Tuesday, June 9, 2009

Map of the World

My grandfather's 94 and he's still traveling the world.

I've been comparing my life to his, this day, seeing similarities and differences. For example, with our current circumstances -- I, a suburban mother and housewife, and he, a sick old man in the hospital -- our worlds have narrowed considerably. Before my last two boys were born, I traveled between school, work, meetings and the dishes. Now, it's the store, the library, the park, the dishes. These are the compass points within which I navigate.

Before he got sick, my grandfather's world was Florida, New Hampshire, Nova Scotia, the dishes. His compass points were geographically much farther apart than mine. Now, in his hospital gown and slip proof slippers, and the "fall precautions" sticker pasted on his door, his world has narrowed to the tube on the back of his hand, the oxygen he's breathing, the bruises on his arms from the needles, and his stopped up bowels. He's a living map with compass points so close together you could play connect-the-dots. What would the picture be if I could actually find a pen and scrawl on him? A broken heart? A wish? The outline of the ferry to Nova Scotia? My grandmother's face?

He also has an internal, invisible map he navigates, a world populated with people I've never met that he once loved. Its compass points are memories of events far in the past but marked by great pain or great joy -- waiting for my grandmother to come through a cancer operation, traveling to British Columbia to see Lake Louise, the fun couple met on a camping trip who were celebrating an anniversary, his six month hospital stay when the boiler blew up, the nurse who bathed his burns.

I imagine that my world will someday become the inner workings (or betrayals) of my own body, too, and of memories held and treasured instead of made, and I become grateful for the ability to get in a car, go to the library, change a diaper, play at the park -- but not, I must say, not yet for the dishes.


He sits alone in the room in his half open hospital gown, blind without his glasses, staring at the door. He is quietly and without fuss waiting for someone to enter the room; not, as I had feared, silently brooding and full of self-pity. Because he is half blind, and because we are alike, she and I, he at first mistakes me for my mother, and asks her name -- "Arlene?" he says. I know she and I walk the same, our faces are similarly heart shaped, that we are both blonde, and I know that to him I am simply a plump shape in a dress. And yet, I am startled, and then quickly saddened because I am not her come here to visit him all the way from Florida. Instead, I am simply his granddaughter, and so he gets immediately down to business, and I am relieved.
"Here, here, will you plug this thing in? I can't reach the gosh darn plug. I want to shave and I can't."

And so I do as he asks, wondering why such an old man would bother to shave. What could possibly grow on his baby-soft face? But I look, and I watch, and while, yes, there is not much growth since yesterday, I begin to understand that this is not just a part of his daily routine, not simply a way he continues to care for himself. It is also a pleasure, and again I am startled to discover this truth. His shaving is a way to somehow connect himself to himself, a way to keep himself connected to his own humanity, his own civility. He shaves with his eyes closed, and seems to relish the buzz against his face.

When he's finished, I see that, indeed, his face is smoother, and some of the gray peach fuzz has been removed. There are many spots that he missed, but I dare not say anything for fear of his embarrassment. I imagine it's hard enough being a half naked old man, coughing and sputtering to release the sickness in his lungs, without being told he doesn't know how to shave. But the hairs on his eyebrows are every which way, so I smooth them down.

My grandfather hides his hands as we talk, and I find myself looking more closely at them as he reaches to adjust his blanket, take a sip of water, pat my hand. His nails are dirty and uncut, and since I know that he would cut them if he could, I open his ditty bag and without asking his permission, find his nail clippers. I feel odd cutting his nails, clipping them gently and making sure not to cut his skin, yet something about it is comfortable, and comforting, too. It is right, this moment. It is the same as cutting a baby's nails -- the care that must be taken and the love that is felt. I think he feels it, too.

Then, the enormity of this moment, this humbling between us, the truth of his vulnerability and my strength, shakes me. He is Grandpa, independent, opinionated, slightly stubborn and forever old. How did we arrive at this moment? The longing for time lost, opportunities ignored and passed by, the assumption that he is too busy or too set in his ways to accept a visit from me and my rambunctious boys – the longing to go back and start over is so powerful. It overwhelms us both, as he voices his regrets about too much time spent working, working, working, working. The wish to begin again, to have a second chance to get to know one another hovers in the room, an entity with no form or real possibility.

“Is there anything you want me to bring you from the camp?” I yell, forgetting he can hear when he listens. The image of my grandmother, long dead, her beauty as a young woman captured in a portrait that hangs in the camp, comes to mind. I know he wants that above all else – she should be here with him. But no, he says, it might get broken on the way here. So I leave it, offering no argument, wishing I had the courage, and the time, to just go get it and defy his pessimism. But I let it stay, hanging on the wall by the door, waiting for him to return to her.

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