My paternal grandfather’s long recovery this winter has me thinking about my other grandfather, who passed away several years ago. He had Alzheimer’s. I spent the last summer before he truly disappeared from us with him and my grandmother in the family summer house. He’d been confused for a while and was beginning to show other signs of deterioration, but they hoped they would be able to make one last summer. I got a job close to the house, doing something easy, and with a kind boss who let me leave without notice to deal with emergencies. As it turned out, the change of venue was too hard on him; his dementia and anxiety and physical health got worse fast and they ended up going home after just a month.
It was a hard month. The house was precarious. The yard was precarious. The 200 year old crazy brick sidewalks were precarious. Grandaddy’s mind decayed brutally fast. He slept very little and wandered off into town and put himself in danger and was aggressive and insulting and frightened and mostly deaf and mind-bendingly confused. Until suddenly he wasn’t and he would be sitting there perfectly lucid and stricken with knowledge. It was cruel to watch. A conversation with an Alzheimer’s patient is a slippery and dizzy thing, and my grandmother wore herself out trying to walk the tightrope between her fear and frustration and the need to soothe him.
I have the utmost respect for the caregivers and family members who live with and visit and love Alzheimer’s patients for months and years. That single month was the longest of my life, and one of the most painful things I’ve ever experienced. I also wouldn’t undo it for anything. I’d spent the same two weeks with my grandparents every summer. They were familiar and loved and I know they loved us. Still, I never thought of myself as close to them until that month of messy, exhausting intimacy. They needed me, and that made me happy even while I was miserable.
A few years later, shortly after my grandfather died, I was sorting through a bookshelf in the Nantucket house. It was mostly summer reading – mysteries and period romances and celebrity bios. On the bottom shelf, in a pile of games and jigsaw puzzles, I found a hardcover copy of All the King’s Men by Robert Penn Warren, inscribed to my grandfather by his law partner. It’s been my favorite novel since I first read it in college. Grandaddy was a lawyer, and later a judge; one of the main characters in the novel had always made me think of him. I have no idea if he ever read it, but finding it there was a great moment for me. It put him, his whole self, back in that house. That book now sits on my shelf, and is the copy I carry when I reread it.
Remembering all this reminded me that I’d written a poem about it around the same time, so I dug it out to have another look. There are things I’d do differently about this poem now, but that’s not how it works; I haven’t messed with it. This is the original version.
Nantucket, 2 a.m.
My mother lies awake under ocean sounds
of wind that wake you,
blowing off the Point.
Day-sleep has made you night-walk,
Strange she does not hear you –
but you do not hear yourself
the creak the last stair makes
when you have left it,
only feeling in your legs the sense
of steps you lost
the sound of long ago.
The kitchen smells of barnacles and
Which case is it you plead tonight
while the string beneath the naked
kitchen lightbulb swings?
Or do you plead your own
with Hail Marys and Our Fathers, asking
that we hear you even though
you can’t hear us?
And is it for my mother that you leave
the light in brightness?
She will find it in the morning and
construct the sound of steps
she didn’t hear.