Monday, March 06, 2006

Winding Down

I understand that I speak only for myself when I say that, though at first I found her refreshing and cute, I have reached the point where I just want Reese Witherspoon off of my TV.

My grandfather is 89 years old. In May, God willing and the creek don't rise, he and my 88-year-old grandmother will celebrate their 70th wedding anniversary. We (children, grandchildren, cousins, etc.) will all go up to Sacramento, where they live, and have a party. As people who are almost 90, they are in better shape than many. Though they're not the spry, often bow tie-wearing codgers you see doing jumping jacks occasionally on the local news, they live on their own, and just recently accepted that they'd need a cleaning lady and a gardener.

We -- S. Bullock, the Jawa and I -- went to Sacramento last weekend, because we hadn't seen my grandparents since November. One of the reasons we moved to San Francisco (instead of to New York, my first choice) was to be closer to them, so we try to get up there every couple of months.

Since we moved here, we've both had plenty of time to get used to the idea that eventually they will go. Hopefully they will go together. Their original plan was to walk slowly into the water at Bodega Bay when they turn 90. Unfortunately, my grandmother has two bum hips, so now she would have to drive a little cart into the surf, and then the cart might short out and stall, leaving her floating around in 18 inches of water while my grandfather continues to walk dramatically into the ocean.

So that's out.

We go up there to their still-immaculate house, full of the same furniture that I remember jumping on when I was five and they lived in Massapequa, New York. (They no longer have the white chairs that I silently painted with dirt from a potted plant at age 3, however.) My grandmother sits in a dining room chair in the middle of the living room and entertains the Jawa, who, even though he spends much of his time there playing with Legos and, this time, building endless origami animals, at least knows his great grandparents and gets a little bit of the experience I had with them as grandparents.

And they were wonderful grandparents. The best. And a very big part of my sisters' and my life, growing up. They're funny, supportive and I always want to show them off. They still have thick New Yawk accents, and when we bring new people over to see them, they take great interest in their lives, asking them all kinds of questions.

This past trip, we went through all of the details of their wills and trusts. I am their executor, because we are close. So they showed us their safe deposit key, their files, told us they had some deal with the Nautilus society. I don't know what that is, but I guess I will soon enough. It was all matter-of-fact, like they were telling us how to water their plants while they're on vacation, and it didn't really make me sad. They are, after all, almost 90.

More than that, I am so completely honored to be able to do something for them. They gave us so much as kids and as adults. Ask my older sister -- how happy was she to see them when she was living in a tent is the Sinai Desert in 1985 with her foot rotting off? I am so glad that we moved here and are able to spend time with them, to expose the Jawa to them. I'm angry that they got a gardener, because I used to mow their lawn when we went up there. I mean, as a person I'm okay, a good father and a fair husband, but if I can get a chance to be an outstanding grandson to them, naturally, it's going to feel great. I swear, if I could, I would build a shrine.

And watching them now, I get to see what it's like to approach the end of your life. My grandmother, oddly, as she gets less mobile, gets more fiesty. You can see the neurons firing off wildly as she shouts out to my grandfather, "Irv! Get the dessert!" She loves to drive, and when she does, she ratchets their Honda up to 80 and sticks there.

I think for my grandfather, right now his life is passing slowly before his eyes. Not at once, like you see in movies, where someone catches snippets of all their great and favorite moments right before they kick. Instead, over the past couple of years, he sees whole sections of time, good and bad, unfolding before him. I can see him sometimes mulling over something, outside of whatever conversation we're all having. Sometimes he backs into deep thought about something we'd be talking about before. A story about his years with "the association," that used to focus on the outrageous antics of "the boys from Brooklyn," now hits him differently, and he'll get quiet, then pipe up a few minutes later and say, "I wonder if I should have handled that differently..."

This past trip, after dinner, he stopped me in the kitchen and talked to me for a long time about his life, and told me some of his regrets. Self-doubt is my legacy, but I could do nothing but respect him for not being some guy who claims to be bulletproof. Later he told me that he'd wanted to talk to me about this for a long time. And, he wondered, if knowing this about him surprised me, or if it made me think less of him.

Think less of him? I told him that present-day equipment wasn't made to measure how highly I thought of him. I didn't tell him that I wish I had the direct path to my emotions that he has, or that I tell everyone who will listen (and some who won't) that, to me, my grandfather is the pure definition of a real man. Instead, I stood there dumbly, not sure what to do. If only I could have written something down, right?

When I was a little kid, my father told me stories about my grandfather. He told me that my grandfather was ping-pong champ of Brooklyn, that he boxed, that he lifted weights on Coney Island and had a 48-inch chest. He spoke several languages and graduated from high school at 15, because he was so smart.

When I was 20, I started wondering how many of those stories were true, how many my father had embellished, and how many I had added to with my own imagination.

When I was 30, I realized that it didn't really matter if they were true, and now that I'm 40, I realize that, whether the stories were true or not, I believe them all.


Anonymous Noodle's Mom said...

That was beautiful and it made me cry.

4:17 PM  
Anonymous flush puppy said...

silly boy. you do have a direct path to your emotions; it just doesn't always intesect with your mouth. but we know it's there.

5:55 PM  
Blogger Ken Dunque said...

nice job, Larry. reading this makes it that much easier to be a good father. never got to meet either of my granddads :^(

9:02 PM  
Blogger moosh said...

oh, that is beautiful - made me cry too.

6:52 AM  

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