The smell is what I remember most. It was the dulled scent of urine and bleached vomit. A few forgotten souls gazed helplessly at the ceiling. Others attempted labored, crooked smiles. It was a nursing home where residents sat sloppily in wheelchairs like abandoned marionettes. Even short visits there made me feel I was stumbling through a museum of unwanted souls. I hated going there. I hated going there so much, I didn’t visit my Grandparents for nearly a year. When I was young I considered my Grandparents an odd combination of deity and Matlock. Neither was particularly interesting to me. But they loved me, and so I often spent time at their house. I spent many Friday nights painting brown resin-looking walnut statues with Grandma while granddad argued with the most obnoxious dog God ever assembled. On Saturday morning I’d help Grandpa make “pigs in the blanket” out of frozen sausage and my favorite flakey biscuits. Those weekends were far from thrilling, but like I said, they loved me.
As I “grew up” my patience for crafts and pigs-in-a-blanket waned, and every weekend eventually turned into any weekend I couldn’t spend with my buddies. Our relationship didn’t change much. It didn’t change because our relationship didn’t have to do with who I was. It had everything to do with their love for me. Our hours in each other’s company were always about me. My grandmother pulled out the crafts because she thought my proclivity for drawing muscle-bound men in spandex might nicely translate into an appreciation for painting little raccoon maquettes. Despite appearances, my grandfather didn’t always have those sausages and biscuits in the fridge. He did however, always have them when I came over. What an elegant, sweet illusion. An illusion that only fed into the greatest and worst lie I ever believed about Dorothy and Euel Fox. After all that time with my Grandparents, I thought I knew everything I ever needed or wanted to know about them. They were perfectly dependable. Perfectly content. Perfectly patient. Perfect. The problem is, “perfect” is an illusion.
It wasn’t until a year after my first visit to that nursing home that I tried again. By then, my grandmother’s dementia had changed her personality dramatically. Her first bout with senility was the reason she and Euel had been relegated to “full-time care” to begin with. It also had a great deal to do with why I didn’t want to visit. The only thing more difficult than visiting the nursing home was staring into my eternally patient grandmother’s eyes and only seeing a frustrated, angry woman I didn’t recognize. I honestly didn’t know if her dramatic change in spirit was because some bit of her soul had been swept away…or if she was just demonstrating a sincere reaction to being held prisoner “for her own good.”
Fortunately for me, my grandparents jumped at the chance to go out for breakfast. So we did. For a year or so I picked up Grandma and Grandpa every other Saturday morning from the nursing home and we’d go to Steak N’ Shake for blueberry pancakes and strawberry syrup (Grandma, a diabetic, had whole-heartedly surrendered herself to an intense sweet-tooth.). In the steps from the car, to our booth, there were a dozen rituals of love from Euel to Dorothy. He always let her order, even though they typically shared. He always walked behind her to make sure she didn’t fall, even though all he could offer was a boney cushion. He was always patient with her, despite her angry snips about his terrible hearing.
I vividly remember sitting across from my grandmother the first morning we went out. She was frail. Her skin was ghostly, and her eyes somewhere between vacant and desperate. She had stopped wearing her meticulously maintained wigs, her thin silver hair was instead combed back in a way a clueless husband might have done for a wife that didn’t know any better. My heart broke and a jumble of guilt spilled out. “I’m sorry. I haven’t been a good grandson. I know that. I just want you to know…I’m going to do better.”
After a few awkward moments, my grandfather cleared his throat and started to speak, only to be interrupted by Grandma. “No one comes to see us. Just your parents, and sometimes Sandy. None of the grandkids come see us.” She wasn’t trying to make me feel guilty; she was just doing what her dementia had freed her to do. Regardless of her intention, I felt more ashamed. For about a year, my Grandparents and I had a standing routine of breakfast every other Saturday. Sometimes I’d take my daughter. Sometimes we’d go to IHOP. We continued that way until my grandmother became too ill to leave her room.
