He was just a simple man, my grandfather. All rough-hewn leather and tar from years of roofing. He just loved God, his family and his Bulldogs. Not much else mattered.
I, of course, was his pet. His ‘Lil’un,’ the one who could do no wrong in his eyes. For everything Granny scolded me on, Pop would say it was OK. I was the baby, after all.
He never complained when he was sick. Never. For every whimper, every groan we got out of Granny about a hangnail or a toe cramp, Pop never complained. He could be up all night sick with a bleeding ulcer and be up and at work by 7 a.m. the next morning.
We aren’t sure when things started happening.
My report cards mysteriously vanished. We thought he was bragging at Kelly’s Lumber yard to his buddies about his baby’s good grades. I may not have been a pretty child – I was too chubby to be – but I was smart and he was proud.
Then one day, Bobby and Pop came home from work and Bobby went out back to sit on the back steps. He stayed out there a long time and Granny found him crying.
“He was mean,” Bobby said. “No one should be talked to like that. He’s never talked to me like that before.”
For my uncle, who was never a complainer either, to say Pop was mean, was a big red flag.
Things were lost, forgotten, misplaced.
He had a stroke on a three-story building and couldn’t get down.
“I’m going back to work as soon as you give me the go-ahead,” he told his doctor, a family friend.
“Bob,” the doctor began, “I really want you to look at retiring. I am seeing some changes in you that tell me it’s time.”
“Retire? And do what?” The only reason Pop didn’t work after church on Sundays was because he thought folks wouldn’t want him on their roofs while they had dinner.
“Don’t you have a hobby?”
“I work; I don’t have hobbies,” my grandfather replied bluntly.
“Then maybe you could find one,” the doctor suggested, searching. “Maybe making little houses out of popsicle sticks…”
His voice trailed off as my grandfather refused to meet his gaze.
It wasn’t long after that, the forced retirement, the taking away of the things he considered the fabric of his being, where we saw the marked decline.
It was Alzheimer’s, we were told, with a condition known as sundowners, making him increasingly agitated at night. A symptom we wondered if came from working all day in the sun and keeping his eyes on how much daylight he had left to work.
Instead of spending their golden years doing things Granny wanted to, like going to Dollywood or the Grand Ole Opry, she became his primary caregiver, keeping him at home most of the time or driving to Augusta when he was hospitalized for extended periods of time.
He didn’t remember who she was, or Mama, or Bobby. He talked about Jerry a lot, the son they lost.
He remembered me, but thought I was still a toddler.
“The baby,” he called me. “She’s the baby.”
During the day, his hands went through the repetitive motion of roofing, laying shingles, hammering. He was still as strong as an ox, even though his weight dropped to probably 130 pounds.
He fought two male nurses one night, thinking he was in World War II. The only way they could get him to stop tussling was to offer him a Camel.
The only things that seemed to calm him down when he raged were cigarettes and lemon ice cream.
Mama wondered how long he had been having symptoms as she remembered finding him on the back steps before, smoking in the middle of the night. She never snitched on him, not even to me.
Granny was trying to get all their things in order, making me help her pick out tombstones years ahead – Mama and Bobby refused the macabre task, but I felt like maybe there was a few things the old gal just wasn’t quite strong enough to handle alone.
As she looked through their drawers for some of her paperwork, out from behind the drawer tumbled out dozens of report cards, all worn from repeated viewing, and a picture of me as a baby.
My grandmother, who seldom cried, sat on the end of their bed and sobbed.
“There’s not enough being done,” she said. “There needs to be a cure. Why isn’t there a cure?”
That could be said for any horrible disease, couldn’t it? But the one we’re faced with, the one we’re battling, is the one that we want that cure found for now.
This disease took her husband away.
For nearly a decade, she watched him slip away a little more each day, until one day, he was gone. It wasn’t just the loss of breathe but the loss of spirit, of who he was, that made each day excruciatingly heartbreaking.
It made the memories we had of him even more precious, remembering the man he was before his brain was ravaged by Alzheimer’s.
A man who loved celebrating every holiday, enjoyed Georgia football, liked smelling good for church and loved to watch soap operas with me during lunch. A man who always put his 10 percent from every check in his brown leather box for church – “God’s part,” he called it. And a man who would stay up all night with his sick granddaughter, reading me “The Poky Little Puppy” one more time.
A man who didn’t get to say goodbye to those he loved, that loved him.
“There needs to be a cure for this,” Granny had said after the funeral, as she sat in his old chair, looking out the window. “There should be a cure.”
And maybe one day, there will be.