_ “There’s Mr. Farmer, Daddy,” my dad says. “You remember Mr. Farmer, don’t you?” Pop-Pop nods his head emphatically, his eyes glistening with false recognition, a defense mechanism he taught himself not long after the Alzheimer’s first set in. He still shakes hands with vigor, boldly referring to people as “Boss” or “Chief,” hoping to disguise his fading mind. They all know he’s lost to us by now, but none let on that they know, at least not while they are in his presence.
A child of the depression, my grandfather has been a penny-pincher all his life. Over the years, when we’d go out to eat, the tips he left shrunk from two dollars to one and eventually to only a few quarters. After he once scolded me for adding money to the pile, I quickly learned to wait until he was out of sight. His dignity always seemed at stake in such moments. Were he to catch me laying down a few extra bills, he’d stare straight ahead at the road on the drive home, not speaking to me, insulted that I assumed he didn’t have the money to leave. If I suggested the tip was too small, he’d say I reminded him of his hippie children, ready to give all my possessions to the next person who asked for them. The simple truth was he couldn’t remember why the waitress deserved more than a dollar. As a young man, he made a quarter for a day’s work in the fields. How could anyone not be grateful to make four times that in thirty minutes?
Years ago it was strange to answer the same questions about school and life over and over, but now it is even stranger to be so aware of the absence of any questions at all. In my mind he’s the same man he always was: the one who could do push-ups and pull-ups for hours, who had thousands of stories piled up in his memory, who taught me how to spell and do long division.
“Two plus two,” he’d say as we rode around in his car.
“Four!” I’d yell back, on the edge of my seat.
Or he might just point at a sign we passed, and again I’d be ready with a response, “S-T-O-P. Stop.”
When I asked what he drank as we drove around he’d say “Co-Cola,” and for years after that I looked for the Coke that smelled like the homeless man at the local gas station.
Always eager to watch me grow up, he woke me each year on my first day of school with the promise of cheese-eggs. Every Christmas, he was at our house before my brother and sister and I had even gotten out of bed. Starting when I was six, we had a tradition of having weekly lunch together, always the same routine. I’d climb in his white Ford Explorer, and we’d drive to the worn down Etna with its old fashioned pumps. He’d give the cashier a few dollars and flip over some crates in the back, a picnic table for our feast of beanie-weenies, saltines and soda. Even now, when a name so easily escapes him, his eyes brighten at the mention of beanie-weenies. Years later, after I grew out of the tradition, he tried taking my sister with him, returning her to my mother after barely an hour, tears welling up in his eyes. “I’m sorry,” he said, making sure my sister was out of ear-shot. “It’s just not the same.”
It’s just not the same is about the only way I can sum up what it’s like to spend time with him now. I still enjoy it. If anything, his sense of humor has gotten better in his recent descent, and once you get used to the awkwardness of his jokes, he can be hilarious at times.
“God the mighty!” he yelled once in Subway, as if his speech were contained in a sound-proof box. “Look at that biggun over there. You’d think she’d rather have a few hundred Big Macs than a Subway sandwich, wouldn’t you?”
He never said it in malice; it was simply a casual observation, nonchalant, like a remark about the weather. I learned to accept such comments as inevitabilities that came with sharing in his company. At a dinner party a year or two ago, someone jokingly asked him to give a toast, and he thought to himself a moment before standing in front of everyone and reciting one of his favorites.
“Here’s to my woman, sweet as a vine,” he began. “She blooms every month, and bears every nine. But nothing on this side of heaven or hell will ever get rid of that fishy smell.”
As the dinner guests sat in silent disgust, my brother and I sprinted out of the room to laugh, enjoying the decisive victory of the bawdy over the prudish. Even today, he has those toasts ready at any whim. Another of his favorites involves the physical reaction he has when he sees a woman dressed in black. Now that he has trouble remembering who his grandchildren are, we have to cut him off any time he notices my sister wearing a black dress.
“What have you been up to these days, Pop-Pop?” I ask him, though the answer has remained unaltered for quite some time.
