No Man Should Be Remembered In Sweatpants

I envy my father. He grew up in an era where rock and roll was still new, a family could survive on one income, and we let grandparents die while they were still fun. It was a glorious era, where you could go from throwing a ball with your Granddaddy behind a church, to burying your Granddaddy behind that same church a week later. And after each there was a nice chicken dinner. It was awesome.

Death still hurt, but for most people it came suddenly. It was a surprise that left you only with the memories of a person’s life, and their sudden exit.

Now science has removed the sudden peacefulness of death, and we can prolong life until it no longer resembles life. Personally life has always been about quality, not quantity, but thanks to the miracle of science mortality is now a hot dog eating contest. Get as much as you can, dignity be damned.

I learned my Granddaddy had Parkinson’s when I was still in grade school. For a long time it meant he shook sometimes, was a little slow, and sometimes he would space out. He used to fall asleep all the time while watching TV, and when someone would wake him he’d refuse to admit to it.

“Just resting my eyes,” he’d tell us.

My Granddaddy was a great man. He was smart, spiritual, and responsible. When one of his grandchildren went out for a job interview he told them to never go without wearing a watch, so they would know you knew the value of time.

Once he was fired from an accounting job because he refused to falsify documents. To make ends meet he started selling insurance door to door. One day he came home from work and my Mema asked him how his sales day had gone. It turned out that he’d met a family that day where the husband had just lost his job and couldn’t afford to pay their bills, let alone buy insurance. My Granddaddy gave the man all the money in his wallet. It hurt him to see other people hurt.

He was the kind of man who wore a suit six days a week because he wanted to look nice, but still would run shouting out the front door with a BB Gun when his arch nemesis, the Woodpecker, started knocking on his roof. He loved God, his family, and dessert. In that order, though when he would unleash his famous “dessert smile” we sometimes wondered.

By 2004 he was starting to fall down a lot, and was having problems with planning, remembering things, and even expressing his ideas. He had an experimental surgery to put an implant in his brain that would help with his symptoms.

I told him I was worried about the surgery. He told me “I get to live a Star Trek episode.” Being a nerd runs in our family.

Sadly, the surgery didn’t have the results we wanted, and it weakened him without any real improvement. By Spring of 2005 he had to move into a nursing home. At first I visited regularly.

We’d watch TV and listen to books on tape and talk. His room was nice because his Medicare would pay for a nice room, for a period of time. He was on the good hall. Until his Medicare stopped paying for the good hall and he was moved to another wing of the nursing home.

Even nursing homes have a “wrong side of the tracks” and that’s where he landed. A place where roaming bands of little old ladies in wheelchairs sneak into your room under the cover of nap time to steal your hoodies or Wurthers Originals. Where every pair of socks as a name on it, and people who can’t eat are fed “Thick nectar”, because “Soylent Green” was copyrighted.

Still I went and visited him regularly, watching episodes of JAG and trying to have conversations with him when he could form whole sentences.

His speech was getting worse, but if you looked in his eyes you could see he knew what he wanted to say. His body just wouldn’t let him do it.

His wing was full of people like that; prisoners with basic cable and adjustable beds.

Eventually nursing homes start to feel like the last half of the movie Aliens, when they go into the subbasement. It’s people glued to walls who, if you’re listening, are just begging you to kill them.

Every week the woman who kept robbing his room told she’d give me back my grandfather’s hoodie if I filled a request. “Just throw me out of the window.“

I wanted to say, “Madame, if you fell out of your chair you would shatter. If I threw you out the window you’d look like an expressionist painting.”

Given her sass and fury I imagine she’d just spit back “I was alive for expressionism! It was bullshit!”

As selfish as it is to say the nursing home and his condition started to wear on me.

He was a man of dignity, and as time wore on he just got worse. Eventually he could barely even give single word answers and was on a diet of “thick nectar” because he could seldom handle solid food.

Worst of all he had to wear sweat suits every day. For a man who wore a suit six days a week it felt like spending purgatory in a TJ Max; a seemingly unending existence where you’d always look sort of shabby.

So I stopped going as often. Sometimes a week or two would pass without me going to visit him. I worried that I had a finite amount of memories, and creating new sad ones would somehow record over the happy old ones.

On the good days I visited we would play a crude game of catch that was mostly just him squeezing a Nerf ball. When he wasn’t aware, or able, to respond I’d comb his hair. He liked that.

In September of 2010, after several months of not being able to eat my Granddaddy requested breakfast; a real breakfast. Or at least as close as hospital food comes to being real food.

Not just the “nectar” they’d been feeding him. He ate his first full meal in months. When the nurse came back around lunch to see if he was hungry again, she found he had passed.

Driving to his funeral I called my dad panicking because I had left the cookie I was planning on placing inside his casket, a final dessert, at home. He informed me he’d already covered it, and asked that I not mention the chocolate chip cookie he’d placed in his jacket pocket to my grandmother. We knew he’d appreciate the last shot at dessert, but she probably would have told us we were being disrespectful. At least it wasn’t a piece of German Chocolate cake. My brother and I thought about it, but the logistics were impossible.

Walking into the funeral home all I could remember was the last few years and it made me angry. The happy memories were gone; in their place I remember thieving old ladies and how even though he’d gotten to go to my wedding he was mostly out of it for the day.

I gave everyone hugs and walked over to his casket and looked inside.

There lay my Granddaddy.

He was wearing a suit; a glorious suit. He looked like how I remembered him. Like what he told a man was supposed to look like. He looked at peace.

And my memories started to flood back. Days fishing, trips to museums, his explanation that Deanna Troi and William Riker on Star Trek were from another world so their sexual relationship wasn’t the immoral kind, just a different sort of marriage. Those were progressive sexual politics for a Baptist.

I remembered the first time he met the woman I married, then in high school, and told me a man tucks his shirt in when he’s on a date with a nice lady.

As I stood in front of the casket my grandmother and Uncle came up beside me. She had just finished signing all the paperwork and paying the funeral bill.

She didn’t say anything to me in that moment. She just looked at his body, looked at the paper in her hand, and said “Frank. Tell me we got our money’s worth.” She wasn’t being callus; she was tired and wanted to make sure in her exhaustion nothing had been left out.

I looked at my Granddaddy that last time the way I’d always remembered him, sort of laughed, and thought to myself, “Yes Mema. We did.”

And then, just like the good old days, we sat down to have a chicken dinner, and I had an extra piece of cake in his honor. He would have one.

And I was thankful I could remember that.

10 Comments

  1. A most awesome tribute to a gentleman I was privileged to meet on a couple of occasions. He was in every sense of the word ‘a gentleman’ who you knew that he lived God first, definitely his family and from the stories your father has shared we knew about his love for desserts. His earthly body is no longer here with you but his spirit will live in you forever.

  2. This is beautifully said…with love, dignity and humor that would make your grandad proud of the man you have become.

  3. John-Michael, this was a beautiful tribute. I have walked this walk in a slightly different way, with a father in decline for 7 years, who passed nearly 2 years ago. Fortunately, God graciously helps us remember the good times while the unpleasant memories only come back from time to time – like a sharp jab in the side with a stick. My father had to take a lot pain medication in his decline, so there were some genuinely funny times, which we were thankful for, even if it was just a “good trip” on morphine. We have a bow wave of baby boomers getting old, and the discussion of how we live in the final decade of our lives will make its way into print and discussions, even though society would rather it not. Thank you for this moving essay.

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