I wrote this in 1999, while sitting in a Weatherford Texas hospital room with my grandfather.
Some of my happiest memories from childhood center around my dad’s parents. My mom’s parents lived in Fort Worth, within ten minutes of our little home in Arlington, so I saw them several times a week; while I was always happy there, the rarity of my dad’s parents made them a special treat. Once a month, my parents and my sister and I would bundle up and drive out to Weatherford, an hour-long trek, to spend the Sunday in the country. I remember my dad’s parents being very strong, very vital people with a good hold on what’s right and what’s not, how you treat people and how you shouldn’t.
Grandmom was a nurse and granddad built helicopters for Bell. I thought the world of both of them. Over the summer, I used to stay with them for a week at a time and we’d watch the Rangers play baseball on TV, or more often just listen to them coming through on the radio, house windows open to the warm, Texas evening air. One summer, as I was turning six, in the scrub brush beside their home I found the stone pedestal where Davy Crockett’s monument must have used to sit until some bandits stole it. (Granddad later told me it was what was left of a cement bird feeder after the top part fell off. I liked my idea better.)
As a child, I thought of them as very warm people, very loving, but I realized later that this was not the truth. One day, on the way home from Weatherford – I was probably 12 at the time – my dad started crying. This was strange, as even when I was a child I thought my father was the epitome of emotional distance. My mother told me, years afterwards, that my father had only then heard for the first time his parents tell him that they loved him.
I know I told this last part of the story already, though I leave it in to remind me how I’d phrased it fifteen years back.
Last night I drove to Weatherford to see my granddad again, this time to chauffeur his 91-year-old body to Fort Worth for an angioplasty. (I keep wanting to say amniocentesis, but if that were what he was going in for, I’d have to change a lot of preconceptions I have about the world.) Most of me really didn’t think it was a big deal, but I guess I knew he could die. Granddads die, I know, but his sister’s 103 years old and she’s still kinda feisty. My dad’s side of the family is very old-lived. One of my great-uncles stayed married for 76 years.
He was very happy to see me, like a little boy. I don’t remember when I saw him last, but every time I see him he seems somehow smaller, more frail, as though time just caught up with him. But this is a man who worked for a long lifetime and retired before I was even born. In a month I’ll be thirty, and I feel I’ve been lucky enough to’ve lived several lifetimes.
My grandfather and I have never been close. I don’t know that he’s ever let anyone very close to him. As the youngest of eight children, raised in the relatively harsh environment of strict religious country life, I’m sure he’s seen a lot of shit in his life. This isn’t an excuse, it’s just the way he is.
We’d never spent time together, just the two of us, so I was worried that the conversation would drag. It did, but it was okay. I tried to have a normal conversation. I didn’t want to yell at him, but it was hard to communicate without raising my voice. The problem is, when you raise your voice to talk to him, I think he takes it as a threat of some kind because he always turns argumentative, but in that, “I’m half-deaf and I’m going to make this as hard for you as possible” sort of way. In addition to the volume control, I had to keep prodding him for information, filling in my side with the questions I imagined he’d ask if he weren’t obsessing on the next day’s hospital visit.
Finally, I broke through to the human being inside my grandfather. “I am… so lonely,” he confided in me, shockingly. “Since Esther’s gone, I— You know, I had her for fifty years, and now….” I held his hand, and we sat in the living room motionless for a few minutes.
“If you want, turn the TV on,” he finally said, pointing to where he’d rubber-banded the remote control to his favorite chair’s wooden arm. “I think the Rangers are playing somewhere.”
On the way into my bedroom for the night, I noticed something on the wall that seemed odd. It was a formal letter from the Fraternal Order of Masons, dated 1997 – perhaps making it the newest thing on any wall of the home – saying that he, Charles F. Pearcy, was exempt from paying dues for the rest of his life. An endowment in his name had been set up with the home office by the Weatherford branch of Masons.
The Freemasons were one of the groups that came up most often when you read about secret conspiracies. It made me laugh to think about my granddad plotting to take over the world. I wondered if being a Mason was like what I used to hear about being a Klansmen in Fort Worth in the earlier part of the century, where the place was just so small that if you wanted to do business you couldn’t really avoid being part of the organization. All things Masonic seemed so far away from my point of reference. It was something done by old people, and Fred Flintstone.
In the hospital, the next morning, things were fine. We got there about an hour early; granddad was having particularly acute chest pains the night before, so he didn’t sleep well. I didn’t sleep well either, but we were in relatively good spirits when we checked in anyway.
The hospital staff had no problem yelling at him to get his attention.
“I said, WOULD YOU LIFT YOUR ARM?”
“My arm?” he said, falling into his usual argumentative posture. “What d’you want with my arm?”
“I just have to take a little blood, sir. So we know what all’s going on with you.”
“Oh. Guess that’s okay, then.”
I sat in his room while they had him across the hall with a long tube running up the inside of his leg through the main artery there into his heart. The plan was to send up a camera to check it out, clear out the expected arterial blockage, and then check him on out. Piece of cake. I kept laughing when I’d hear the doctors yelling at him.
“NOT SUPPOSED TO. I said, you’re NOT SUPPOSED to BE ABLE to FEEL your LEG RIGHT NOW.”
Eventually the doctor came in to see me. He took me into the hallway. He was a polite man, and professional.
“I understand you can call his son for me.”
“How is he?” I blurted, pulling out my cell phone.
“He’s not good,” the doctor said. I called dad, handing the doc the phone. Justine had bought it for me as a Christmas present, since I hadn’t had the money for anything like that at the time.
“Your father,” he explained to both of us, “is blocked, and we can’t do anything about it with balloons. Three of his major arteries, his heart valves, are blocked perhaps seventy to ninety percent. If he consents to the triple-bypass surgery — and the surgeon agrees to perform the surgery on a 91-year-old man, and he survives — there’s a sixty percent chance that he’ll live another five years, maybe ten.”
“If not, then… he might live a year. His heart could fail any time.”
I couldn’t hear what dad had to say, but I could imagine.
“No,” the doctor answered, “I haven’t talked to him about it yet. I wanted to talk to you first. Uh huh. Yes. Yes. Thank you, too.” He handed me back the phone.
“If he goes for it,” I asked the doctor, “how long will he be here?”
“Five days, maybe six.”
“And what do you think the chances are of that happening?”
“I believe the surgeon will agree to perform the operation,” he told me. “Your grandfather is very strong, he must be an active guy. But when the surgeon comes to talk to you, tell him to call your father and talk to both of them at the same time.” I agreed to do so, and thanked him.
As I packed up my books and got granddad’s things together, I could hear the doctor in the room across the hall.
“BLOCKED!” he shouted. “Your HEART, I said, it’s BLOCKED.”
I gathered up our things and met granddad in the hall where two orderlies conspired to wheel him into a proper hospital room. He didn’t acknowledge my presence; he was flirting with the female orderly. I took it as a healthy sign.
“So I’m blocked,” he said to her.
“Yep,” she said.
“I said YEP, you SURE ARE.”
He was quiet as they wheeled him into the elevator.
“I’m not going to have the surgery,” he confided in her with a quiet smile, like a little boy refusing to go to his room. She must’ve been used to that sort of thing, as she responded immediately with the professional answer.
“Well, that’s your decision. You need to consider quality of life versus quantity.”
“Quality,” he said, nodding, staring up at the ceiling. “Yep.”
Right now, while I’ve written this, he lays beside me in a hospital bed, and I love him so much.