into their labeled slots.
One of my chores was to cut the grass, and Papa gave me a thorough lesson on the riding mower. Tricks with the choke and clutch, recommendations on how I should cut. He hovered over me as I made careful passes over the lawn, and if I hadn’t known better I would have thought he wasn’t quite ready to give up his grass cutting duties.
A man steeped in his faith, his dinnertime blessings were ardent, heartfelt prayers, not just recited passages to be plowed through en route to eating. I began to see him as a man who was passionate about faith, family, and helping others. At that time, I needed a heavy dose of all of those.
His help was tangible, when he saw a problem he fixed it. When he saw my cd’s scattered across the bed, he didn’t tell me to straighten up he took me to his shop and together we built a wooden case. Measuring and nailing, sanding and finishing, he guided me with funny anecdotes and humorous tales as we looked over our masterpiece. It would be yeas later before I realized that the hour we spent making the case was far more valuable than my cd collection.
What is Dementia?
Dementia is a general term for a decline in mental ability severe enough to interfere with daily life. Memory loss is an example. Alzheimer's is the most common type of dementia.
A Few Years Later...
After moving out and setting up on my own, I’d still visit almost weekly for dinner and laundry. My grandparents eventually downsized and moved into a more manageable apartment, but the familiar furnishings and great clock remained.
After supper, my grandfather would wash the dishes and I’d help clean the kitchen. It was a fair trade for a good meal, he’d explain, his voice like that of a teenage busboy working his shift. And even today, when I clean up the kitchen after dinner, I think of Papa, scrubbing the pans and expressing his love for the cook.
By then Papa was telling more stories than ever, most of them plucked out of the vault of his childhood, and many of them I’d heard the previous week. I didn’t mind, I liked hearing them, but then again I wasn’t paying attention to what it meant. Most of our family was scattered about the country, so when they’d visit it was easier for them to see his decline. Maybe I was too close to see it, or maybe it was something I didn’t want to acknowledge.
But there were other worrying signs. Accompanying my grandparents on trips down to see my sister and her family in Asheville, North Carolina, Papa’s driving had gotten downright dangerous. But still, how could I tell the man who taught me so much about cars that he couldn’t drive? He drove army jeeps and trucks, and besides, wasn’t I the one who had plowed into the tree with the golf cart?
Somehow, Grandma convinced him to let me drive. And when he relinquished the keys and took to brooding in the passenger seat, it felt odd and unnatural, like we were stripping him of yet another shred of his dignity. A few miles later he was fine, pointing out road markers and telling stories of age old road trips. But still, I wasn’t ready for swapping roles, I wanted to be the grandkid.
Not long after, Grandma sat me down and explained their decision to move to Williamsburg. Even I could no longer ignore the obvious. Papa’s condition was gradually worsening. I could see the strain on my grandmother’s face as her role expanded. She was exhausted. Papa was no longer the staunch bookkeeper with the meticulous eye for detail, and he had difficulties with even basic chores around the apartment. But he was still Papa, with the twinkling eyes and infectious laugh, occasionally pulling out those nuggets of wisdom that only come with life and experience.
After the move, the pace quickened. The golf clubs were replaced with a cane. And now I was on the visiting end, only seeing him only a few times a year instead of every couple of weeks. Then the changes became shocking, and I was left reeling at the sight of the gaunt, frail man who’d replaced my powerful grandfather. Sure, there were glimpses, but they were just that—brief flashes of the jovial guy I remembered. It was like I was replacing all of the good memories of my Papa for new ones with a stranger. As his condition progressed, the only option was the assisted living facility with around the clock care.
It was during a visit there with my dad when he was in town, that I swelled with pride as the nurses gawked over the resemblance of grandfather, father, and son. But the mood in the room was somber, at least for me. Papa was shriveled and bruised, his head shook and his eyes glossy. My dad kept the conversation going, as only he could, and Papa gazed out the window with a faraway stare years removed in thought. In a brief moment of clarity he smiled at me and I was thrilled that he’d remembered my name. And then he asked me how high school was going.
I nodded, trying my best to keep my eyes from welling. It was the small things now, and I reminded myself to appreciate that the man who’d taught me an encyclopedia worth of lessons still knew my name. I wanted him to laugh and tease me about my hair, to joke about the commercials during the evening news. To come outside and help me get the lawn mower started. Wasn’t he in there, somewhere?
It wasn’t long after that visit that Papa passed away. The family gathered at my cousin’s house after the funeral. We laughed and told Papa stories, everyone with their own tale, a unique and special one because that’s what he was to all of us. Special. He was a great man who lived a great life. Some remembered him as the strict rule enforcer, the stern man who scared the grandkids into behaving. Others recalled the softer side of the later years. I remembered the man with the headphones at the dinner table and sharing a late night talk over a bowl of cereal in the dark. There were many sides to Papa, you just had to stay up late enough.