Thursday, December 3, 2009

As Grandpa Lay Dying...

My grandpa, Charlie Rogers, is not expected to live for Christmas this year. In these moments, I cannot help but think back on this man.We went to Grandpa's every Christmas Eve, when he and his wife, Nancy (not my grandmother), gifted everyone one outfit, usually from L.S. Ayres. I dreaded the clothing, for what kid doesn't, and I dreaded my time there. Nancy was a stern woman, sharply cut with a sharper tongue. It was plain to everyone that she didn't like kids, not even grandkids. Each trip, I was lectured beforehand about being on my best behavior so as not to upset her. Grandpa, for as much as he could, treated me with kindness. He always gave me pennies to feed his gumball machine - fully stocked before each visit. With a chuckle, he'd hand over as many lincolns as I wanted until mom and dad told me not to take so much gum. A little later, he added a super nintendo in a quiet room. It had only one game - Jeopardy - but I liked it anyway. Still, I was comfortable to sit in the living room with him and watch golf.Other than that, we only saw him once every 2-3 years. Dad talked like he lived in Siberia, like it would take a day and a half's journey to make it there, like it was some major inconvenience to visit Grandpa; he was less than an hour's drive away. On the rare occasions we stopped by mid-year, Grandpa was just as hospitable as always. Nancy labored to set out deli meats and cheeses on a fancy platter, insisting that we helped ourselves. I played quietly with a basket full of Pound Puppies with their Cocker Spaniel while the adults talked. Once or twice, Grandpa invited me to sit down with them and play a few games of euchre. Oh, how included I felt!I always regretted that we didn't spend as much time with him as we did with the rest of dad's family - the other side of the divorced couple. I never understood that, really. All of dad's brothers and sisters gripe as much as he always did about visiting Grandpa. Like he's an inconvenience, unpleasant, someone to be patronized but nothing more. The one year dad took me to a Rogers family reunion on Grandpa's side, I was shocked at the number of relatives I had never met (and have not talked to since). Dozens of people, none of whom I knew.They were right, sort of. Grandpa was an old-fashioned man. He'd sit in that recliner or on one end of the sofa and watch television day and night. Only a few times, he would pull himself up against a walker and make his way out through the garage to smoke in the driveway. That was only after he stopped smoking in the house. Whenever a Black person came on his television, he cursed "all of those damned niggers" and was not shy about letting us know who he hated, why, and what they were doing to poison the planet. It was tough to listen to, but with a guy like that - I knew he would never change, and I knew, without details, that he grew up in a different time and place than I did. So I wasn't fond of his language all the time, but I was still fond of Grandpa.He was pretty fond of me, too. The family didn't call him "the slug" for nothing. Aside from a routine morning excursion to Hardee's for breakfast with his friends, he didn't move much. He wasn't the kind of grandpa who showed up at his children's or grandchildren's events. They said he didn't travel well. But in seventh grade, he pulled himself out of that recliner, and he and Nancy came to watch me at a tennis meet. It meant the world. And he shared a special smile for me always when I visited, and always joked about blowing up my portrait to hang on the large wall in his dining room. He joked and smiled and I knew he had something special in his heart for me.After dad died, I only saw Grandpa a couple of more times. My uncles took me with them on one visit, and Grandpa and Nancy took us all to a local pub for lunch - grandpa's treat. Even though I was too young to be in there, Grandpa talked with the guys he knew (he'd had a smoke or two in that pub before) and they let me sit at a table. We ordered, and the meals came. But mine came first. Then Nancy's. Then none. I sat and did not eat, knowing the etiquette of waiting for everyone to be served. Grandpa frowned and said, "Don't you like your food?" I nodded and said, "It smells delicious." With a spark of recognition, Nancy smiled and said, "It's ok. We don't have to wait on them. Go ahead and eat before it gets cold." I did, but I could tell she appreciated the manners. I think she came to like me. Christmas 2002, it snowed so bad that my car slid on the ice and my brother made me turn back before reaching Grandpa's. I never saw him again.Now, Grandpa lay dying. Probably in that same old spot on the end of the sofa that he's loved so well over the years. Nobody told me. They've know for months that his condition was deteriorating. I found out through my brother, who had known for awhile, as well, but just assumed someone told me, too. They never did. They still haven't. Dad's family doesn't keep in much contact with me. They blame me for his death and say I never loved him enough. It is a tough strain. Once I found out about Grandpa's condition, I wanted to contact him, to write him a letter or call him or drive up and visit him. He's still less than an hour away.But I've been told that I can't just go up there. Can't just bother him like that. If I'm interested in seeing him, then "arrangements can be made" if I fall into favor with the right aunt and jump through 30 hoops and bend over backwards. It is not a fight I can win.So as Grandpa lay dying, here I sit - reflecting on my short experience with a man that everyone else calls a "slug." Reflecting on a man who surely has a story to tell if only someone would listen. I'd listen, if they'd let me. But I can't get close to him. And now, there is no time. The doctors say he will die before Christmas, probably within the next week or two. Cancer, spreading from his bladder, is riddling his body, and he will not win.We both lose.

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