As I Was Saying . . . Family
Grandpa Madeira died this morning. He’ll “be Home for Christmas.” He already is. Lucky. And it’s sure a whole lot better than being smothered with Alzheimer’s in a wheelchair in a nursing home.
But it’s hard. Hard on Grandma, who has spent the most recent years of her life singing to him and helping him play one-finger scales on the nursing home piano and spending most all of her afternoons loving what’s been left of a humble, great man whose final responses to her could be nothing more than a smile and a roar and tears. Hard on Mom, who was hoping to hug her dad one more time when she came home for Christmas, and now is flying back last-minute to comfort her mother. Hard on Dad, who had a great relationship with his father-in-law and now has to hold down the fort overseas by himself for a couple weeks until he comes back here to join us for the holy holiday.
But it’s a little easier, too. After years of watching a mind-numbing disease eat away at his memory and personality, words and abilities, it almost seemed to eat away at our (or at least my) memories, too. Now I feel free to remember him and who he actually was—and imagine who he actually is now, face to face with Jesus.
December 7 is his birthday. Apparently when I was two, I toddled around the dinner table unprompted and said, “Happy birfday, Grandpa.” He was fifty years older than I, so we always remembered each others’ ages. I feel like the lucky grandchild, because I got to live with him and Grandma for five summers in my late teens and early twenties, while I worked at a day camp run by the church he had planted. I borrowed his bike to get to and from camp. (I still have it, though I haven’t ridden it probably since then.) In the evenings I would come home and he and Grandma and I played Skip-Bo most nights. I grew to hate the game, mostly because I don’t really like games anyway, but I kept playing it, because it was a good way to spend time with them. Grandma won a lot. Grandpa would sit down at the card table with a sigh and say, with comic resignation, “Well, Jennifah,” (he loved to tease Grandma about her Rhode Island accent) “it’s time for my nightly humiliation.” He won a lot, too, but admitting that would have taken all the steam out of his mock laments. We would go for walks, too—just Grandpa and me—through Haynes Park, down to the water where all the boats were. I don’t remember what we talked about. Probably not much. He was quiet. But it was nice. We also washed the dishes together so Grandma wouldn’t have to.
He had a great sense of humour and an even better laugh to go with it. He loved the New York Yankees, for which I suppose I can forgive him, and he also loved cars. And he could sing. That was one of the last things he could still do, even after Alzheimer’s ate most of his brain away. He and Grandma harmonized together and sang “Gentle Jesus” over many a baby being dedicated to God in the church. I still hear them when I think of that song.
When we had family reunions and holidays and clambakes, and had stuffed our faces to the point of sleepiness, he’d pull out the antique milk-stool from his childhood and place it in the middle of the living room floor, lie on his back with his head propped on it, and konk out. He’d snore, and everyone would laugh. When I was in college, I had to write a sonnet as a writing assignment, and I wrote it about him:
Lines Upon My Grandfather’s Face
The subterranean rumblings, tranquil though
They were, accompanied who knows what dreams
Of joy and world-weight pain. Yet when he woke
To see our grins, his eyes showed laughter-seams
Which crinkled like dry rivulets beneath
The broad expanse of forehead crossed by lines
Of latitude and longitude. And each
Line marked a memory’s setting or a time
Which brought the furrowed wisdom to his face.
The gentleness of love and kindness crossed
The deeper rows that grief had carved in place,
Despite which, his expression never lost
A look of seventy years’ staunch content—
The strength where tears, but stronger joy, have met.
Grandma wrote us all an email about him, though, and she quoted another poem, by James Weldon Johnson, intimating that those lines on his beloved bald head have disappeared by now:
GO DOWN DEATH
Weep not, weep not, He is not dead; He's resting in the bosom ofJesus............................ And Jesus took his own hand and wiped awayhis tears, And He smoothed the furrows from his face, And the angelssang a little song,An Jesus rocked him in His arms, and Kept a-saying: "Take your rest,Take your rest." Weep not--weep not, He is not dead; He's restingin the bosomof Jesus.
Well, Grandpa, we love you. Happy birthday and merry Christmas! I can imagine they will be!