I visited Dorothy once while she was dying. Euel sat nearby crying, and listening to hymns. I sat silently. I felt functionless, and so I excused myself and kissed my grandmother goodbye. It was a clumsy kiss. Her skin was cold, and her body heaved with labored, short breathes. That moment chilled me, and jarred loose a “I’ll see you soon, Grandma.” But I didn’t. She died a few weeks later.
The night before the funeral, the whole family gathered for dinner, which hadn’t happened in years. Amid the shallow promises to “keep in touch,” my grandfather began to cry, something I had witnessed only twice before. “I did my best to take care of her. I hope she knew. I hope she knew I loved her.” For the first time I saw my grandfather as a fellow man. All of us hope the people we love will know how much we love them. All of us hope what we did was pure enough, sincere enough, or just enough to articulate something supernatural. His words weren’t just a hope, though. They were a regret. They were an admission. I don’t know that I’d ever heard Dorothy and Euel say they loved each other.
I suddenly realized Euel needed a friend. Truthfully, I did too. Grandpa and I began meeting every Saturday. Our first ride without Grandma was a dull one. Casual conversation is difficult when both of you are facing forward, and one of you is nearly deaf. I prepared myself for a mind-numbing breakfast. After a few moments at the restaurant our eyes met. He stretched a polite, empty smile across his face just like the one I used to keep in my back pocket during my “sales days.” He wasn’t having fun either. How was that possible? For lack of a better and less idiotic phrase, I’m somewhat of a social butterfly. Funny. Charming. Only a little irritatingly insecure. How was he bored?
So, I did something I had never done before. I talked to my Granddad like a man. I talked to him like a buddy I wanted to know better. I made sarcastic jokes. I started asking him if he needed anything. I asked him about his family, his life, and anything else that might’ve helped me be a friend. In return, I gained something I didn’t know I was missing. I learned about my heritage. Every conversation became an opportunity to learn instead of a ritual of obligation.
Over that last year with Euel, I heard stories I’d never heard before. He talked about growing up with a younger brother, and sitting on their front porch together waiting for the Sears truck to deliver their one and only real toy; a little wagon that they played with until the wheels fell off. I asked him questions about my dad, and discovered he was named “Ray” because my grandmother saw him as a source of joy during a difficult time. He told me about the time he nearly fell through the ceiling, and later had to have blood drawn out of his swollen hip with an unimaginably large needle.
As time passed we became better friends. After a few months, we would even talk in the car. He began starting the conversation instead of waiting for me. Every once and a while I’d nudge his knee with my fist like an old buddy giving his friend grief. It always made him laugh.
One morning we were driving and Grandpa started a new story. “When I was very young, I walked to school every day. There was a dog of considerable size that from time to time would chase me. It was frightening. One day a group of older men saw me jamming my pocket full of rocks…so many that my pants were sagging. One of the men laughed at me and asked, ‘What are you gonna do with all those rocks?’ I told him, ‘I’m gonna throw them at that dog!’” We both laughed. He laughed so hard at his own story, he had trouble catching his breath. A lot of his stories were like that—sort of incomplete arcs that just made you happy. The story didn’t matter. It was the glimmer in his soul as he rediscovered old memories.
Real friends don’t just share the good times, though. We talked about regrets, failure, and pain. I never knew that my great-grandfather left his family during an affair. That realization wasn’t a comfort, but it did go a long way toward opening my mind and perspective. It’s not that I had ever done anything similar, but it is important to understand that we all have sin. Even Grandpa had his share of moral failings. He wasn’t perfect. In many ways, he was a lot like me.
I was on my way toward squandering the little time I had left with Euel. I know it’s old fashioned to believe that God guides those that are willing to listen. I know in our world it’s easy to categorize everyone we know into neat drawers labelled by simple, generic terms. Life is about investment though. Dismissing a person is always easier, but you never know what wonderful mystery you’re filing away.
It’s been a little over two months since Euel died. I miss him. Thank God I miss him.