Thursday, December 30, 2010

Remembrances of Gramps

His name was Lee Gomer. He was my grandfather, and as we say of everyone who bids us their final adieu, he was a good man. Imperfect, like us all, but at his core – a very good man. He was honest, he worked very hard to provide for his family, he took pride in his actions and reputation, and he strove to improve upon his shortcomings. In my view, no man can do more of value than these during his journey through this transient world. He felt love for everyone in his family, a love I’m convinced each of us felt was only for us. Not that any one of us received more or less … just that the love he gave us individually always seemed to be intended only for us. Does that make sense? I don’t think I’m the only one who felt that.

I dream of him sometimes. I wish my mind could let me believe the sweet lie that he’s alive, but somehow every time it has to tell me it’s not real. I always mention it to him: “Hi, Gramps … Man, it’s sure good to see you.” And he gives me that smile of his. His smile was always sincere, yet it was also shy. In it I often imagined a young boy with a lot of brothers and sisters from the dust bowl of Kansas, one who might’ve felt overshadowed by them, maybe even on his own. That smile always let me know that even men as accomplished, as dignified, as IMPORTANT, as my grandpa could still feel unsure of themselves at times.

When he doesn’t say anything, I say, “I miss you, Gramps.”

He nods, and sometimes he answers: “Yeah.”

“I’m dreaming, huh?” I ask, already knowing the answer.

“Yeah,” he says.

“How are you?” I want to know.

“Grrreat,” he says, his standby response.

“Well,” I tell him, “I just want to sit near you and talk to you as long as I can. Is that okay?” He generally smiles bigger then, showing his teeth – a sign of warming up and waning shyness.

“Yeah,” he says again.

And I find myself entirely enthusiastic to have my grandpa all to myself. I’ll tell him the stories of my mundane life that always seem to rivet him. He’s genuinely listening and interested. Why, I wonder, did I not do this more when he was with me? Why did I visit him no more often when I lived on Beale than I did when I lived in Texas, or Nebraska, or Mississippi? Why did I let a forty-minute drive be as effective of a barrier as a several thousand-mile gap? How spoiled I was, often feeling impatience if I had to repeat myself to his hearing aid, taking for granted that he’d never be more than seven pushed phone buttons away if I really needed him. What about what he needed, what he missed? How much family chatter did he miss because of his hearing that he would’ve loved to hear? My boys might be young and teaching me more about life than I ever thought possible, but his were grown, with kids of their own – all lessons learned, for better or for worse. They visit when they can; they’re good people, like him and his wife. But maybe, just maybe, he might’ve needed us even more than we needed him. The way he leaned over when you sat next to his chair to bore the crap out of him with your everyday minutiae. A bit of it might’ve been to hear you better, but most of it was because he wanted to know. Wanted to know how you were, Nate, how your days were passing, what was new or interesting, what had brought a chuckle out of you recently, or what was worrying you right now?

My memories of him are 33 years long; shorter than some people’s, longer than others. My position in the family, chronologically anyway, was always unique: younger than his children by twenty years, older than his other grandkids by at least ten. As a result, he spoke to me as a grandkid for the first half of my time with him, and like a son for the second half. Of course, that’s not clear-cut; they often merged, but I think the point stands. My 18th birthday present from him was a phone call. I’m not sure he’d ever called me directly before; Granny usually handled his end of communications unless it was a pretty personal matter. And I suppose this one was.

“Nate?” he said.

I answered, “Hi, Gramps.”

“Today,” he announced, “you are a man.”

Before I could respond, he’d hung up.

In my early years, he smelled like smoke. Like pipe smoke when I was really young, and later of cigarettes. And even later, of neither – but by then the damage had been done. Only on him could these smell sweet. I perched myself on the arm of his reclining chair every Friday night until I was too big to, and then I kept doing it anyway. Even as the wedge of wood drove itself into sensitive areas, I wouldn’t budge. Having the attention and camaraderie of someone of Lee Gomer’s caliber makes some backside discomfort pale right away.

He had a treasure trove in his bedroom closet, up high where the shorter grandkids couldn’t reach. Joke hats and Halloween props from many years’ worth of First American parties: a plastic bottle that read “INSTANT BONER PILLS” which popped out a little plastic pecker when you unscrewed it. That was golden comedy for a twelve-year-old, let me tell you. There was a green laundry basket in there too, just for his dirty hankies. Such a foreign concept for someone past his generation: to carry around something that you would actually blow your nose into more than once and not throw away afterward, but rather return to your pocket. I fell into that basket one day while chasing around a younger cousin. I was horrified but unscathed. He wore hats when I was young but not when I was older. He took me with him golfing once in those fabulous old-man pants he used to favor, and those three hours seemed to me to be more like twenty. He ran and threw the football with his sons and me when I was little. He laughed at Bugs Bunny cartoons almost harder than I did. He and Greg used to exchange boxes of dog/pig/other animals’ dung – fully gift-wrapped – during Christmas when I was a kid. He’d mutter “I sure hope these pills of Mother’s are doing something for me” while swallowing vitamins and nutritional supplements in the morning by the handful. He ate his meals in front of the TV on a little folding tray. His quivering white poodle BeeBee used to cower pressed up next to his leg all the time, and his grouchy black poodle Frank stank bad. When I told him, he’d say, “I haven’t smelled anything for years. Sometimes I get a whiff of Mother’s hair spray or popcorn cooking, but that’s it.” He’d stop midway to the kitchen sometimes, hold a hand on his belly, crack off a series of eight to ten farts, and then say, “Jee-sus!”

