"You're going to want to put socks on." Dad said.
Immediately I was suspicious. Why did I need to wear socks?
"Nah, I'll be fine."
He insisted, "No, you can't wear shoes in the house, you don't want to go barefoot."
We were going to visit Grandpa. I was nervous. I went to the laundry room and found a pair of clean socks. It didn't matter, I'd wear the dumb socks. I hadn't seen Grandpa since his "turn for the worse" as Mom phrased it. I knew he wasn't the same man I remembered. I knew things would be different. I told myself it would be fine, he was still my grandpa after all. Yet, in the back of my head I questioned everything, would things really be fine? Should they be?
Grandpa had moved. He was too much for Grandma now, they had found a special place for him to stay with 24 hour care. I knew I should think this was best for both of them, yet part of me didn't know what to think of this at all. Part of me was still wondering why I needed to wear socks, and what the necessity of socks meant.
While we were driving we talked of the new kittens in the garage, the pretty shades the leaves were turning, how nice it was to have the windows down, and what brand of dog food we needed at the store, but not of Grandpa. Never once did we mention Grandpa. I was nervous.
We found the house. The van stopped on the side of the road, I followed everyone else inside the long, brick house. To my relief, it didn't smell bad. It smelled okay, like houses are supposed to smell, maybe not good, but not bad either. Straight ahead I saw two elderly women in the living room, lounging in big chairs, dressed in pajamas and slippers. One lady held a huge cat with blue eyes and a dark face. After taking our shoes off, we headed in to join them.
And there was Grandpa.
For a second my heart dropped. Yes, this was Grandpa, but smaller, swallowed up by a wheelchair. When he finally heard us, he turned his face. Yes, this was Grandpa, soft blue eyes and crooked grin. Yes, yes...this was Grandpa. Everybody was being too happy, too loud. I understood why this was necessary, why the circumstances called for this. Still I didn't like it. I also was being very happy and very loud.
"Hi Grandpa, it's good to see you!" I felt like I was shouting, but if he noticed, he didn't seem to mind. He reached out his hand, I took it.
"Well..." he looked genuinely pleased, "Danae..." His eyes met mine, searching for approval. He remembered my name. After a moment, Grandpa turned to my dad who had knelt down beside him. My dad looked so different next to this man, so incredibly young.
Grandpa reached out his hand and began patting Dad's back. He tried to say something, but no one was able to understand. We all nodded dumbly in agreement.
"Would you like to see his room?" The caretaker was there. Her name was Heidi. Automatically, I began assessing her. I noticed her hair, died red, and the tattoo on her ankle. I also noticed she wore bare feet.
We took the breaks off of Grandpa's wheelchair and wheeled him into the other part of the house. His room was huge. The carpet was new and freshly vacuumed. He had an enormous window at one end, letting the warm afternoon sun fall in. The greater part of one wall was covered by a white poster, it read, "Your Family Welcomes You, Tom", in fancy black letters. It was a good room, very acceptable.
Heidi offered Dad and I a tour of the rest of the house, we followed her from one end to the other. She opened the door to a room that looked exactly like Grandpa's. There was the window, same size. The carpet, same new color.
"This room is empty now, the resident passed just last week." Heidi explained. I silent alarm went off in my head, it finally clicked in my brain: people pay to die here.
There was a three-layered shelf by the door that still held at least a dozen little picture frames of this dead woman and her family. I bent over to look closely at them. This woman could've been anybody, I thought. No, in fact, she was everybody, she represented all of humankind one day: old, dead. Maybe Grandpa was going to die here too; actually, yes, he probably was.
It was only a matter of time.
We finished the tour and returned to Grandpa's room. Heidi left us to visit with him. Grandpa began talking to Dad, his words were incoherent and garbled together, making no sense. Still, we sat and listened. I knew that voice. I knew that husky, deep, warm voice. His voice brought memories back. Memories of the whole extended family gathered around the dinner table before a mind-blowing holiday feast, all joining hands, and Grandpa's deep, scratchy voice lifting us up in prayer. Or on Christmas, when we were all gathered in the basement, sitting next to the artificial tree overwhelmed with lights, garland, tinsel, and ornaments, nearly hidden by the mountain of presents, he would read the Christmas story out loud from the book of Matthew. I knew that voice, it was the voice I grew up with; bickering with Grandma (never very successfully), talking to Dad and my uncles about "specks up north", and who was working on such-and-such a job way over in East Grand Rapids, and "did you see the spread of that place", etcetera.
It began sink in, I would no longer see that man. Those memories were past, the new ones would be here, in this house with this smaller version of my grandfather. It hit me that I'd never hear Grandpa pray again, or read the Christmas story. He would never talk to his sons in the builder jargon I never followed, or bicker with Grandma anymore. Sometimes he would hold his head in his hands, pain etched in the lines of his face, as if he knew.
I should've been happy, just like everyone else was being happy, laughing, talking, talking far too loud. I couldn't help the restriction in my throat, the tears weren't there, but I was fighting them down. Seeing his small frame there did something to me, it interrupted the normalcy.
Time seemed to stop here. The million things that had to be done no longer mattered. Nothing mattered, seeing Grandpa was like an out-of body experience where the the reality of growing old and dying was looking me straight in the face.
I excused myself and escaped to the patio behind the house. The tears came then, not convulsing, not face distorting or body lurching, just tears, followed by excessive sniffling. It was one of the most beautiful fall days I could remember. The air was still warm, the sun felt welcoming on my face. I noticed it was an elegant patio, with a huge lattice hanging above, covered by a finely-woven screen, and large slabs of multicolored stone spread underneath. It was almost seventy degrees probably, but I could smell autumn. The leaves were dying in that magnificent way leaves do at that time of year, catching on fiery colors of red, orange and yellow.
It was the end of a season. Now, days later, as I write this, removed from the scene, sitting at my desk at college, it seems cliche to compare Grandpa's life to autumn, to the way leaves die and everything alive goes into hiding until spring, until "rebirth". Yet, in the moment there was nothing cliche to speak of. As I smelled the dried out, dying leaves, as I listened to the wind run through them, and watched a handful fall to the ground, I understood a simple truth, yet a truth nonetheless. Our lives are made up of seasons. Each one, a generation, forever overlapping, moving, changing. Sometimes the transitions can be hard, usually we don't want to let go of one season in order to embrace the next. Sometimes seasons come suddenly without much overlap, sometimes they're gradual and we get to ease into them. Seasons must change in order for life to continue, in order for new birth and regeneration to have a chance. This is the way of life, the way of men and leaves.
For this truth, I am thankful. For the memories I share with my grandfather, I am more thankful still. For the hope of spring, I am thankful most of all.