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Night of the Living Grandpas

by Thomas Lee Joseph Smith

I live with crazy people. Something is wrong with the family I inhabit. Tolstoy once said, “Every good family is good in the same way, and every strange family lives in a circus tent.” He was right.

That night my daughter made us dinner — dinner for me and my father-in-law. We were sitting at the table eating, just the two of us. My father-in-law is 86, and I’m not very much younger than he. My daughter made us some spicy Italian food even though my father-in-law and I might have been referred to as the Prilosec posse.

My daughter would be leaving soon. I was slated to watch my father-in-law all night long while everyone else involved in his care spent the night at a hotel in Jasper Ville where they were going to meet with lawyers and family members from out of town.

While my daughter wandered from room to room looking for her coat, I was putting out a line of meds on the table. I’m on celebrex and lexapro, lorazapam and meclazine, I take water pills and experimental minerals and I’m still taking some assorted and damaged nameless capsules that fell in the kitchen sink and melted together. Those I scoop out like paste and finger into bullet-sized dumplings before taking them. I would have replaced them except that they cost seventy-five dollars.

You’d be surprised at all the colors and shapes medicines can inhabit. Next to my father-in-law’s dinner plate was a similar setting of hopefulness. His pills were bigger than mine and featured more pastels and an excess of stripes and sprinkles. I blame the remainder of the evening on what followed.

I’d made a mistake and placed my meds on my right, which placed them between me and my responsibility. When I’d placed my last capsule down I said, “Well there they are.” With a hand like a lowered bulldozer blade my father-in-law slid my medicines to the edge of the table and in one sweeping motion he transferred them to his gaping maw. I watched his neck move as he swallowed my personal potions, my precise and particular palliatives.

Now I could hear her footsteps. Her heavy footsteps approaching. Footsteps highly reminiscent of Joan Crawford. I can almost hear her yelling at us, “No pill bottles without safety caps! No pill bottles without safety caps!” I cringed. My daughter was coming back.

You’d have to know my daughter to understand what I did next. On impulse, without really thinking, I quickly slid the real patient’s medicines into my hand and swallowed them. I had no idea what I’d just taken, but I’d have taken rat poison to keep my daughter’s recriminations from expressing themselves.

“Has everyone taken their pills?” she asked.

“We have,” I said, pointing first at him and then at me.

“Well then I’ll leave you two alone. You have the phone numbers here on the fridge.”

Eventually she left.

My father-in-law had been ill for weeks. No one knows what’s wrong with him. He is losing his way and he’s only a short distance to the end of his time. We’re all afraid of putting him in a nursing home because we’ve sent other family members in and have never gotten them back. In the immediate family we have a medical technologist, a surgical nurse, a licensed practical nurse two nurses’ aides, an expert in medical billing and coding. And then we have... me.

I once fixed a broken lawn mower.

Can you guess who they put in charge this evening?

For the next few minutes we were drinking warm mustard and taking big spoons of salt. That’s right we were side-by-side puking into the garbage disposal. I was hosing everything down with the handy spray nozzle. The medicines we surrendered looked like small ships navigating a much-polluted inland waterway.

After our last few empty heaves together his face turned in my direction. “Is dinner over..?” he asked. “’Cause I could really use a mint,” he added.

“Dinner is over,” I said.

I moved him to the living room. He sat in his big reclining chair. We turned on the TV. We watched “Wheel of Fortune.” It’s a game on television where you guess what some yet unrevealed letters are. You need to make up the remainder of a small phrase that’s partially displayed.

Vanna White was moving across the screen. Vanna is the woman who reveals the chosen letters. At one point, during what they call Final Jeopardy, a contestant was facing a puzzle with no letters revealed. Not one. The first word was huge. The second and third words were small and the last word was hyphenated.

With a feeling of infinite helplessness I turned off the TV.

My father-in-law owns a huge house. There are twenty–six rooms, even a separate area for guests, an area with its own kitchen and its own bedrooms and one and one-half baths just in that area. That’s the part of the house we would be retiring to, but first we’d be taking a walk.

A walk was suggested by his doctors. We started to tour the house. I was using my cane and he was using a walker. We were upstairs in the long hallway. We stopped about three times, twice for me to catch my breath and once for me to pull up my socks. I was panting. He was impatient. Moving forward we had to pass a half-table pressed up against the wall. My cane tangled with his walker and we hit the floor.

He started crawling forward. “You keep giving away our position and I’ll shoot you myself,” he said. His voice was John Wayne. His eyes were Clint Eastwood. He’d fought in two wars. He’d served with two branches of the military. He’d been a lieutenant and had flown planes over Germany and Japan.

“The wars are over,” I said.

“Only one left to go,” he said.

We stood. We picked up our steel tubes and rubber tips. We went to the bedrooms at the back of the house. He had the big bed and the small room. I had the room adjacent and the cot.

We each had equipment to prepare. He had special socks to put on and I had mittens that warmed my arthritis. He had a bed alarm, an alarm that would wake me if he got out of bed and started wandering. I had a breathing mask to wear while I slept. He was wearing a clamp on the tip of one of his fingers. I was learning Spanish from tapes.

Old men always visit the little room before they sleep. Most people don’t know it, but old men stand at the urinal and sing Andrew Lloyd Weber songs while they pee.

He went in and came out singing, “Mungojerrie and Rumpleteazer.” I went in and came out singing, “Starlight Express.” Just to be safe, he went back in and next he sang, “What’s the Buzz” and then a small aria. By the time he came out I thought maybe I should go in again, and I went in and, even though a pain shot up through my latest kidney stone, still I sang, “Don’t cry for me, Argentina.”

For a while we both stood around together outside the bathroom door until we came to the conclusion that there had been a conclusion.

And still, with all that, we both woke up less than an hour later. He woke up and set off the alarm. I stood up, still wearing my breathing mask. My mask has fifteen feet of wire and twenty feet of tube. Trailing tubes I went to his room.

He stared at me with his eyes growing wider and wider. My machine sucked air and exhaled. Sucked air and exhaled. I held my mitten covered hands forward. I couldn’t stop myself. “Luke I am your father,” I said.

“Noooooo..!” he screamed, “it can’t be.”

“Search your heart. You know it to be true,” I said.

We dueled with lasers and I tried to freeze him in carbonite... but eventually I had to return to my duties and act more correctly.

He hadn’t left his bed to pee. He’d left his bed to walk. We wandered around. The house was empty. He stopped at pictures on the walls and tried to remember who he was seeing. I tried to prompt him when I could. I didn’t know half the people he knew. I guess I mean the people he used to know. At one point he stopped in front of a mirror. He looked neither into the future nor into the past.

There was very little light in the house. Most of the lights were off. It took concentration to see him. He was only an outline now.

Night was all around us. Across from this house there was a huge field. I’d always wanted to take a telescope out in that field. It always takes darkness to see the stars.

Eventually people started coming in. Around nine o’clock in the morning relatives started coming in. At dinner the night before they’d discussed his wishes. He had a document that covered the end of life concerns. He had a will. He had money set aside for his grandchildren.

“How was last night?” someone asked.

“We watched Jeopardy,” I said, though we hadn’t.

“Did he wake up last night?” they asked.

“A few times,” I said, though he’d been up a lot.

“Thank you for watching him,” they said.

“It went well,” I said.

Copyright © 2011 by Thomas Lee Joseph Smith

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