“Working, mostly,” he says. “Just getting by.” And he believes it. He used to live for work, and I imagine, for him, the saddest part of his day is that he never quite makes it to the office anymore. For a while, when he could still get around, my dad would let him come to the hardware store and count cash from the car wash.
“God the mighty. Is that all mine?” he’d ask, referring to a pile of one dollar bills. Pop-Pop would sit down and count, wrapping each bundle of twenty into rubber bands that my dad would have to pay someone else to re-count after he’d been taken back to The Home, my less daunting name for nursing homes.
His caretaker, Bernice, is the nicest black lady in the world, and in his mental state the racism that tainted his past has evaporated. He’s convinced they are lovers; it’s an inside joke that spices up her day. The more his dreams mix with reality, the more obscene his comments become, and the more pleasure she gets out of it.
“Mr. Jim,” Bernice says to him when he gets too playful, “touch me again and I’ll smack you.”
“Oh, come on,” he replies. “Let’s do what we did last night.” He doesn’t remember prostate cancer left him impotent years before.
Every summer, my grandmother would move to the beach, leaving Pop-Pop behind with his work. This was long after they had slowly grown apart, sleeping first in separate beds and then in separate rooms. As though dependant upon her presence, each Friday he would robotically make the two and a half hour drive there, and Sundays he’d make the drive back. Oftentimes, if I wasn’t already at the beach, I would keep him company on the rides. I imagine there was plenty we could have talked about, but these were contemplative drives, reserved for reflection, and most of the trip he spent listening to the sounds of the car as it hummed along the pavement. The only time we spoke was around midpoint, when he’d look at me and, knowing very well what I’d say, ask, “Chocolate or vanilla?”
We’d pull over at a Mom-and-Pop store and order our ice cream, then, with cones wrapped snug in our napkins, climb back in the car and continue the drive in silence. The cold sweet chocolate would drip down my hands as it melted, and my fingers stuck together even after I licked them clean. He’d eat his vanilla cone, driving with one hand, eyes straight ahead. At the time, I thought I was missing out on some strange message the drone of the wheels against the road offered him. I thought that if I listened hard and long enough, I’d hear it too, and maybe one day, I’d know as much as he did. These days, with my own silent driving routines, I realize he couldn’t hear a thing, that he wanted to hear the road’s message just as much as I did. I think it’s the not-knowing that keeps him alive, and I’m terrified that one day soon, his mind will be so whittled down that it will finally be pure enough to understand what the road was trying to tell him.
“It’s just not the same, is it?” Dad asks after he’s dropped Pop-Pop off at Guardian Care, the home. “I never thought I’d have to wipe anyone’s ass but my own.” To the nurses there, Pop-Pop has become just another face, and that fact makes it harder for my dad to leave him every time. I like to think there’s some reason behind their lack of enthusiasm. Sometimes I’ll imagine him grinning at them as he shits his diaper, well aware that they have to wipe him after, and I pretend that’s why the nurses shy away.
The problem is, when I look at my dad, I see my grandfather. Not as he is now, but as he was when I was a boy. In fifteen years, when Pop-Pop is long gone, my dad will be about that age, barely over sixty-five, eager to watch his own grandkids grow up.
He shares many of the same characteristics, the same commentary when everyone’s trying to watch a movie, the same drive to make sure his kids have a little something after he’s gone. I’m afraid someday soon the tips he leaves whittle down to a few dollars or quarters. He “accidentally” forgets to remove the price tag on the presents he gives because “not everyone is as fortunate as we are.” I’m worried something’s hiding in the corners of our home, waiting to drive him and my mom apart, like their parents, into different rooms of the house. I’m terrified he might forget that work isn’t what he lives for, that like Pop-Pop he’ll start to believe in the figures on his tax returns there lies some secret formula to the world. I’m scared shitless that I won’t be as good a son to him as he is to his father, that I won’t be there to re-count his dollars or wipe his ass.
I often pretend that time has stopped, here on this given day, that things won’t change over the next thirty years. I hate it, but I can’t help but think I might have to drop him off at one of those homes someday.
“It’s just not the same,” I might say to my son as I climb back in the car after dropping Dad off.
No, it never is.