He would curse at items in the kitchen when his food preparation wasn’t proceeding as smoothly as he’d like. One time he called me in to show me an example of something that, according to him, only he could do. His toast was sitting on a paper towel, and when he pushed the lid back onto the butter tub, a corner of the paper towel got pinched in between. As a result, when he lifted the tub to take it to the fridge, the paper towel got pulled off the counter and his toast got deposited on the floor (butter-side down, of course). He was frustrated but laughed along with me. Another prank by his personal poltergeist “Igor.” His standard war cry from the kitchen while fixing his dinner: “Fight me, you bastard, fight me!”

But he got sick. His lungs were bad from the smoking and the doctors had told him to move to the seaside, but he loved Yuba City and all the family members in it. He went to the hospital, then home, then back. His face puffed up from that drug they gave him. He waved off the tube for his lungs, tried to write “TORTURE” on a paper to let us know how he felt about it, and we all knew it was likely just a matter of time.

There was a sticker on the door to his room. It showed a picture of a cartoon bee and it read “BEE SAFE.” I grew to hate that sticker as we had family talks out in the hall about Gramps. The view out his window was mostly roof, but the trees of Yuba City beyond looked beautiful, and I wanted Gramps to see them again. I wanted him to breathe that air out there. I played video games on my Playstation Portable some of the time, but after he died I got rid of it and couldn’t bear to look at one of them ever again.

I stayed with him in the hospital. I felt like if I took enough time off and just … stayed there with him that he couldn’t die. It seemed impossible that his life would stop while I and others he loved were right next to him. So I stayed; many of us did. I sat, I ate, I slept, I went home, I came back, I played that damned PSP, and I prayed for him to recover. Maybe we only thought he was going to die because the doctors told us he would without that tube; maybe he’d shake it off like a cold given enough time. What do doctors know anyway? They’re wrong as often as they’re right. We gotta think positive here, I kept thinking, we need to pull him back to us and cling to him hard enough that he can’t leave.

But leave he did, and I watched it happen hour by agonizing hour. His eyes never closed, and his breathing became more and more shallow. During the early afternoon, perhaps two days before he resigned himself to a final peace, the nurses came in. They excused themselves and said they had to clean him. Those of us present took a few polite steps away and faced the other way. I glanced back and they were wiping his naked form with moist towels like he was a dusty statue or a soiled countertop. I vowed not to look back again. Then I did anyway and they had rolled him onto one side. I saw his buttocks and scrotum, and one nurse smeared both areas with a pinkish cream, undoubtedly to prevent bedsores. Then they flipped this man I loved so much onto his back again and scooted him back up onto his pillow. One pitched the blanket over him carelessly while the other stripped his latex gloves off, flashed us a faux smile, and chirped, “All done!” They left, and I’ve spent a lot of my time since trying to unremember how they treated him like a sack of potatoes. I don’t hate the nurses for it, but I hate that they made me see that there was not a whole lot of Lee Gomer left at that point, and what was left would likely be departing soon. I think it hit home somewhere around then, and that slapped-on dab of goo was my first notice to get ready to accept the idea.

Eventually we all realized it was inevitable, even as we clutched at him as hard as we could. A pain shot went into his IV, and we sang the family song to him. I like to imagine that he heard it and was pleased. We stopped squeezing the air from that plastic bag into his defeated lungs, and watched the numbers on his oxygen intake get smaller and smaller. A nurse used a stethoscope to confirm there was nothing to hear, and I took Gramps’s hand. Those big hands, those curved thumbs. It was still warm, but his skin had taken on a yellowish cast. Then I hugged my dad and cried. Gale cried and Granny hushed her. I went out to have a smoke with Jeff; clearly we had learned no lesson from Gramps' complete lung shutdown. I told Jeff that I wanted to step into the middle of Plumas Street and stop the cars, then explain to each one of them that the world had lost a great, great man before I’d let them resume their course.


Blogger Julia said...

Now why did you have to go and make me cry so early in the morning. What a wonderful tribute that was Nathan. Thanks for sharing.

6:54 AM  

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