I put off seeing my grandfather for a solid five years. Actually, it was more like two, but guilt makes it feel longer. "He repeats himself," my mom said. "You'll have to remind him who you are." I don't think anyone wants to admit that their idol is a mere mortal who, after almost burning his kitchen down, had to be moved to an assisted living center.
So, shameful and selfish as it may be, I stayed away. I didn't want his picture in my head to look stooped or old. I didn't want to see him sick. And that's what makes last weekend so ironic. When I finally got the nerve to see him, I quickly went from visitor ... to patient.
If you're assuming that this story ends with a burst of emotion and some lofty life-altering realization set to the tune of "The Circle of Life," you're mostly wrong. The moral is, probably, that a person who can't stomach gluten or dairy should maybe not eat a Burger King egg and cheese sandwich and something that looked like an inbred cousin of home fries. Let's call a spade a spade, people. That meal -- not some astounding cosmic occurrence -- was what sealed my fate.
I felt fine during the three-hour drive from New York to Delaware. There was much singing (me) and slight cringing (my mom). We met up with my grandfather at my aunt and uncle's house, and it was a joyous, relaxed reunion. Yes, he asked the same question a few hundred times. Yes, he wasn't sure if I was Sydney or my younger, more rambunctious sister, Rebecca. He needed a hint. Yes, he informed me that in his day, a woman who was 25 and unmarried "had something wrong with her." Still, he seemed open (or maybe resigned to) the idea that things were slightly different in this century. "Rich men get poor," he reminded me. "Handsome men get ugly. But smart men never get dumb." It's the same sage advice he's preached for years.
There's nothing odder than realizing you suddenly know more than the man who filled your head with knowledge for over two decades. It's a cruel role reversal that simultaneously breaks my heart and makes me want to take up Sudoku and Google "Alzheimer's Diet: 9 Foods to Remember to Eat."
Although it was obvious that my formerly brilliant grandpa wasn't all there, he still had that wicked twinkle in his eye. It's the same one that sparkled when I joked about getting a tattoo of a big cross (we're Jewish). He was inside, somewhere. I yearned to pull him out, but feared that I was no match for nature's bitter course.
Later, we took him back to the "memory care" center he calls home. It's an extremely nice place, but neither the prettiest wallpaper nor the fanciest furniture can detract from the fact that an explosion of old, sleepy people sit right there in the lobby, sprawled out on those pretty couches. It was like a sleep over where that silly "Who Am I" party game would be a little too literal.
It was strange and upsetting to picture my grandfather shuffling down to the ancient people party and taking his place on a recliner. This was a man who was a meteorologist in the war! A man whose passion for sailing and salt water runs through my veins, too. A man who owned several pharmacies and spent years making others well. And now, the man who once doled out medicine was receiving a rainbow of pills in one of those little white cups. When the nurse handed him his cocktail, I couldn't deny it anymore: This was no longer the grandfather who predicted storms or commanded a boat or ground out illness with a mortar and pestle anymore.
Upstairs in his room, I was at once scared to use the bathroom and ashamed that I doubted his abilities to keep a tidy home. Had he ever cleaned it, I wondered?
Well, with my face pressed into the toilet about 20 minutes later, that no longer mattered. I was sick as a dog, sweating and shaking and generally looking like Gwyneth Paltrow in "Contagion." That toilet was my best friend, I decided. I wanted to follow it on Twitter. I wanted to be in a Facebook relationship with it. I wanted to put it on the "please let this person up, I've decided he won't kill me in my sleep" list you give to the doorman in your NYC apartment. Did I mention I was also partially naked? Yep, semi-nude at a nursing home. I so look forward to repressing that memory.
All the while, I assumed my grandfather would be blissfully unaware of the drama, looking for his "gang" of buddies or heading to dinner. I hoped that was true. I couldn't bear the thought of upsetting him or throwing off the calm equilibrium that he so deserved.
But I was wrong.
Just as weak, tiny people can magically lift a car when their screaming baby is under it, his beleaguered brain whipped itself into shape. Adrenaline must have been coursing through his 87-year-old body, because my sweet, slow grandfather was downstairs in a flash. Before I had even lifted my head from the cool floor, he had collected the nurse and gotten medication for me, his sick, unwed 25-year-old granddaughter. Yes, there was something wrong with me -- and in this instance, he could help.
Soon, an amazing nurse came dashing into the room. She had a thermometer, blood pressure cuff and that familiar little white cup. This time, the cocktail was stirred up just for me. Grandpa and I were officially in the same highly medicated club.
Now I told you there wouldn't be some dramatic ending to this story, and I intend to keep that promise. I don't want to ponder what my grandfather may have said to my nurse in shining scrubs, and I have no desire to wax (too) poetic about the afternoon.
No matter how his memory has failed him, I never questioned that he'd always come to my rescue ... even if he wasn't totally sure what my name was.