Today is my only living grandparent's 95th birthday. We're going to visit Grandpa Joe in a bit, but I thought I'd reminisce first. I've written about Grandpa every year since I've been blogging; below are the three posts I've made on previous birthdays (or parts of). Reading over these, I can see I made some sort of transition in my thoughts about Grandpa being locked away in a world only he knows. Sorry if there is repitition within the excerpts below, I wasn't sure what to copy and paste in order to accurately relay all the different feelings about Grandpa. It's a long read, and strictly personal in the navel gazing sense. I've put it here for my own reasons. If you go ahead and read the whole thing, I thank you. I'm sure Grandpa would, too. He likes when people talk about him.
We're bringing him cake and ice cream in a bit. I'll post this year's thoughts and photos later.
Anyhow, Happy Birthday, Grandpa Joe. May we all live so long and well.
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.
: This is Grandpa Joe. He is my only living grandparent. His wife, my mother's mother, died when I was a baby. My father's father died in 1991, his mother in 1998.
Grandpa Joe lives in a place called The Townhouse. It's an assisted living facility and a nice one at that. It's clean and bright and they have a sunroon with a piano and arts and crafts and ice cream parties and picnics.
But I never go see Grandpa Joe. The Townhouse is ten minutes from here at most. I would only have to stay a few minutes. He wouldn't even remember if I was there or not. But I don't go. I don't like the feel of the place and the smell of the place. Old people smell like death approaching. Most of them have blank stares and vacant minds and are just waiting. Waiting to die. No matter how many posters of kittens and vases full of flowers you decorate the facility with, it will still feel like a purgatory between life and death. A way station for the weary.
Grandpa lived in Brooklyn. He worked in some kind of barrel factory, making barrels for pickles, I think. I remember hearing stories about pickles.
Every Saturday, for as long as I can remember, Grandpa would come over with bagels. 10am he would be there, the bagels still hot and all of us at the table just waiting to slab the butter on. Grandpa would watch us slice the bagels and tell us we were holding the knife wrong. We were going to slice a finger off, he said. Grandpa has only half of one thumb. I think it was a pickle barrel accident.
He would say the same thing every Saturday to each of us. "When are you getting married?" He said this when we were ten and when we were 18 and when we were married.
One day not too many years ago, Grandpa had a car accident on his way to bring bagels. He never drove again. He went from the hospital to a senior citizen apartment complex back to the hospital and then to The Townhouse.
In the beginning it was ok. We brought Natalie and DJ to see him and he would ask them when they were getting married. We brought him bagels. He always thought he was coming home. He asked for his car. He asked about his apartment, which was no longer his. He wanted to know when someone was picking him up to take him home.
Things got fuzzy in his head soon after. He started calling people by the wrong names. He talked about visits from relatives long dead. He told stories about the nurses coming into his room at night and stealing his stuff. He said he had been to Brooklyn during the night. He had been to Yankee Stadium. His dead brother had been to see him.
Last month, he told my mother he went to John Gotti's funeral. They had specifically asked that he come. In his mind, he did go. In his mind, he is not living in a facility, he is not held captive by his wheelchair, he is not alone at night. He cannot remember from day to day if I am still married, if his daughter is still married, or if he ever moved out of Brooklyn. But he always knows if the Yankees won or not.
That's (Great) Grandpa Joe with DJ, taken today. Grandpa turned 94 years old today and we all went to see him at his nursing home (which is, by nursing home standards, a luxurious mansion) for a little party.
It bothered me at first when Grandpa started talking in fantasy, telling us about trips he never really talk and conversations he had with dead relatives. It's hard to watch someone you love slowly lose their grip on reality.
Today, Grandpa told us what he did last night. Apparently, he went to the Yankee game with his old Brooklyn buddies, most of whom are dead. I watched as my mother effortlessly conversed with him about this fictional game, asking him questions about it, wanting to know if the Yankees won or not. According to Grandpa, the Yanks won the world series last night.
And then an epiphany. Why should it bother me when Grandpa talks about things only happen in his head? That's Grandpa's happy place, where he goes to relive the good parts of his life with the friends and family that shared all of his happy memories. It makes him smile. It makes my mother smile. And now, it makes me smile. As long as Grandpa is happy for the little time he has left, then let him think that the Yankees win the world series every single night, and he's always there.
Happy birthday, Grandpa. And enjoy your "trip" to Brooklyn tonight.
Hope I get to do this again next year.