A Nice Young Man

I hate the smell of places like this. Old folks homes and hospitals; I hate them both. They stink of medicine and that weird old people smell and a hundred other smells impossible to identify. When I was a kid and in the hospital getting my broken arm set, my brother Mick told me that the smell was the smell of death, and that if you smelled it too long, you would die. That’s why people who stayed in hospitals and nursing homes for a long time died.

I know better now. That horrible smell is a combination of disinfectants and cleaning chemicals and vomit and medicines and blood and vomit. Knowing this doesn’t make the visits any more pleasant. All it does is make me associate all those smells with death, like I did when I was a child. Whenever I end up in this place, it feels like the nurses are Grim Reapers in pink scrubs.

I admit it; old folk’s homes scare me. Hell, old folks scare me. I think it’s because I’m 22 and I don’t like being reminded that in 50 years or so, I’ll be in the same paper shoes. Unable to walk or remember my own name. I also get scared of getting old because it means I have to watch everyone else grow old as well. My friends and family, Katherine, everyone.

So why am I here now? What could have brought me in to one of the only places on earth I was scared to be? Two words – grand dad. Grandma finally had to put him into the Marjorie Williams Memorial Home for the Elderly. It wasn’t something she wanted to do, trust me. She talked with mom and Aunt Diane and Uncle Greg about it for months.

But finally – I think it was when Granddad hit a Denny’s waiter with a plate – they decided the only logical course for everyone would be to commit him to the protective custody of the home. “For the best,” y’know?

The rest of the family got to visit him fairly regularly; but since they were in Springfield, Missouri, and I was going to school in South Dakota, I didn’t make it down at all for the first five months, and I wouldn’t have gotten there for another three if Spring break hadn’t rolled along. I had no excuses now. It’s the first time I’ve dreaded a break from school.

So here I am, with mom and grandma and Katherine and Greg. I felt bad about dragging Katherine along, but she insisted, and to be honest, I was glad to have her company. I don’t know why she wanted to come. I don’t even want to be here.

Now don’t get me wrong – I love my granddad a lot. We were always extremely close. You just have to understand that that’s why it’s so hard for me to see him. To visit him now, like this, is hell. The man who taught me how to fish, how to shave, how to be a man, lying there, a shell of the man he had once been. He was a husk now, an empty shell of my granddad. He wasn’t so grand anymore.

Age wore him down, his mind as well as his body. Alzheimer’s Disease had been ravaging his brain for years, and he was now so feeble he couldn’t get out of his bed. I love my granddad, as I always have. I just hate what he has become.

As we made our way down the sterile white corridor to room 114, all I could think of was how I could get out of here quickly without being rude. When we entered granddad’s room, I still hadn’t come up with an easy solution. I decided to grit my teeth and bare my cross.

I was mad at him. I wanted to shake him and yell a dozen questions at him. Why did he have to be so fucking sick? Why couldn’t he just die or be healthy like my friends’ grandparents? Did he know what he was doing to our family? To me? I know now that I was never really mad at him – it was just that irrational, selfish anger, the kind you feel when someone dies. That “why did you leave me” type of bullshit.

So there he was, presented like a sacrifice on an orthopedic altar. He was laid out in all his withered, shrunken glory, the tubes and wires attached to him, running his body, a man-made life force. There was a crucifix over his bed, but I felt that God had no place here, or maybe that he didn’t want to be here. Man had intervened, taking God’s right to choose my granddad’s time.

I stood in the doorway with Katherine, squeezing her hand, waiting while grandma and mom and Mick said there unreturned hellos and asked their unacknowledged questions. “How are you?” “Are they treating you right?” “How ya doin’, dad?” Then it was my turn.

Mom waved me into the room. Grandma and Greg left as Katherine and I came in. Everyone knew that granddad was like a father to me, as close as a grandfather can be with his grandson. “Dad, this is Matt. Do you remember Matt?” Granddad moved his head in my direction, but I could tell he wasn’t looking at me. He was seeing something from his past, like they described to me on the phone. Reliving a battle in the Pacific, remembering some old vaudeville routine he had once seen, or maybe just trying to figure out who all these people were.

I walked up to the side of the bed as mom left the room. I wished that everyone else had stayed, so I had some other people there that would know what I was going through. Katherine stood beside me, but she had no clue. Her grandparents lived in condos overlooking the beach in Florida. She couldn’t know how I felt.

