My grandpa’s belly hangs low over the tops of his jeans. When he laughs, he thunders and his gut ripples like water in his tight t-shirts. He keeps his sleeves rolled up and a pack of Marlboro Reds rest in the fold. As a child, my favorite days were the days that he stops by our house for afternoon coffee with my mom. As my school bus rounded the corner, I’d press my face against the window hoping to see his red Cadillac parked on the street. I’d hope he was smoking on the porch. I’d pretend to agree with my mom and grandma that it’s a filthy habit, but the truth is that I love sitting across the table from him, floating and laughing together in his cloud of smoke.
I’d hurry down the block when I see his car. I’d hope he brought doughnuts. I’d hope my mom would pour me a cup of milk with a splash of coffee while I sat with him and pretended to do my math homework. My older brother was in junior high, and they’d get let out later than me, so for a little while, it would be just me and grandpa. If you let my mother tell it, I spent the first few years of my life refusing to be held, hugged, or attended to at all by a man, with the exception of my grandfather.
On the last night I spend alone with him, I wake up to the sound of dice in a cup. It’s 2 AM. He’s got Alzheimer’s–Sundown Syndrome specifically. It’s been a long six months. The blue eyes he gave me rarely sparkle anymore, they’re no longer full of love and boyish bullshit. His laugh doesn’t shake the walls of his house. He doesn’t know who I am most days. Most days, I sit in front of him and wonder where he is.
My cousins and I take turns sleeping at my grandparent’s house. He sleeps all day and is active all night and my grandma needs a break. I do it because it’s The Right Thing To Do, but when I help him to his bedside commode I cannot look him in the eye. We are miles away from each other. I am afraid to be tender. I do not tell him how much I love him. I do not thank him for all he’s taught me. I cannot force myself to tell him that it’s going to be okay. On this night, our last night alone together, it’s 2 AM and he’s wide awake, and he wants to play Yahtzee. His once full gut hangs off his bones like gray putty. I roll my eyes and I am not gentle when I tell him Please. It’s Time To Go To Bed. His voice cracks. Come on, I’m not gonna hurt nobody.
My grandma wakes up and joins us in the kitchen. She tells me to go to bed. She’ll play Yahtzee with him. I have to work in the morning. I roll my eyes again and gladly oblige. I will not see him again until I join my aunts, uncles, and cousins in a hospital room in the south suburbs. We will be still and silent for an hour, all thirty of us, until he takes his last breath. I will sit on the floor. I will rest my head on my cousin Michael’s shoulder as my grandma begs him not to go. All I will hear when I close my eyes for the next week is him, desperate, pleading. Come on, I’m not gonna hurt nobody.
When I hug my grandma at his funeral, I apologize. I wish I had done better. She touches my chin and tucks a lock of hair behind my ear. With the gentleness and warmth that only a mother of five and a grandmother of thirteen could muster, she smiles. You can’t think like that. He loved you so much. He loved you all so much.
I do not visit my grandpa’s grave for almost a year after the funeral. I am afraid. I am afraid that he is watching from Some Other Place, shaking his head with disappointment. We have seen each other at our worst, and he saw a coward. When I confess to my mom that I am still haunted by our last interaction, she shakes her head, puzzled. “I didn’t know that. The last thing he told me was to shut up.” I want to scream. It’s so much more than our last interaction. I let him down. Can’t she see?
Around the time that my grandpa started to deteriorate, I began work as a nursing assistant. I got a job at a run-down nursing home on the south side. Most days, I was assigned to the dementia unit. For forty hours a week I gave baths and spoon-fed meals to adults who need me to calmly and quietly explain that Yes, They Are Safe and Yes, It’s Going To Be Ok. When we got new patients, I watch once enthusiastic, attentive, and loving families slowly become frazzled, absent, exhausted. I enter their loved ones’ rooms reverently while they visit. I change their diapers patiently. I explain every item on their lunch tray slowly and in a way that is easy to understand. My patients’ families look at me with admiration. I don’t know how you do it, they tell me. It takes a special person. I give them a tight, obligatory smile. I think of my grandfather at home. I think of myself sitting next to him, stroking his hand, desperate for him to see me. I think of the frustration I feel when he can’t.
The truth is, though, that by swaddling our memories in a thick blanket of guilt, I am letting him down more in his death than I ever did in life. Death isn’t easy for anyone, let alone the slow death of one of the people you cherished the most. My guilt is futile. It is unproductive. It is self-serving and it rolls around in me like a stone. My guilt is comfortable–I shift the focus from losing him, to never having deserved him in the first place. Instead of honoring his memory, instead of living the lessons he taught me, I have spent years licking self-inflicted wounds.
I believe that there’s a difference between guilt and remorse. But I cannot be remorseful; there is nobody to look in the face and apologize to. My grandpa is gone. He’s gone, and I loved him, and he loved me. It’s a disservice to him to remember him in his last days, sick and confused and angry. It’s a disservice to us to remember us as two people worlds apart in the same room. These days, I try to remember him as he truly was: The man who taught me that roasting someone is a love language. The man who poured himself a bowl of Cheerios every morning, then poured a bowl for his dog. The man who loved quietly, but fiercely. The man who gave me my blue eyes and my big laugh. The man who would roll his eyes and tell me to get over myself if he ever read this.