My Grandfather was alive for 19 years of my life. I can only remember being with him twice. He lived only two miles away, and I saw him often. I was only a smiling seven year old with puffy swim trunks with a mesh liner. I had a giant diver’s mask that smelled like rubber when I squeezed it over my head. The matching snorkel tasted like a car tire, and I loved it. My older brother and I dove into the pool, an above ground pool in my Grandmother’s backyard. Tall, soft-needled pine trees stood guard, blocking us from the real world. We dove through the 76 degree water; we always checked the temperature before we jumped.
Once the beautiful champagne bubbles rose to the surface, an underwater world revealed itself. Thousands of insects, drowned in the chlorinated water made our swim a tribal exploration. Spiders with their legs folded like spokes in my bike wheel rolled across the smooth lining. We found bees on the surface and splashed them over to the filter where they were sucked into a whirlpool and disappeared forever. We dove under the choppy water and it was peaceful. This is where I remember Grandpa. He floated like a manatee; barely moving his arms or legs. He looked like he was suspended in an invisible recliner. His wrists were barely swiveling on their hinges, keeping Grandpa afloat.
I swam over to his lean frame. A youthful military stint gave him the discipline to exercise his mind and body everyday. I swam in the blissful silence only found underwater, hooing and hissing through my snorkel; I curled up in his lap. We floated around the pool, turn after turn, an amusement ride with exhilarating comfort. Slowly he dropped his waist and I floated away. I practiced for years in the pool with my brothers, in between fights and underwater martial arts, to float like this; I never could. The pool is the only memory I have of Grandpa. And I was only seven.
“Grandpa has been forgetting things” My mom said to Dad over a dinner of roast beef, potatoes, and limp string beans. “I don’t think he’s going to be collecting taxes next year.” I didn’t know what this meant. My mom told me the same thing later. “Grandpa’s been forgetting things” she said in the green-leaf wallpapered dinning room at my Grandmother’s house. “He’s sick” I never knew what she meant.
I remember when I heard “Alzheimer’s” for the first time. My Mom made me use it as a topic for a research paper. “You can only use topics like that . . . “ Mr. Breitenstein said waving his finger to the class, “. . . if you have some kind of personal connection with them.” It was 8th grade.
I told him that was my topic.
I remember coming home from High School graduation. Ready to go out with friends and celebrate being free. We went to my grandmother’s house first. My mom told me to put on my graduation outfit for Grandpa; he couldn’t attend. I stood in front of family and a few friends with my mortarboard on my head. I turned and saw my Grandpa sitting in his wheelchair, legs folded in, hands across the towel on his lap. He laughed his low-bass laugh, bared his teeth, and nodded his head; he stopped talk a couple months ago. I started to see what it meant.
I remember church Christmas caroling. We came to sing at my grandmother’s. We circled around their living room: tall ceiling, two fish tanks on wooden stands. The ornate Grandfather clock sat in the corner bonging every hour unless you forgot to wind it, then it stood silent. In the middle of the room was my Grandmother behind my Grandfather’s wheel chair. They were silhouetted by the lights of her new, small fiber optic Christmas tree. We started to sing. Grandpa smiled with what were left of his teeth as the lights smoothly transitioned—red, to green, to blue, to white—this time you could only count four left. They dotted the corners of his mouth; the rest had been crushed from grinding them together. My Grandmother smiled and wiped the line of drool hanging down his mostly toothless mouth. Halfway through "Silent Night," I stopped singing and stared at him. He just nodded and growled, growled and nodded. I didn’t sing the rest of the night, and I cried on the ride home. My girlfriend asked me what was wrong. “I don’t think he knew me.” That was the last time I cried for the next two years. Finally, I knew what it meant.
I worked in Country Club’s bag room at eighteen. I polished clubs and mooched undeserved tips. I was in the back room, sliding bag racks and polishing clubs. “Dave you got a phone call,” the raisin-faced caddy master yelped. He stuck a pipe into his face and stepped outside to smoke. It was my mom’s voice. “Dave . . . Grandpa died today.” “Alright, I’ll be home.” I went into the bag room, crawled into the narrow shelf between two bags and sat hugging my knees. Clinched sorrow. Ten minutes later I emerged. I stood across the room from John the caddy master. He stood outside the window where the golfers slipped tips to get an earlier tee-time blowing smoke into the warm summer air. “John. I gotta go. My Grandfather died.” All I heard “sorry kid” over my shoulder; I was already out the door.
I rode in the backseat of the minivan; my mother at the wheel. “The paramedics weren’t happy Grandma had a ‘do not resuscitate’ order.’” I walked in through the porch door that led to the same room where I once heard “Grandpa is forgetting things.” The same gold rimmed phone sat next to the same record player with same gospel LPs alphabetically arranged underneath. My grandmother was in the other room. She came over and I hugged her. She told me I didn’t need to come home from work. My mom said it was ok, and I nodded. “I had ta pull the paramedics offa Charlie.” Her voice slowly rose like a shaky wooden roller-coaster. “You shoulda seen the looks they gave me for not bringing him back. I kept showin them tha papers” she said twisting her mother shut and staring off in the distance. Her eyes were wet and tired. Then quietly, looking at her feet, “I kept showin them tha papers.” Papers was only a whisper as she sat in the chair and buried her head in her hands. The moment that we all understood but never talked about had come, ten years later.
When I came back from college, I drove over to Grandma’s to mow the yard; I was just over twenty. I remember the conversation before I left. “Grandma took the pool down,” my mother said. I asked why. “She says it’s too much work. She can’t keep it up.” But I knew why. I rode the mower up and down the yard, poorly mimicking the lines Grandpa used to cut with mathematic precision. When I got to where the pool used to be I cut the engine; it sputtered to a stop like a basketball dropping.
There was a stone-lined circle laid into the ground where the pool used to rest, watched over by guards of soft sappy pine. I walked to the spot where I first climbed on Grandpa’s lap, stopped, and listened: silence. The stones crack-crunched against each other as I walked around, counter clockwise in a circle, round and round. I never visited Grandpa’s grave after the funeral; no one I knew was buried at that cemetery. It was only then and there, sitting on the same white pebbles shaded by the same soft pine trees, thirteen years after that summer afternoon, that I met Grandpa for the second time, and finally found, found the courage to cry.