My grandfather is dying.
At 96 he is the last of the Mohicans in our family. All my other grandparents are already gone. He is in assisted living in Peoria, Arizona. He and Grandma left the frozen tundra of Minnesota many years ago. The snowbird friends they used to play cards with and drink cocktails with are long gone. He cannot see due to macular degeneration, and his formerly keen blue eyes are rheumy and blank behind thick, useless glasses. He no longer attempts to read the Wall Street Journal with a shaky, handheld magnifying glass, or listens to the news with the volume on full blast. He can’t hear, despite his hearing aids turned up to an audible hum. He has no appetite since Grandma died, and his well-worn clothes are swallowing his shrinking form in his La-Z-Boy recliner. His Manhattans have been replaced with servings of Ensure. He calls out for Grandma, gripes at the nurses, and no longer takes our phone calls. He has 24-hour care.
He lives in a place where people dine silently at four in the afternoon, where wheelchairs park in the lobby at random with openmouthed occupants staring straight ahead. Despite being a “nice” place, it smells stale, like loneliness and medicine.
I long to take him outside, but everything is too cold for him. Even Arizona.
So I go outside often, by myself and with my children, in his honor. I make it a point to walk the dog, hike the greenbelt, run at the lake—and I pray for him. I don’t picture him in Peoria. I remember him as the purposeful man who owned banks and drove a white Lincoln and came home for lunch. I spent childhood summers at my grandparents’ lake house in northern Minnesota. I waited for him after work, in my terry-cloth shorts and Wonder Woman bathing suit. He would park and I’d hug him hello and we would walk through the garden, where he would pull vegetables at random and let me eat delicious, dusty carrots. Like Mister Rogers, each day he would change into his prescribed outfit: shorts, socks, white loafers, and an unbuttoned short-sleeved dress shirt. He would light a cigar and start the grill. It was a very happy hour; ice clinked in cocktail glasses, and we ate Wheat Thins and Triscuits and small cubes of cheese. He flipped pork chops and I sat on the cement steps, cleaning fresh corn, ripping silky shreds into a brown grocery bag. After dinner we played cards, slapped mosquitoes, listened to Patsy Cline, and stayed up late. I painted rocks, big white ones that I pulled out of the lake. Each one was a master creation, and I proudly sold them to all the neighbors as signed limited-edition paperweights. Grandpa was my best customer; he told me that with my business sense I was going to be quite a successful young lady one day.
We were outside all the time. He took me fishing for walleye and taught me how to drive his boat. He showed me how to tell when things were ripe and ready to pick. He mowed the lawn and when he was through, he would walk straight into the lake in his shorts with a gold bar of Dial soap and bathe, explaining that the lake was as clean as any bathtub. I believed him and sudsed off beside him, with minnows tickling my toes in the sand. At summer’s end, I left sadly, waving and making the letters “C” and “U” with my hands from the rear window, all the way down the gravel drive. See you. See you. See you.
Those summers are my happy place, part of my internal center and mental refuge. I go there when I need to breathe and remember when things were simple. Back in the days where kids had to be reminded to come inside, not urged to go out. Back in the days when you spent time with, rather than made time for, the people you loved.
We can re-create these days of old for ourselves and for our children. We can resurrect the spirit of family and dust off forgotten or forsaken traditions. Step one is to Go Outside. Go outside into nature and remember how necessary and healing this is. And go outside of ourselves, fully connecting with the experiences and the people that make memories out of passing time.
My grandfather, Carl V. Lind, passed away the morning after I wrote this essay.