I don't visit my grandfather nearly as often as I should. He lives in the Townhouse, an "assited living facility" just about a mile from my home. It's a nice place; clean and friendly with quality care. It is large structure that looks like condominium, and I pass it every day on my way to work and my way home. I don't go for many reasons, some of them selfish. Maybe all of them selfish. I don't like the smell of old people. I don't like facing mortality, mine or my grandfather's. I don't like seeing him strapped to a wheelchair, half the man he used to be. I don't have the time, the patience, the good will it takes to go there as often as my mother does. I do feel bad about this, but apparently not bad enough to make an effort to get there more often.
Grandpa Joe turned 92 yesterday. So tonight, we packed up a birthday-in-a-bag and headed over to Townhouse. Me, my two sisters, our respective significants and children and my parents. We took grandpa into a private room set up for just such occasions and pulled the festivities out of the bag; a Happy Birthday banner, plates, cups and an ice cream cake. Grandpa was absolutely delighted. He had no idea we were coming. I don't know if he even knew it was his birthday until we got there.
This is the thing about Grandpa: he flutters between cognizance and an alternate reality. When we got there, he was mentally alert and thrilled to see us. We talked about the Yankees and wrestling and the kids. He made his usual jokes, asking when Natalie was getting married and when DJ was getting a job. These are old jokes, the same ones he thought were so funny before he began to mentally drift away. We laughed in all the right places. He beamed. He told us stories about the barrel factory he worked in in Brooklyn, the Dodgers and aunts and uncles all dead now. He has always told us these stories, but he always tells them in different ways, not from rote memorization, and those are the moments when we know he is still with us.
Somewhere in between cutting the cake and eating it, Grandpa Joe slipped into that place where his memories are phantoms and his thoughts are blurred. He told us he was going back to Brooklyn tonight, he was just waiting for his ride. When my father asked who was picking him up, he mentioned a relative that had been dead for 20 years. He asked me if I was taking good care of his car, and I just nodded and humored him and this made me feel bad. He fought with my mother, insisting that the Yankees were playing tonight, they hadn't lost the series last night, it was only 1-0. He called us by the wrong names, asked about events that never happened and asked my sister when she was getting married. She's been married 7 years, she told him, and he yelled at her for not inviting him to the wedding.
It's unnerving to see someone unravel right before your eyes. Usually when I go see him is either coherent, and we talk about the past and the present and everything makes sense, or he is a little off kilter and we talk about the past and the future; about dead cousins who call him every night and tell him secrets and about when he is going to go back to his apartment in Uniondale, the one he hasn't lived in for 5 years. It's ok that way, because I can sense right away where he is at and I adjust the conversatoin accordingly. But seeing him go both ways in the space of two minutes made me feel off balance. A festive atmosphere turned quickly into a somber room and we milled about, cleaning up and not saying much.
My father, always the man who knows how to work a room, broke the tension. We had intended to go back to my parent's house after seeing Grandpa to have a drink and a toast to my parent's 40th anniversary, which is today. My father wanted to give my mother her present in front of everyone. Instead, in order to relieve the pressure that had taken over Grandpa's birthday, he pulled a little box out of his pocket and handed it to my mother. She opened it, and inside was an exact replica of her diamond engagement ring that she had worn for 40 years, but gave to my youngest sister, as tradition dictated, when she became engaged in June. Our jaws dropped. My mother was, for once, speechless. She had given up her ring rather reluctantly, for many reasons, and never expected it to be replaced. We applauded and hugged and kissed, and by the time the fuss over my mother's present had ended, Grandpa Joe was back in full swing, cursing the Yankees and asking Natalie when she was getting married.