A Eulogy, Sort Of

We have been waiting for my grandfather to die now for more than a month. Nearly every morning I wake up wondering if today is the day I fly East and clean the house in preparation for visitors and politely answer from distant relatives about what life is like in "that country down there." I hate myself for dreading going home. It's so much easier to hide out in this desert sanctuary, away from the wild emotions surrounding death, even one as slow and protracted as this, away from examination of my role in my family. Away from the smells of hospitals and nursing homes and funeral parlors, and especially the smell of Western Pennsylvania solace food: stuffed cabbage, pierogis and Italian sausage, marooned in congealed oil.Just this morning, my mom called, as is her Sunday morning habit. I was on my way out the door, 9 a.m., to drive down to the Bosque del Apache Wildlife Refuge. But she snagged me and updated me that the IV had been taken out of my grandfather and that his end would probably be sometime this week. I heard the news and continued my rushed procession south.My grandfather was officially diagnosed with Alzheimer's a few years ago, but the years before that were consumed with alcoholism. When I was 15, I got to take a day off from school when we tried to admit my grandfather into a treatment program. The vehemence with which he fought against us was mammoth. He shouted. He got red in the face. He didn't have a problem. We were all crazy bastards to even suggest that he belonged in this loony bin. I sat perched on the doctor's examination table, my jeans crackling the paper under my butt, my fingers folding and unfolding each other, my eyes glued to my sneaker's toe to avoid meeting my grandfather's glare.When I last saw him, he was propped in an armchair in my parents' sunny back room, dressed in ill-fitting clothes that belonged to some man who had already died and sporting eyeglasses that were merely a formality. He didn't have the energy even to keep his eyes open, and just sat while we ate olive dip and crackers and talked around him, ever so often offering him a question, on the off-chance that he might remember something.Since then, he has had several more strokes and is confined to a hospital bed, and as of today is now officially, slowly starving to death. I shy away from the image of my mother sitting at Grandpa's bed after work, as has become her new habit, and holding a Dum Dum lollipop in my grandfather's shrunken mouth. She offers him something sweet and safe because nothing free-floating can be allowed in a mouth where teeth haven't lived for eight years and whose epiglottis can no longer distinguish between air and food particles. An exercise in patience to feed a dying man a sucker.So I spent today wandering through wildlife, hiding behind reeds and trees, checking out strange birds and letting my mind meander where it would. I allowed myself to revel in resentment against circumstances for five minutes or so, since I had just made plans to go up to Denver to see some long-neglected friends, and now my grandfather's suspected/predicted death would probably botch that trip. Then I tried to discard that thought and pretend that it had never entered my mind. I focused on my new puppy and me clomping through mud, our feet and paws expanding and slowing with each gooey step.At the same time, I marvel at my parents' graceful navigation through linoleum floors and cement block walls and the silence of sick men. On the other side of the country, I glide through blue skies, my brow furrowed only by having to stay an extra hour at work or being late for a movie or the clouds that are rolling in and disturbing my sunny Sunday.I think back to college breaks and the drop of my stomach when my mom would ask me to help her take Grandpa back to the V.A., generally under the ruse that he and I would get to spend "quality time" together. In my 20-year-old, cut-and-dry wisdom, I was certain he would forget everything by the time we closed the car doors. I hated listening to his roommate's labored, nightmarish rasp, or averting my eyes from the one little man who relentlessly drooled into a Snoopy Dixie cup. But once the elevator landed on my Grandpa's floor, the seventh, my mom's matter-of-fact ease in getting him ready for bed relegated me to the TV room, keeping a few late-nighters company, interlocking and unlocking digits, skimming ancient issues of People under brilliant fluorescent lights (no need to renew subscriptions in an Alzheimer's ward), and mainly hoping Mom would hurry up.Mom generally brought my grandpa home on Sundays, which is appropriate, I suppose, since Sunday was traditionally the day we spent at Grandma and Grandpa's, playing Indian ball, picking sugar peas from the garden, making Christmas wreathes. In retrospect, I think those Sundays always stretched two hours too long. By sundown, my grandfather, uncle and dad had had too much to drink, and conversations tended to escalate into terrible rages about Reaganomics. Their violent muleheadedness ushered me deep into my Grandma's bed, my nose buried in a book, hoping that the written words would overwhelm the fury spewing from these men's mouths.But now my grandfather has reverted to passive infancy and no longer argues with anything. Not even when I walked into the bathroom unannounced and saw my dad changing his father-in-law's diaper, wrapping the soiled one in the trash and gently putting on a clean one. I backed out hurriedly and ran down the stairs, scurrying away from such an unexpectedly intimate act.And so, I feel I'm just biding time. I focus on logistical decisions. Should I have a friend drive me to Albuquerque or should I just leave my car there so no one will have to bother picking me up after my return flight? How much time from work will I lose? Will the Pittsburgh weather cooperate with Santa Fe and will I take an appropriate outfit home for the funeral? Can I be a dutiful daughter in only two days? Can I come up with the sort of loving tribute to Grandpa that I know people will expect? So far, the memory I've decided on, the one that has worked its way through his years of alcohol, lost memories and raised voices, is this: a bumpy drive through late-afternoon sun in my Grandpa's tank-like Buick convertible with Army-officer stickers on the windows, the two of us searching for ears of late-autumn corn that had not been picked clean by farmer or crow.Editor's note: Kate Winslow's grandfather died last week. She returned home for the funeral.


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