On Loss, in bits and pieces

grandfather3When ONCE MORE UNTO THE BREACH releases in four months’ time, readers will find a dedication that reads To E.A.D., For telling me stories. Those initials represent my grandfather, who for much of my life was a stalwart tower of a man with a stubborn Scottish constitution, a flair for storytelling, a relentless work ethic, an abundance of generosity, a ready smile, and a sly laugh. He was the bedrock of my childhood, and his memories were the fairytales that enchanted me.

I did not grow up asking for stories of princesses. Instead, I sat on my grandfather’s knee and heard the story of how he and his brothers were caught on a railroad bridge when a train approached. He and all but one of his brothers jumped and landed in the river below. The youngest jumped, missed the river, and had to be dug out of the mire he had landed in—luckily with no shattered bones—on the riverbank. I did not ask for stories of knights in shining armor. Instead, I followed along behind my grandfather in his garden and heard the tale of how his father overestimated how much dynamite was needed to blast a well and ended up blowing a hole into the land large enough to drive a truck into—and the rubble fell right through the roof into my irate great-grandmother’s kitchen. I did not want to hear stories about grandfather2castles and dragons. Instead, I sat on the tractor’s seat passing him tools as my grandfather worked on the engine and heard the story of how his youngest sister had grown ill soon after birth and he walked with his father to the store for medicine. When they arrived and were asked the infant’s name, my great-grandfather could not remember his ninth newborn’s name and when he turned to his son, all my grandfather could supply was “Sister.” And so my great-aunt grew up to be known only as “Sister.” I heard of how he thought my grandmother “was just the prettiest little brown-haired lass” the first day he saw her board the school bus he drove his last years of high school. I was told of how as a newlywed he almost lost a finger courtesy of his wedding band when he disobeyed the rule of no jewelry when working on planes on the Air Force base where he was stationed.

I never grew tired of my grandfather’s stories, and I hold onto them all the more tightly now. For I am losing my grandfather, slowly and painfully, chipped away from me relentlessly and steadily by dementia. It is a cruel disease, ravaging a man who was so bright, so strong, so ready to laugh, so quick with a tale, tall or otherwise.

I took him to breakfast yesterday morning. He loves Cracker Barrel, and we sat by the grandfatherfire burning brightly in the oversized stone hearth. He cleaned his plate and praised the meal, but I had to work to coax a smile from him. There was no laughter. The stories that were told were mine as I tried to draw him out from a phantom agitation that existed only in his dying mind.

At one point, he looked up and said, “I hate to ask you this. But…. Can you tell me my wife’s name?” Hearts break so easily when you care for someone so much and see them so lost inside themselves. “Mary Ann,” I said. “Your wife’s name is Mary Ann.” His face worked and turned red with emotion and after a moment, he whispered, “Mary Ann. I thought that was it. But I just couldn’t recall.” He had been telling people I was his niece all morning and had yet to use my name, so I offered, “And my name is Meghan. I’m your granddaughter.”

I saw a glimmer of the grandfather of my youth in the sly, disgruntled look he gave me. “I know exactly who you are, lass. How could I forget you?”

But he will one day. I know that, and I try to prepare myself for that loss. For that is the pain of loving someone with this devastating, merciless disease:  You lose them, in excruciating bits and pieces, long before they are truly gone.

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