Grandpa whimpered at the top of the stairs like a dog who wants to be carried rather than clamber down himself. I stood at the bottom, unsure, wanting to go up but not willing to pass him. His eyes were focused on the carpet in front of him, one hand poised over the rail. When he finally moved, it was as if he was coming out of a trance. There was triumph in his face. He placed one foot on the stair and then faltered again but eventually made it the rest of the way down. He wasn’t embarrassed, and I didn’t say anything. I never really knew what to say to him at all. Later, I found him in the kitchen. An open bag of bread lay on the counter, one slice partly coated in peanut butter, alone. He stood with the butter knife in his right hand, his wrist limp. I took the knife and finishing his work, filled every pore. He became angry.
“It’s okay, Grandpa, I’ll do it for you.”
“No. Get me the thing the bread goes on.” He meant the plate. I kept spreading the peanut butter.
“I will. Let me finish first.” He was still angry and tried to push me away from the counter. He yelled, his forehead more wrinkled than usual. His white eyebrows were raised, and I saw panic there.
We don’t look alike, my grandfather and I. I have a long face with no dimples, and with eyebrows that make me look permanently concerned. His large cheeks, always flushed, rest atop strong jaws and a lithe build. Our noses are similar, but only upon close inspection. I grew up feeling deeply connected to him yet oddly separated. I experienced this duality most acutely when I sat next to him on the coach just to be near him, making sure we were on separate cushions to give him his space.
At the wake, I squeezed my father’s hand as we walked up to the open casket and kneeled. I prayed he wouldn’t let go of me when he bowed his head. I was afraid to look at the body. When I mustered the courage, I noticed the murky eye-glue at the corners of his lids and in the downward turn of his mouth. The ancient Egyptians removed all the innards from a corpse before embalmment. Was my Grandpa empty? His gray skin was too close to my face. I didn’t want to breathe in. He was wearing a suit. Who had dressed him? Did my grandmother? She dressed him every day. The casket, rickety on its weak legs, looked ready to fall forwards and engulf me. I tried to force my mind to focus but could only squirm in my stockings. They were bunching around my ankles and the seams were twisted the wrong way. Then people started to speak about him, and my ears tuned in immediately to the sound of their voices; my eyes remained fixed on the unfamiliar carpet. The room seemed to rock together and cry together, all in one breath. I felt out of place and separate from it all, desperate to know the person they were describing: brave, honorable, witty and inquisitive. He’d looked the part, but when I knew him he’d changed. He let the newspaper sit limply in his lap- mere decoration, not something to analyze and to discuss.
He always went for walks, but they remained mysterious until I was old enough to go with him. The first time was special; there was a rhythm to the walk. This is what granddaughters do with their grandfathers. He had a nice dry palm, and he rubbed the back of my hand with his thumb. I walked very seriously, under the impression that I was leading him. The sun made patterns on his visibly itchy sweater-vest. It was spring but he was always cold and never quite knew the time of year. I liked that he wore his quilted leather slippers outside; my mother would have made me put on shoes. The soles made a nice scuffling sound on the pavement as we went along. He hummed a symphony, something unfamiliar, and made cymbals crash on his thigh with the hand that wasn’t grasping mine. I wanted to play an instrument too but did a weird wriggling dance instead, isolating the hand that was in his because I didn’t think he knew he was holding it anymore.
I really wanted to cry at the funeral, so I didn’t let myself blink. My eyes burned but the tears wouldn’t come. Later, when I was by myself, I cried because I felt guilty. I tasted the salt, wondering if I had ever really known him at all and afraid of the answer. My heels sunk into the soft earth and the priest’s chant filled my head as incense filled my nostrils. I was moved, but mostly I was awkward.
My cousins came over for dinner the other night and while we scooped ice cream, my mother and I talked about him. “He was always stubborn,” she told me. “He was also always forgetful, so I don’t blame us for not noticing right away. He would go to the store and then call the house asking what he was supposed to get.” She licked the spoon. “That kind of thing. Then he started forgetting how to get home and we thought it was best if someone went with him. Eventually, we didn’t want him to drive anymore.” She told me about camping with him in the mountains and about the time he swore he caught a fish much larger than the tent in which they slept. How he couldn’t do a load of laundry or give directions but could explain for hours the economic structures of most European nations, driving my grandmother insane. We put M & Ms on the sundaes.
My Grandmother and I often baked together in the summertime. Afterwards, we’d sit at her kitchen table and philosophize or tell jokes. She was wearing short sleeves, so I examined a large purple mark on her arm. When I asked, she brushed it off. “Oh, please, I’m running around here all day, God only knows how I get these. Probably running into walls and I don’t even know it.” My grandmother gave up more of herself than I could ever have comprehended at the time. We never discussed the truth of the matter later, but my mother told me: the bruises came from him. He wouldn’t want to take a bath or change his shirt and he didn’t need her help. But he did, because it was those things he most often forgot. So she gave it anyway, despite his protests. It was the first time I truly considered the weight of “in sickness and in health.”
Soon after the funeral, I had a dream that my grandmother, in a pink nightgown with glowing curlers in her hair, came to find me. I was in her living room and felt the way one might at a train-station: expectant. She was crying and then she was trembling. Her face twisted like it would in a funhouse mirror.
“I’m tired,” echoed her warped voice.
“Go to bed,” I instructed, bewildered. But she went into the kitchen where hundreds of pies lined the floor and started to bake more. “My work is never finished,” she confided, and the 1⁄4 cup water she measured was actually tears. My grandfather appeared beside her and she scurried behind him. She propped him up as he sliced into the pies with fervor. “She’s just tired, but it will be over soon,” he murmured. He stroked her hair, ran his hand over each curler and smiled. “She’s so good to me.” She passed him the water and a rolling pin.
His room became a study. When I spent the night, I stayed among the things he collected, knowing he had died in that bed. As with everything that becomes familiar, my unease eventually subsided and I forgot the presence of his ghost. There was a giant portrait of the Virgin Mary on one wall and the mattress springs creaked with every movement, but the closet was most intimidating. His pants still hung on the rod, ready to be worn. The dresser had pictures of my grandmother as a young woman, and below it were shelves of books. He was a writer. His words were in those books and filled the drawers of the desk. I spent hours poring over them. I didn’t usually understand them; his thoughts were still beyond me, but I relished being inside his head.
I could go ‘that way’ too one day. It’s genetic and I’ve been told that I think like him, ignoring practical details to focus on intangible ideas. It’s an end I learned about early on. It wouldn’t be so bad if I didn’t know what was happening, but I know I will: he did. He was full of frustration half the time. Even when he was just sitting on the couch, watching the curtained windows, I could feel him struggling to get to his thoughts, the thoughts that had filled notebooks and had been published in papers. If you look up the symptoms of his disease you will read, “Mood swings for no apparent reason.” I disagree; I think it’s pretty apparent.
My favorite memories are of how he treated me when he was relatively lucid. He’d crouch down on all fours and neigh like a horse, carrying me on his back as I pretended to be a jockey. He’d gallop through the first floor of the house and then get back into his armchair, the end of the race. Rubbing my hands together and pressing his lips to produce comic explosions, he knew how to make me giggle. The center of his head was bald, mottled and a little greasy: a bird’s egg resting in soft white fuzz. I loved to crawl up into his lap and tie the tufts above his ears into two ponytails. He’d laugh from his stomach and look at my grandmother, and I knew he loved me. I’d even try to brush his ear hairs, wiry and long. I imagined them extending into his brain, tangled in the part that held his memories.