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Visiting Grandfather at the Nursing Home

Growing up in northern California gives me the opportunity to share personal experiences of everlastingly misplaced understandings.


Four Stokes

I am sixteen, driving my yellow Volkswagen quickly down the winding boulevard toward my destination - a visit with my grandfather at the rest home.

A sharp right onto the street, I passed many times before without a bother. Another quick left and I drive into the empty parking lot. I park my car.

My pace slows as I anticipate my visit. I sit leaning on the steering wheel, thinking. Grandfather has been at this rest home for well over a year, and this is my first visit. Why am I here? I could be at the park with my friends. They are just a mile away.

“He’s suffered four strokes. You better see him before it’s too late. He rarely gets visitors,” my mother’s persuading answer resonates in my mind.

I see the rest home, a one-story, burnt yellow building with enormous tinted windows. Surrounded by a tiny forest of evergreens and offers plenty of shade for this hot summer day. The rest home appears tranquil, cooling my uneasiness.


Grandfather is My Father

Following the cement path toward the entrance steps, I contemplate the biological fact that he is not my actual grandfather, my mother’s stepfather. Why should I visit him? I turn around and be out of here as fast as I came.

Ah, it comes to me now. He is the only fatherly man who spent time with me as a young girl. He always encouraged me, so few did. Perhaps, that is why I am visiting him. To thank him before, well, he goes.

My memories of him are as a quiet man who shares his life privately with a select few. Oh, yes, and that expression of loneliness while he rhythmically sprays water on the lawn over and over again, applying that same rhythm while he waxes his baby blue Impala.

My pace slows a little more as I stare at the entrance steps.

Remembering him is a weight on my shoulders. Lost in direction, knowing I should have visited him sooner. Relax. I am seeing him now. I open the door and proceed.

Oh, the receptionist's desk. The nurse asks, "You are here to see?"

What is his name? I have always called him grandfather. Oh, yes, that's right. She announces, "Down the hall, second door to your left, first bed on your right."

"Thank you," I force a smile.


Grandfather Not Feeling Well

Down the hall, I go, making my left. I enter the room. I look. Is that grandfather? I am stunned. So thin, he is lying in his twin bed, succumbing. Is he asleep? I see his three roommates around the tinged yellow room with closed wooden cabinets for each bed. Like my grandfather, they lie flat on their backs, vacant stares, far from a cheerful greeting.

I sense danger and lose my breath. I feel my mortality. As a teenager, I have never thought about it – a terrifying idea, “fear of death.” I put my thoughts in order and quietly find a teal plastic chair. I pull the chair under me and sit down. I study him. He has a sunken face with crevices lining the cheeks in his unshaven parchment, blue-veined skin, looking spent.


I turn the pictures in my mind. I come to the age of seven. A retired colonel, he looks bigger, stronger, and livelier than the man in the twin bed.

We get in his Impala on this day, and he drives me to Mather Air Force Base, not far from his home. We go into the Commissary where he buys me new clothes and a pair of tennis shoes. With pride, he tells the clerk, “She is my youngest granddaughter, who is named after her grandfather.”

We are back in the car. The next stop is Mather’s Fire Station. Grandfather parks the car and takes me into the Fire Chief’s office. Presents me to a young Airman who is assigned my “Personal Tour Guide.” The Airman and I leave the office. Grandfather stays to visit with his close friend, the Fire Chief.

I receive VIP treatment. The Airman shows me the firefighting equipment and the lockers. He motions me to be quiet as he takes me to a dark room. Where the men who work at night sleep during the day. I can’t see a thing. But I hear snoring and breathing. I almost want to laugh, covering my mouth.


Then, we climb the stairs to the Look Out Tower. Where I could see the whole base, I had never dreamed of an area so large before. I ask if I can see a plane land. I learn that planes take off and land at specific times of the night because the Vietnam War is on. It has to do with regulation. So, today, I can’t see any aircraft. But still, I am up high. And look, I can see Grandfather’s house. How exciting! I can’t wait to tell him.

Next, off we go to the big red fire truck. The Airman helps climb aboard into the cab. He drives us away from the station and down a long runway. I sit near him, watching intently. He turns and stops the large truck. He shows the controls. And, away I go blowing its siren and spraying its water. Unbelievable! We go back to the station, and the whole adventure ends with nice cold soda pop.

Are You Happy Here?

What a day!

That was nine years ago and one of the best days.

Sadly, I look at my grandfather, now a feeble and lifeless man. He is different, pretty much catatonic. I smile, for I am pleased to be with him, though, and hope he knows my sympathy.

But I am uncomfortable, and I don’t know what to do. A friend told me these places are hateful. I say to myself, ask about the rest home. So, I clear my throat, “Are you happy here? Do they serve you good food?”

My grandfather’s eyes brightened. Evidence of the strokes comes to the surface and answers with difficulty, “Yeah.”

Nothing comes from his frail, lifeless body.

He seems dead. I should go, get out of here.

Abruptly, a nurse enters, startling me. Like an assembly line worker, she jams a couple of pills in his mouth, forces them down with a glass of water, and says, "Well, grandpa, you have a visitor, your granddaughter. Isn't that nice?"

His eyes rotate to the left and right, glancing at me now and then in the cold and artificial room. Does Grandfather know what is happening to him or who I am?

I sit staring at this older man who is looking off into space. I realize in this place at this time. We have nothing in common.

Still, we have the past.

I sit staring at this older man looking off into space now. I suddenly realized in this place — at this time, we had nothing in common.

Holding my composure, I lean forward. My voice trembles, “Grandfather, remember that time you took me to the Fire Station for a tour while you visited with your old friend, the Fire Chief. Wasn’t that one of the best days?”

My grandfather’s eyes brightened. Evidence of the strokes comes to the surface and answers with difficulty, “Yeah.”

Holding back my tears, I said, “Did I ever tell you that I could see your house from the tower?”

He looks right at me. His unmoving eyes gleam.

“And, the fire truck, I had a great time riding in that fire truck, blowing its siren and spraying its water. I’m glad that you took me there.”


Tears well in my eyes. “Remember the countless times you’d take me to Sambo’s for lunch, and you’d tease me, saying you didn’t have enough money to pay for the meal. And, I’d have to wash the dishes to pay the bill.”

“Yeah, Yeah,” he tries a smile.

“Remember, your baby blue Impala….”

I am doing most of the talking and reminiscing while Grandfather smiles a lot, really enjoying it. I’m smiling, too, never thinking this first visit would be my last.

I am doing most of the talking and reminiscing while Grandfather smiles a lot, really enjoying it. I’m smiling, too, never thinking this first visit would be my last.


Say Goodbye

I left the rest home, following the same path that brought me. Except for this time, I have a grin on my face.

Inevitably, Grandfather took flight and reached out to another life. He will always be in my thoughts, as I am sure I’m in his.

Perhaps, that’s why I visited him. Bring those pleasant memories to the surface, frame them forever, and say goodbye.


© 2017 Kenna McHugh

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