One Word Upon Falling

My grandfather, and twilight.

I hold on to my grandfather’s elbow as he walks up the stairs — one at a time, pausing every third or fourth step to catch his breath. The staircase is equipped with one of those electric chairs that will carry you upstairs at about a tenth of a mile an hour, but my grandfather would never sit in that thing, even though his legs have become thin and brittle. I spend my days climbing aluminum ladders with two bundles of roofing shingles on my back; I could probably pick him up and carry him the rest of the way, but you should never carry a man who spent six decades building houses. It’s better for him to get there on his own, even at 94.

My grandfather was born when the 20th century was only seven months old, and I, his only grandson, was born the day before his 69th birthday. Before he could walk, his parents loaded him and his nine siblings on a steam boat, trading their village in the Alps for the promises of the New World. We always celebrated our birthdays together with strawberry shortcake to cool off the July heat. My grandfather was a quiet man, with simple tastes — a product of his practical, Swiss heritage, and the survival instincts of the Depression.

We reach the top of the stairs and I guide him to the right, down a carpeted hallway. When we get to his room, I open the door. He stands at the entrance for a long moment.

“Is this my room?” he asks, his head cocked slightly to the side, brow furrowed into an uncertain crease.

“Yes grandpa, this is your room. See, there are your things on the bureau.” From the doorway, I can see a can of shaving cream, a hair brush, loose change, and a couple of photographs stuck into the sides of the mirror. He takes a few cautious steps into the room and looks around, searching for anything familiar, but the images don’t seem to register — as if they have slipped through the faults in his memory. He walks toward the window and stares out thorough the frosted panes. Below there are lighted sidewalks, lined with Douglas firs, already decorated with red bows for Christmas. He turns toward me slowly, still searching for solid ground.

“Is that the Manchester green down there?”

“No Grandpa, this is Madison, remember? That’s the Madison town square.”

“Madison? We’re not in Manchester? How can that be?”

“Grandpa, remember, Dad brought you down here last week so you could be closer. You’ll be staying in this house for a while, but I’ll be coming by to visit.”

Madison. I am back in this fishbowl town on the Connecticut shore grudgingly, mostly for him. It has not been easy to fit back into this stagnant town, after seven years of perpetual motion. The first few were spent with my tools and old Toyota pick-up, roaming the Eastern seaboard: Fixing roofs, hanging doors, and generally employing all of the skills I had learned from my grandfather. I finally landed in a feverish university life in Virginia, where I spent two and a half years devouring literature, of all shapes and flavors, and trying my own hand capturing the world in words — until I tired of critiques, and literary attitudes, and decided that what I really needed was to try my hand at changing the world. From Virginia, I ventured into of Central America on a volunteer tour and left the humid tropics with my eyes open and my heart ripped to shreds.

Coming back to this place has been like trying to put on the brown, corduroy jacket that I wore in the eighth grade. The style and color are long outdated. The shoulders are tight, and the sleeves come half way up my forearm. It doesn’t fit. I don’t fit. But I have been away for a long while, and I know my grandfather’s health is declining. I know that he will need company on this last leg of the journey.

A few summers earlier, I came up from Virginia to paint his house. He climbed ladders, did maintenance on the home he built with his own hands until he was 80 or so. But at 90, his legs wouldn’t carry him upwards. He fixed us sandwiches for lunch each day and we would eat together on the screened porch where my sisters and I had spent hours playing the ring toss game that he made for us, which was still nailed to the wall. It consisted of a small square of plywood, painted white, with three rows of small hooks, screwed in at equal distances. Beneath each hook the number of points was painted in black. The rings were old canning jar seals. We would talk about building, family, and baseball over our sandwiches, and I’d always throw one round of rings before heading back to work.

