We see my grandfather every other Christmas, maybe once in the summer, and his house is layered with dust and memories. He is at a loss for loss, and the slowness in his step is only matched by the quickness in his aging. The days are cruel and settling.
He is haunted by the notches of his timeline – nightmares of storming beaches and fallen soldiers, siblings lost and losing still, and the death of my grandmother that lingers in every corner of a mind much sharper than he wishes it would be.
We sit in the living room and watch him place prunes in his mushroom soup. He makes a joke about his reasons, and when someone else comes in he makes it again. He has much humor when he wants it.
There is a lot of yelling between us, but no anger. We disagree on many things, but the only words we share are about the things that bind us: the local basketball team, my boys, and the Arizona weather. The words are shouted so that he can hear them, and then repeated upon request. The tenderness is lost beneath the volume.
He speaks of the kindness of my father every time my dad leaves the room. My dad helps to provide the daily assistance that my grandfather needs, not because he is incapable of caring for himself, but because he is incapable of caring. My grandfather starts each day by declaring his impending doom, and he sleeps each night against blankets warm with cotton and disappointment.
Every day my dad shows up, and every day my grandfather goes again through the motions.
When my boys enter the room they are ghosts of me, and my grandfather hugs them with a joy that I can barely remember. They are good with each other, and between my boys and my grandfather there lies an understanding that I am somewhere in the middle of, thick with tasks and worry. They are bookends of past and future, and they meet in the present like it is the only thing that matters.
They each part with parts of the other, my grandfather’s eyes suddenly younger and alive with glimmer, my boys somewhat sullen and sweetly serious. The lumps in my throat leave me to nodding and losing myself in the shadows cast by sun-smudged windows. Someone makes a joke, and then they say it again but louder.
We sit there in silence, his a cruel twist of time, and ours a tribute to it.
“I sure do miss her,” he says so soft that I wonder if he knows we can hear him, or if it is just the echoes of his mind falling lightly through an accidental opening. Then he shakes his head and looks deep past the nothing, and we all smile because we miss her, too.
“Merry Christmas, Grandpa,” I yell across hugs and a lifetime. Then we fade into the doorway, and the days that lie ahead.