Saturday, November 10, 2007
grandpa's here at the broadway diner
Sample Patrons: two Arlington cops on a coffee break in the corner booth, two women that look like friends of my mother, talking about their directionless children. A retired couple just pulled up in their pristine 1986 black Caddy. The wife is behind the wheel, and the husband walks through the parking lot slowly, with a cane. To my right, there’s a suit with a receding hairline just sat down and ordered coffee, unfolds the Herald from under his arm. I’m guessing insurance, owns a small private office. Or maybe a patent attorney. There’s two old guys at the counter with all the stools (what do they call that?) and they’re talking up the cooks in the kitchen. Wheezy, jagged-edged laughter erupts from one of them. That’s the sound of two packs a day for thirty years.
What is it exactly about these greasy spoons? The food is anything but spectacular. It’s what you make for yourself at home, only not as good. The furnishings are sterile and uninspired. Burgandy vinyl booths, gray utility carpet, white walls and a few ivy plants. Stacks of assorted single serving Smuckers jams, sweeteners, and squeezy ketchup bottles on the tables. The average ticket is under $20. Diners like this always make me wonder how they stay in the black.
I think I like this place because every time I sit down, I want to look for Grandpa. He should be here with me. He’d dig the menu. Grandpa would order the cheeseburger plate with a Pepsi. This is pre-ill Grandpa, of course. The Grandpa who’d take me to a place like this when Grandma was busy with another grandchild, and we had some time to kill before Mom picked us up. He’d tease me about whatever Disney character was on my t-shirt, and never make me finish all my french fries. My whole life, I think Grandpa is the only man who made me feel like anything I did was perfect; I was as perfect as anyone could get. Somehow I knew that’s what he thought of me all the time. So, strangely, this made it okay to not be perfect all the time.
When Grandpa was in his final days, I flew home from Boston to say goodbye. Grandpa’s kidneys were done, so he came home to die in the home where he raised two daughters and loved his wife for over 50 years. On the car ride from the airport, I was warned that he was too weak to talk, and told not to expect much. Walking into the house, I stood in the doorway of his bedroom, and caught his eye. “I came a long way to see you,” I said. He quickly fired back in a strained whisper, “I’m so glad you did.” He reached his hand out, and patted the bedspread. Way more than I was expecting, and I nearly burst into tears that very moment.
Whenever we visited Grandpa during one of his many hospital visits, he always wanted you to sit on the bed and hold his hand. This was no exception. I took my place, and talked to him for an hour, filling him in on what was happening at grad school. He pointed to my red fingernails and gave me a thumbs up. He would speak a little, but was most comfortable just listening.
A few months before seeing him here, I’d sent Grandpa a video of one of my BoCo voice recitals. I sang one of his favorites, a 40’s standard titled “I’ll Be Seeing You.” I really wanted him to hear me sing that song. Mom said he loved it.
Grandpa was tall and masculine. But starting in his late fifties, his health became impossible. He had heart problems, circulation problems, muscular skeletal problems, kidney problems. It was ridiculous. Countless doctor appointments spanning over the last two decades of his life. I don’t even know how many different surgeries. Always something different. But you would not believe this man’s optimism, and his constant concern for Grandma and his kids. Once or twice, I was asked to drive him to an appointment. Sitting in the waiting room, in a chair that looked anything but comfortable for Grandpa, he leaned over and gave me some advice: “Mary, m’dear. May I make a suggestion? Don’t ever get old.” And then he smiled at me.
Grandpa tended to look uncomfortable in any chair other than his big brown leather recliner. That large, paternal-looking patriarchal throne fit him like a glove. Grandpa and Grandma always came to our plays and recitals as kids, and even as a child, looking out in the audience to find them, I’d see Grandpa, sitting in that unsuitably rigid folding chair, and wish we’d brought the recliner. Never a complaint though. He’d catch my eye and wink.
The day before Grandpa passed away, he was barely there. Past the point of being able to respond to anyone in the room, he slept most of the time and expended all his energy trying to breathe. It looked painful. My wonderful EMT trained brother monitored his vitals every hour. When his eyes were open for just a few minutes, I came over to the bed and stroked his head. I got very close to his face, and looked straight into his eyes. In that moment I was overwhelmed with gratitude. This is the man who quit high school at 17 to begin supporting his mother and four sisters, worked two farms, completed his GED, enlisted in the Army Air Corps in 1944. He married his best girl Catherine shortly before heading down to Texas to begin army training. He spent his entire existence in devotion to his wife, his girls, and the Sante Fe Railroad. He never raised his voice, (if he didn’t like something, he’d tisk, shake his head, and walk away) he was never disrespectful to his wife, he never, ever, EVER, walked away from a responsibility, great or small. His gentle giant ways, his sweet voice, and his endearing sense of humor. The truest of patriarchs you’ll ever meet. This is what was in my head as I looked into his eyes that day. I said, “Thank you.” His face strained a little at the words. So I said, “I know, you want to thank me, and tell me you love me so much. I already know all that, so don’t worry about it.” He looked at me a little longer, and then closed his eyes to sleep a little bit.
Around 3:00 p.m. the following day, he slowly, peacefully stopped breathing. My brother, Paul, was there with his stethoscope, listening, waiting, then unceremoniously unwrapped it from around his neck, sat back and looked at Grandpa. Paul wore this sad, small smile as he looked at his Grandpa. He was gone. I ran out to the front porch and looked up into the sky. I kind of wanted to see if I could see him leaving us. I didn’t see anything. So beautiful, so sad.
Sometimes I think Grandpa visits me, or at least I hear him in my head. Please don’t commit me for admitting this. But it’s true. If I’m sad about a boy, Grandpa’s voice comes to say “Never you mind, honey. Never you mind him.” Once, when I was still nannying George, I could swear Grandpa was watching us. As if he just wanted to see me again. Ever the caretaker. He still checks in. He’s not here with me at the diner today, but my love for him, my memories of him, fill this entire room.
I just realized this is Grandpa’s birthday month. Happy birthday, Grandpa! Every time I think of you, I still can’t stop saying the words, Thank You.
i've always wished i had known my grandpa's and hearing you talk about yours makes me even more envious- what an amazing man he must have been.
You're not crazy for thinking your Grandpa is near by...I get the same inkling about my Grannys, espeically when I'm in the hospital for a surgery or having a trial.
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