December 15, 2012 – My aunt Carol sits next to my grandpa Frank at the long, burnished wood dining table in the private dining room of the assisted living center in Fountain Hills, Arizona. Carafes of water and iced tea are arranged up and down the table. Out the picture window on the far wall, the town’s eponymous geyser-like fountain erupts to mark the hour, a 560-foot-tall, wind-blown feather pluming in the arid winter air.
“Those are nice pants, dad,” Carol says. “I haven’t seen those before.” My grandpa, 92, turns his head a few degrees, an indication that his attention has shifted from inner space to his youngest daughter, now grown with three kids of her own. He looks ready to say something. The room — containing my grandparents, my mother, my aunt and two of her children, and my wife and I — pauses to listen.
My grandpa, a decorated WWII fighter pilot, for as long as I can remember has been a quiet man, pleasantly reserved, slim, straight-backed, clean-shaven, early to rise — his military training even now remains tightly woven into the nooks of his personality. He often wears a paper boy cap, harkening maybe to his Scottish roots, and a wool cardigan over a collared shirt. Were he 70 years younger, his wardrobe would let him blend easily with a certain type of hipster crowd.
When I was growing up, almost every time I called my grandparents, my grandpa and I played out the same, brief conversation:
“Hi Justin! How’s Justin?” he’d say. I’d tell him a little bit about my life, and because I lived in Manhattan through most of my twenties, he’d remind me that he once worked there. He used to get up early and take the train in from New Jersey, riding an elevator up to some high floor with a view of the city. I could tell that feeling really stuck with him, of being up above the dozing metropolis at first light, like having a whole world to himself. After about two minutes, there’d be a pause, then he’d say, “Well that’s fine! You’re fine and we’re fine; we’re all fine!” Short and sweet.
He didn’t talk so much, and I, on the other hand, talked too much. Still, as I grow older, I start to look at myself and at my grandpa and think about the role his genes play in me. I also love the city in the early morning. I also love to be up above the world, looking down.
I remember a story my grandpa told me once about landing his P-47 Thunderbolt speckled with bullet holes. I don’t even know what country he was over at the time, but the cool required to fly straight into a dogfight two miles above the earth is something I can hardly imagine. Then again, maybe it’s similar to the way people see the climber — a human speck on the face of a huge cliff, suspended by gossamer thread. Maybe it’s a similar arrangement of neurons and blend of bio-chemicals that lets a person find strange peace and fulfillment at great heights, while skirting the margins between life and death.
* * *
“Those are nice pants, dad,” Carol says. “I haven’t seen those before.” And my grandpa’s gaze shifts, as if he had been looking down on us all from great a height. He’s here again, on the ground with us, or almost. He processes my aunt’s comment and makes a simple statement so Zen that the three generations of family in the room can’t help but laugh.
“Well,” he replies with a light smile, “things change.” Then he returns to his grilled cheese and tater tots.
That’s all he’ll say for the remainder of the meal. After lunch, I help wheel my grandmother back to their apartment down the hall. My grandfather follows behind with his walker. The family stands around and chats in the apartment for a while, my grandmother lively despite having weathered several strokes that make it difficult for her to express herself through language.
Grandpa looks a little tired, so my mom goes over and says, “It’s OK, dad, you can take a nap.” He shifts his attention towards her and says, “Oh, OK. Thank you,” and then leans to one side on the sofa and quickly drifts to sleep, a smile on his face. It could be a symptom of his particular brand of dementia, but I’d swear he’s made some sort of peace with the changes that are slowly but surely whelming over him and his wife and everything he’s known in his long life on this tiny blue speck.
I was raised without any particular religious belief. Around the winter holiday season when I was young, we read Bible stories and Zen stories alike. We had a Christmas tree and also a menorah. More than anything, my parents and I used the time as an excuse to just be together, to take a break from the chronic business that afflicts most working people in the modern world and remember the more profound pillars of a human life — love, honesty, sharing, togetherness, thankfulness … the simple, if not a little sappy, stuff at the heart of most Christmas movies. My wife and I are partaking in this fine holiday tradition as I write this.
Our visit to see my grandparents, though not on Christmas proper, was in keeping with this theme. Just a sharing of time and place, a simple show of love and appreciation that’s all too easy to put off when schedules are full and family scattered across time zones. Regardless of how many words are exchanged, this is the most valuable thing any of us can give each other. All the more because things change.