He didn’t do much during the day, but he was still unobtrusively independent. Once a week, he would get behind the wheel of his 1974 Ford Pinto and drive three miles down the road to the local grocery store to buy bread, cold cuts, Buckwheats, honey, cans of soup, and a few tomatoes. Most of his time was spent watching television, reading the large-print versions of Reader’s Digest and napping in his red leather chair. He would come out periodically during the day to check on my progress, usually to make suggestions on scraping, or to point out a few loose cedar shingles in need of repair. At the end of the day, I would wash my brushes and carry them into his workshop in the basement. Although he hadn’t worked down there for years, his tools were still organized and hung on a sheet of pegboard behind the workbench: Chisels, block planes, hammers, framing squares that had built homes for dozens of families, perfectly cleaned and oiled.

My grandfather walks across the room and sits on the bed, as if he could no longer bear the weight of his own confusion. He still has his coat on, a red and black flannel that he has worn for as long as I can remember. We had just finished Thanksgiving dinner at my father’s house, and I offered to drive him back to this place, a hundred-year-old Colonial house converted into an assisted living home — a beautifully-decorated dumping ground for the old folks that burden younger lives. I suppose the fireplaces and Monet prints on the walls make people feel less guilty. Five miles from here, my father lives with his wife, in a house with more rooms empty than occupied.

His room is tidy, and, with the exception of a few metal handrails screwed into the wall in strategic locations, looks pretty much like any room you could hope to find in a New England bed & breakfast. At least it is not a nursing home. No antiseptic smell saturates the air, there is no smell of urine in the hallways, and there are no patients wailing and calling for long-dead spouses. My grandmother spent the final 10 years of her life in one of those places, the last seven in a fetal position. My grandfather took care of her at home for as long as he could, until she was too frequently leaving puddles on the dining room chairs, and spent too many hours in the day hanging paper towels out to dry on the clothes line. It drained his life’s savings, but he never missed a Sunday visit. He would sit by the side of her bed and greet her always with “Hi Mildred, it’s me. How are you feeling today?” — even when she could barely remember to swallow.

After an awkward silence, my grandfather stands to take his coat off, and loses his balance. He tilts too far to his right and goes down. It’s not one of those slow-motion falls where you feel like you are made of lead and can’t quite reach the person on time. He also didn’t crash like dead weight. It was more of a buckle, a gradual decline that ended with him nearly cracking his head on the metal radiator by the side of the bed. The thing that most surprised me was that once he was down, he whispered a single word: “Jesus”.

“Grandpa!” It slips from my mouth in an urgent burst.

Without thinking, I slip my hands under his arms and lift him onto the bed. There is no blood, no limbs bent at incorrect angles — but his face shows the greatest wounds imaginable: Fear, insecurity, resignation. His body is much lighter than I expected; he rises easily and I wonder if I jerked too hard.

“Are you alright?”

“I’m okay,” he mutters, nodding his head slightly as if to convince himself.

He sits on the bed with his hands on his knees, breathing in and out with his head down. I have never known my grandfather to be a religious man; in fact I can’t remember him ever going to church. He lived nearly nine and a half decades in quiet humility, though he never talked about faith or God, or anything above or below the surface. There’s just that one word, persisting in his room like some third, unexpected presence. He is shaken, but not injured, so I fold his coat and hang it over the back of the chair, searching anxiously for something useful to do.

“Grandpa,” I say, touching his shoulder, “if you’re alright, I’m going to head on”.

“Sure, I’m alright. So we’re in Madison?” he asks hesitatingly.

“Yeah Grandpa, this is Madison. Dad moved you here last week so you’d be closer. I’ll tell him to come by in the morning, and I’ll stop by tomorrow afternoon when I get off work”.

I should stay longer. I should stay and talk to him about things old and familiar until he falls asleep. I should hug him so that he might find something strong and solid in my embrace. But we are New Englanders, and Swiss to boot, and we offer warmth and affection reluctantly. I should ask him if it had been a one-word prayer that escaped his lips — as if to say “Jesus, be there for me because I know that final moment is close at hand” — or rather, had it been a curse, a “Jesus, how in the hell could you let my body become so decrepit and useless?”

