Grandpa came to live with us when Grandma died. He was different from the Grandpa who had given me pony rides on his knee and taught me German from his past. He sat hunched on a metal chair in our garage and chain-smoked cigarettes. I didn’t know what to do when he cried. I felt as helpless as he did without Grandma.
At the breakfast table we wait for Grandpa. When I see his red striped pajamas peeking out from his trousers and shirt, I know Mom will send him back to his room to change. I hate to see the confused look on his face. He doesn’t remember that she told him about the pajamas yesterday and the day before.
Grandpa has forgotten how to remember. He doesn’t know when his glasses or his teeth are missing, or where he’s left his shoes. I hear the impatience in my mother’s voice as she searches for them, and I want to yell, “He can’t help it, Mother.” After she finds his teeth, tucked beneath his mattress, and has left the room, I coach him, “Grandpa, put your teeth in the glass Mom gave you. Right here, by the bed.”
I feel guilty I can’t make Grandpa better, and I’m worried that he, like Grandma, is going to die. My sisters and I coax him to eat, but nothing works, not even the TV dinners we talked Mom into buying. He nodded yes to them when we went shopping, but maybe he just wanted to please us. “Look, Grandpa! They have TV dinners like Grandma used to make. Which ones do you like? Chicken? Macaroni and cheese?” He hardly ever speaks.
Grandpa burns holes in his clothes when he smokes, and Mom is worried about the furniture and the house. She knows Grandpa will wander if she sends him outside, so she unfolds a chair in the garage and watches from the kitchen. Sometimes, when she is changing laundry loads in the basement or vacuuming upstairs, he slips away, and we have to look for him. Once or twice, the police bring him home. It’s embarrassing to see him in the backseat of their car. His hands are stained yellow from the black walnuts he has gathered in the cemetery. He’s been looking for Grandma, even though she is buried more than 200 miles away.
The day I see Mom standing at the kitchen sink, shoulders shaking as she cries, I know things are about to change. She and Dad make phone calls and take Sunday drives. A place becomes available for Grandpa at the Lutheran Home in Ashland. I don’t want to see him go, but there’s a big yard with the kind of trees he likes, a young man who speaks patiently with him, and a sunny dining room for the residents. Maybe he’ll eat if he has company his age. I plead with him silently, “Please, Grandpa, behave, so they don’t send you away. The man told Dad there’s a trial period.”
I thought Grandpa died at the home, but my sister told me several years ago I was mistaken. “Don’t you remember?” she said, “he died at Tiffin State Hospital.” I didn’t want to believe her, yet now I remember seeing him standing outside a white clapboard building. He doesn’t speak, even though we’ve brought him a new pair of slippers and a carton of cigarettes. Is he angry with us for having left him? “I’m sorry, Grandpa,” I whisper, as I kiss his stubbled cheek. “I love you.”
I watch as they place Grandpa’s casket in the ground next to Grandma, hoping that what they told us in Sunday School is true. I want Grandpa to be happy, like he was when Grandma was alive.
There were bright colored eggs in his garden for us at Easter, bowls of sweet cherries, and stashes of candy that Mom wouldn’t have allowed. But best of all, there were his hugs, his laughter, and the steady rhythm of his snoring that had protected us in the night when there were storms.