by Louis Gallo
Grandma told us that it officially began when he said he wanted a little boy sailor suit for his birthday. He said he always got new clothes on his birthday and holidays, like the crinkly seersucker on Easter when he made his communion or the striped flannel pajamas for Christmas. She had noticed signs all along but kept them to herself: he dropped things, forgot what day it was, couldn’t find his way to the bank or Southern Radio, where he practically lived. “Not all the time,” she said, blowing out some extra air so that her lips buzzed like a small motor, “just every now and then. But enough to worry me. I didn’t say anything because it would make him mad. He said he had too much to remember and the days were shorter. ‘They’re stealing a little more time each day,’ he said, shaking his head. ‘Who’s they?’ I asked. He just sighed and told me I knew what he was talking about.”
I remember the day of her announcement. We had finished Sunday lunch and were loitering at the table, picking at a little more crumb cake, a little more pecan pie, just sort of making pigs of ourselves. Grandpa left the room suddenly—he looked sort of dazed—and went for his nap. He didn’t tell the usual World War I stories or even excuse himself; he stood up, gazed at us as if he had never seen us before, and started out. He looked skinny and fragile and his fingers trembled a little. We all knew something was wrong, except maybe my sister Ruthie, who was still too young. Mom and Dad looked at each other with raised eyebrows. I had seen a few old people get skinny all of a sudden, like Uncle Ambrose, and they didn’t last long after that. Grandma came in from the kitchen, where she had taken some dishes, wiped her hands, and sat down in her husband’s chair. She had never done that before. Grandpa’s chair at the head of the table was sacred.
“I have something to say,” she began, “and you’re not going to like it.”
“I think we know already, Ma,” Dad said. He looked sad as an old rag. Dad was devoted to his father.
She ignored him. “Grandpa is sick. His mind’s going. It’s like he’s daft. Yesterday he went out the door in his underwear. He said he was driving up see Alphonse at Southern. When I told him he needed to put on some clothes, he blew up, told me to mind my own business. But he walked back into the bedroom and put on some clothes anyway. He stormed out of the house and slammed the door like I was his worst enemy. Not ten minutes later he came back.
“‘Can’t find my keys’ is all he said and then sank into this very chair and stared at the wall. I don’t think he knew where he was. ‘Maybe we ought to see a doctor,’ I said. Well, he understood that all right and exploded again. ‘I’m all right!’ he shouted and pounded the table. Then he belched—you know those big cochons he makes—and smiled and everything seemed normal again. Except his shirt was buttoned up wrong and he wore two different shoes on his feet. ‘Jake,’ I said, ‘I know you’re all right, but it wouldn’t hurt to see Dr. Mosby. You need to see him about your heart anyway.’ Well, he started to rant and rave about how I wanted to get rid of him and how I fed him the wrong food and it wasn’t him but the blood pressure medicine. Then he put his head down on the table and went to sleep. Just like that. So what I’m telling you all is that Grandpa is ill, and he needs to see Dr. Mosby, and I can’t do it all myself. I’m so stiff as it is.”
And then, for the first time in my life, I saw my grandmother cry. She twiddled with a linen napkin and wept softly. “He’s getting so old right before my eyes.”
“What’s the matter, Grandma?” Ruthie asked.
Grandma reached over with her gnarled fingers and patted Ruthie’s hand. “It’s ok, sweetheart,” she said, “your grandpa just needs to go to the doctor.”
“Is Grandpa ok?” Ruthie asked. She had not digested a bit of what her grandmother had said.
“I’ll make the appointment,” Dad said. “He’s not going to like it.”
“He’ll fight you and make you feel like scum,” Grandma said.
“Can I come too?” I asked.
Dad smiled. He looked older and seemed beaten down. “No, Jakie,” he said, “it’s not a fun place to go.”
“But I don’t want Grandpa to be sick.”
“None of us do, Jakie,” Grandma said. “He’s an old man though. Old people are always sick.”
“Are you sick, Grandma?” Ruthie asked, as if suddenly she too knew the family had changed.
“Oh, just my usual rheumatism. You know me. My feet hurt so much.”
And that’s the first time we heard that too. Grandma came from a long line of stalwart forebears who refused to complain about anything. Their hands might be burned to char and they would remain dignified and poised and go on chatting as if valentines throbbed above their heads. If Grandma admitted that her feet hurt, they must have ached in a way none of the rest of us could stand for one minute, much less year after year.
I remember looking at the screen door. One edge of the mesh had come loose and had curled up at the joint. The metal latch hung down like a tiny anchor. Sunlight eased through lace curtains that had begun to dry rot. I felt massive forces at work, forces over which none of us had any control, and I stormed out of the room, out the door and plopped down on the concrete steps of the small porch. I tried to think about everything Grandma had said, but I couldn’t. My mind had gone blank, maybe like my grandfather’s. I heard the bells gong over at St. Rosa de Lima. Honeysuckle and sweet olive wafted in the breezes. The tall wooden fence that separated Grandma’s house and the one next door looked soggy, gray and soft. Only a few years before I had climbed that fence with abandon. It dawned on me that I would never climb it again, nor did I want to climb it. Something new had begun, something I didn’t like and wanted to brush aside as if it didn’t count. But whatever was going on seemed inexorable. We had to live with it. And it would hurt and diminish us all.