“H-hi granddad. It’s me. Matt?” I said my own name like I was unsure of it. It felt like there was no point in even having a name here. Granddad couldn’t even remember his own name sometimes, what did mine matter? “Do you remember me, granddad?”

Granddad looked into my eyes. His gaunt cheeks twitched slightly, and I thought maybe it was recognition, but I was always terrible at reading people. It could have been gas for all I knew. “I’m Matt.” He kept staring at me. “I thought I’d drop in and say hi, y’know?” He glanced from me to Katherine, and then looked up to the ceiling.

I wanted to leave. I wanted to go home and never see him again, to forget him until I got the call from mom telling me when he was going to be buried. Katherine squeezed my hand again and I realized granddad was staring at her. “Oh, um, granddad, this is Katherine. She goes to school with me at Huron. She’s sort of, well, she’s my fiancée.” There was no reaction.

I turned to Katherine, annoyed. I suggested that we go. “Why don’t you stay and try to talk to him alone?” she asked. I could have killed her for that.

“It won’t do any good.”

“It won’t do any harm, either.” So what was I supposed to say? That I was sickened at the thought of trying to communicate with this old man? That I was scared of my own grandfather, a man who had been my best friend for years, who could now barely lift an arm? Damn them! Katherine, my mom, the whole family; they knew how hard this was for me to deal with. Why were they forcing me into this?

Katherine left me with the old man who had been fundamental in my life. We stared at each other for a moment that seemed to be an eternity. Finally I lost my patience, or maybe my nerve, whichever I had less of, and turned to walk out. The whiskey voice behind me cut through the air and my soul like a knife. “Who was that young woman with you, Matt?”

Goosepimples ran up my neck, not from fear, but from shock. I knew that granddad had spells, that he shifted into and out of reality, but I hadn’t seen this kind of change before. I turned back around. I looked into his eyes, and for the first time that evening, he seemed to really be looking into mine. A small smile tugged at his lips. I walked over to him and sat on a chair next to the head of the bed. “Granddad? How are you?”

“I’m fine, Matt. Thanks for coming to see me. It’s been a long time, hasn’t it?”

“Too long.” He reached out to shake my hand, and his rough, callused, workingman’s hand felt great. His touch put me at ease, just like it always had. Then we talked. I mean we really talked, like we hadn’t in years. We talked about school, Katherine, mom, grandma, the fact that the hospital wouldn’t let him eat hamburgers, everything. He even apologized for the way he was. I told him he didn’t need to of course, but it made me glad to know that he was at least aware, now, that he had problems. It made him seem less distant.

After a while, a nurse came in to give him his medication. I asked to bring in Katherine before he took his pills so he could meet her. She said that it would be fine if I hurried. I made it back in about thirty seconds.

Granddad was making sputtering noises as he conducted a mock battle between two toy airplanes he held in his hands. My world stopped for a second. It hit me that I had had no right to become attached to someone who would not even be there a few minutes later. I shouldn’t have done that to myself.

I turned to leave in what I can now describe as disgust; in him, in myself for feeling that way, in my family for putting me into this spot. As Katherine and I left the room, I heard my grandfather ask the nurse the name of the boy he’d just been talking to. I froze, and she told him that it was his grandson Matt.

“Oh. Well, he was certainly a nice young man.” He then went back to scouring the Jap scourge from the skies.

As we left the home, I observed the other seniors who, for various reasons, were doomed to live out the rest of their short lives in this place, this place of stench and death and no hope. One woman was wandering around with her gown open in back, exposing the diaper she was forced to wear. Another woman, a bent creature with a walker, was asking my grandma if she’d seen her family on the way in. Two old men in a corner were playing checkers and bickering like second graders over a move one of them had made. One old woman was holding a teddy bear to her chest and sobbing on the chest of a nurse. I heard her say that Susie wouldn’t let her play with her dolly.

And my granddad, the rock in our family for three generations, was having mock dogfights with himself. I cried on Katherine’s shoulder that night in my bedroom, the first time I’d ever really cried in front of her. I cried on her shoulder again a month later when granddad finally died.

I used to want to die young. The reason was every person in that home. I didn’t want to end up in a home, unsure of reality, unable to control my mind and body.

When my grandma told me that he had died with a smile on his face, I began rethinking my views on life, death, and old age. A man who had committed his share of sins in life went out with a grin and a laugh. I thought back to my Catholic school days. The Beatitudes – “Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth. Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God."

Granddad left this world with the same innocence he entered it with. Maybe he was luckier than most.