I had the wonderful opportunity to spend some time with my grandparents this month, exploring some more of Colorado. I’ve been discouraged by some of the turns in my grandfather’s health recently and have been feeling guilty that I haven’t been home in New York to support my family during this time. You see, to me, my grandfather has always been a super hero. the idea that he could be anything but is simply inconceivable.
I remember moments in my life where I’m absolutely sure he had super powers. He could climb the maple tree in the front yard of his home higher than it seemed that gravity would allow. He’d quickly transport himself from the ground to the very top, balancing precariously on the delicate, slender branches, and gaze down at me, laughing at my panic. He could perform amazing acrobatics in the living room as he tried to teach me how to place my hands to execute the perfect backward summer salt in hopes of helping me to raise my ever lowering grade in PE. (I never did master that skill.) Papa could also chop wood and heft his axe better than I imagine any storybook Paul Bunyon could. it never dawned on me that this man who never cried, who never complained, who never showed any fear or weakness could change. It had never crossed my mind that this man, whom I idolized, could ever weaken.
For me, Papa has always been more than just my grandfather, he stood in when my own father was absent. He was there the day my mother was helping me learn to ride my bike, running alongside until I got the hang of it, careening off the sidewalk and through their grassy yard. He taught me to play checkers ruthlessly, to build a campfire better than any boy scout and to use a hammer without smashing my fingers. He spent countless hours following us around the mall during one vacation as we shopped for the perfect prom dress and was there to see me off (and give my boyfriend stern looks) as I went off to that same prom. He’d sneak candy into church in his jacket pockets, eat the last of the vegetables off my plate when grandma wasn’t looking, and always be the first one to open the cookie jar when he thought we wouldn’t get caught. He’s been my partner in crime, my example of what it means to be a man, and my lifetime cheerleader. I spent half my childhood tagging along after him in the garage or yard, his constant companion.
This is the man who taught me about life, about what it means to be a part of a family, about how a person can treat love as a verb. I can probably count on one hand the number of times I heard him say the words ”I love you” to me, but I never once doubted that he did. Because Papa lived his love for us, he showed it in the everyday things he did. He’d remind us all to change our oil, take note if our tires looked low, never let us leave the house without trying one of grandma’s newly baked cookies…
Watching this illness slowly take away his ability to be independent is not only heartbreaking, but it may be the single most difficult thing I have ever faced. He’s a natural story-teller that now struggles to find the words he needs to explain what he is thinking. He’s ambitious and curious and funny, yet can’t communicate the joke he’s trying to tell. He likes to do things his own way and enjoys being able to complete tasks by himself, and yet he cannot remember how to perform the most mundane activities, like buckling his seat belt. He easily misunderstands everyday conversation and is quick to anger as his frustrations with his limitations get the best of him.
I know that before long he is going to forget my name. I know that my family will face countless challenges as this illness takes its toll on the man that we love. And it’s ok that he forgets…. I just don’t want to.