October 1

International Day of Older Persons


Grandfather remembered her today.  The day before, he acted startled when she visited him at the end of her shift, as if she didn’t stop in every evening before heading home, as if she hadn’t spoken with him for twenty minutes during her afternoon break—as if she were only a nurse whose name his aging eyes couldn’t read off her ID badge, rather than the granddaughter he’d raised as his own child.

Today, though, he said Julie, then Julie-Jewel, and he asked about William, wondered how the dogs were getting along.

Good.  His mind was working fine again.  Yesterday evening’s confusion was an anomaly, Grandfather not quite oriented after a nap, or maybe a temporary intersection of side effects from his numerous medications (pills and chewable tablets and I-V fluids for joint pain, high cholesterol, diabetes, allergies, stomach upset, insomnia).  Julie knew she shouldn’t let such momentary lapses disturb her.  They hadn’t occurred with any alarming frequency, maybe once or twice a month, and he always recovered his faculties before her next visit.  But each time, she couldn’t help but worry he might slip into one of these confused episodes, and stay there.

“You got your car windows up?  Those storms can come over pretty fast.”  Sometimes Grandfather’s forecast came from a mystical predictive twinge in arthritic joints.  More likely, he’d looked out the window, saw dark clouds forming in the sky.

“I don’t think people leave their car windows down anymore,” Julie said.  This was part of their rapport:  she’d listen to his life lessons, but find some gentle way to remind him she was an adult who could figure things out on her own.

“Things have changed, I guess.  In my day, you could trust people not to steal your radio or some such gizmo.”  His expression brightened, and she knew which story was coming.  “I remember one time I left your mother in the car.  She’d got a new Barbie doll for her eleventh birthday, and didn’t feel like following me around the hardware store for a few minutes.  It was a warm day, so I put the windows down for her and went to get my nails or two-by-fours or whatever.  While I was in Tru-Home—and I could barely hear it, mind you—a summer storm blew in, dark and windy and sheets of rain practically coming down sideways.”  He sliced the air in front of him at the angle of the wind.  A paper bracelet jiggled on his thin wrist; the I-V tube tapped quiet bell tones against the metal rail beside his bed.  “The lights flicked while I was at the checkout, and I thought I heard somebody throwing pebbles at the store’s front windows.  A storm that fierce wasn’t going to last long, so I waited for a break in the rain before I ran to our parking space—which was fine, because I knew your mother was well-covered in the car.  When I got there, she was soaked through—”

Like a dog pulled wet from the stream, Julie thought.

“—like a dog pulled wet from the stream,  all huddled in the middle of the back seat, her hair matted down, clothes heavy and sticking to her, tears down her face mixing with the rain.  Honey, I said, why didn’t you roll up the windows?  I figured it out before poor Kathleen answered.  That was the days we had the gold Dodge Monaco, with electric windows.  And I’d taken the car keys with me into the store.”

Julie laughed, even as she anticipated the extra punch line:  I bought the Barbie-doll another dress and your mother forgave me.  She wondered if he remembered the fifty-year-old storm as clearly as he described it, or if he only remembered the telling of it, embellished over the years into a script with annotated stage directions.  It was an amusing story no matter what, and she could hardly fault him for repetition.  After all, how many good stories should older relatives be expected to recite, as their lives dwindled down to small beds in small institutional rooms?  Grandfather looked so frail to her now, his age-spotted face framed by wisps of pillow-matted hair, 92 years-old and suffering the indignity of loose dentures, failing sight, all-day pajamas, and adult diapers.  Of course he’d want to live in the past.

Of course she’d do whatever she could to let him.

“I hate to cut our visit short.”  Grandfather reached for the latch on the right-side rail.  “But I have some business to attend to.”

Julia shifted the rail and helped guide her grandfather’s legs to the side of the bed.  He waved away the offered support of her arm, reaching instead for his walker.

“I wish you’d let me help you,” she said.

“Not a job for my little Jewel.  Some things I like to do for myself, while I’m able.”

He stood behind the wheeled frame and pushed it forward a few inches, brought one leg in line with the back wheels, then the other leg, barely lifting his feet from the floor.  To Julie, the open bathroom door seemed miles away.

Still, he smiled at her.  Grandfather had good reason to complain, but he never did—which was one of the many things she loved about him.

“Thanks for stopping by, Kathleen.  See you tomorrow.”

Her mother’s name.  He got confused because he just finished telling a story about her mother, that was all.  It wasn’t a sign of anything worse.

“By the way…”  He spoke over his shoulder as Julie turned to leave.  Even with the slow exertion of walking, her grandfather’s voice was strong — with a slight whistle, but lacking the quaver she typically heard from other seniors in the building.  “I know what the dark clouds mean.  I’m not so out of touch as you think.  I know you pretend to go home each night to your husband and your two dogs, but your home’s not there anymore, or William either, and the dogs ran away.  I know it.”

“Oh, Grandad.”  Julie rushed toward him and hugged him around the metal contraption, careful not to squeeze too tight, careful not to burst into tears.  “It’s all right.  It’s going to be all right.”  This time he was taking it well, and she was glad his mind still worked, but Julie hoped he’d forget before bedtime, hoped the memory wouldn’t come rushing back tomorrow with the fresh  shock of losing the world, once again.