Instead I rush down the stairs and pull up the collar of my jacket as the cold, black air slaps at my skin. I drive around the empty streets for a while, but there are families behind the lighted windows in every house. I end up at my sister’s house where the aftermath and mayhem of Thanksgiving dinner are still rumbling. The light seems too bright, and the noise is like a vise grip on my temples. I sit in the corner, drinking a beer, trying not to think about my grandfather, alone in his room, with that one word, lingering after his fall.

It’s three days after Christmas, and my father gets a call from the home. My grandfather has suffered a stroke and was rushed to the hospital. I’m hanging Sheetrock in a perversely large house in Fairfield County when he calls me, but I drop everything and drive like mad to the hospital. I’m driving my grandfather’s Pinto, a car that had accumulated all of 14,000 miles since he had bought it off the showroom floor 20 years earlier. On top of being a Pinto, it’s brown, the color of fallen oak leaves.

My father is already at the hospital when I arrive, talking to a nurse at the admissions desk in the emergency room. He had rushed straight from the courthouse, just a few minutes away. As I walk up beside him, the sleeve of my sweater brushes against his gray suit, leaving a distinctive smudge of Sheetrock dust just about the cuff. He turns to place a hand on my shoulder when he notices me at his side. The nurse tells him that someone would be out shortly to explain his condition to us. I slump into the orange, plastic seats in the waiting room, trying to ignore the woman who sobs into her fists, the soap opera droning on the television mounted to the ceiling, the stretcher that rushes by with a still body.

A few minutes later, a young doctor in white coat and green scrubs takes us back to the cubicle where he’s resting. The light is so bright it penetrates my thoughts and makes the backs of my eyeballs ache. Faded green curtains are drawn around his bed, but they provide a flimsy barrier between my grandfather and the sights and odors of suffering. His body looks impossibly small and fragile against the bleached sheets. I hope no one tries to move him, for fear that he might just disintegrate into a pile of fine, white dust. His hair, still bushy on top, sticks up at odd angles, as if a child has stuck clumps of cotton randomly on his head. My father huddles with two doctors in at the foot of the bed, when my grandfather opens his eyes.

His mouth curls into a small, crooked smile when he sees me, and I move up to take his hand.

“Hey Grandpa, how are you feeling?” I ask him with too much waver in my voice. His hand is no longer calloused and muscular, but his grip is surprisingly firm.

“Hi Pete. I’m alright I guess. Am I still in the hospital?” His voice is much steadier than I was expecting, and his eyes fix on me with a calm, perceptive gaze.

“Yeah, you’re still in the emergency room. Dad’s here too, he’s talking to the doctors.” I tell him, motioning towards the trio at the foot of his bed.

“Aren’t you working today?” he asks.

“I was just hanging some drywall, but I was about done anyway.” A machine beside his bed utters a couple of quick beeps, but neither of us pays it much attention.

My father finishes talking to the doctors, and speaks with my grandfather for a few minutes before we’re ushered out. On the way out, I turn back one last time. He lifts his right hand off the white sheets in an unhurried wave and says, “Goodbye Pete.”

My grandfather dies the next day. I’m back in that monstrous house in Fairfield County, when a fly lands on the Sheetrock in front of me. Emily Dickinson and her damned fly. I call my father’s house, and my stepmother takes the call.

“Oh Peter, he just passed away. The hospital called a few minutes ago, your Dad is on his way there right now” she tells me. “How did you know?”

I put my tools away and pack them into the Pinto, but I can’t find much sense in going home, or going to the hospital even. I drive to the beach, where the wind is so cold it feels like someone is punching me with a huge, icy fist. I sit in the sand until the tears start flowing down my cheeks, hot and wild, against the frozen world.

Article © 2013 by Peter D. Schaller