I became my Poppop’s caretaker and he started calling me by my grandmother’s name, Ellen. It was supposed to be a short-term thing, my mom said when she called me. She said he wasn’t doing so good, so I wouldn’t have to be here long, but it would be easier if I were there. I made the trip down and in the next week I was cleaning out Time magazines from the ‘80s and scanning old photographs from mildewed albums into digital clouds. Poppop usually sat in his wheelchair by the TV in silence.
I lived in New York for the past five years, working at Assisted Living on West 21st street, so I knew my way around an old person. Most of my friends joked around that I was basically living a life of creamed corn and the shit it became after, and it was true. But I liked it. Most of the elderly people spent their days drifting from one chair to the next, every day or every hour, depending on their mobility. They just sat there and remembered their pasts. Their lives no longer a long road with many turns and memories, but a large field, one that they share with me from time to time.
There was good Miss Cheryl whom I visited every day. She didn’t need a bedpan or a sponge bath but she did need help remembering to take her meds at breakfast and she needed a friend to talk to most of the time, which became my favorite job.
She was an eccentric woman. She had long grey hair, like an elderly horse, and a laugh like a whinny to go along with it. She laughed when she told me stories of her grandchildren, who were now about my age, when they went on road trips to Nashville with her to just listen to good music. Or about their last visit to the home, because they always visit, when they brought her presents, like a snow globe or a bottle of Tennessee bourbon. She often times shared her drinks with me, our little secret.
Cheryl was the one to convince me to suck it up and go down to Florida to help take care of my grandfather. I was the only one who could do it proper, she said. “So you see your old cunt of a mom! Deal with it.”
So I went down to Clearwater on a Southwest Airlines red eye and showed up at my Grandparent’s house in the old folks community. It hit me hard when I found that my Poppop was living in a shitstain of a house all these years. The tables really turned since I was eighteen. Family dinners used to consist of my grandparents complaining about their next-door neighbor, Jon, who was making the block look like an eye-soar. “I just want to kill him,” Grandma used to say about Jon. He was the neighborhood hoarder, but now my Poppop was. Grandma wouldn’t approve.
I stayed at his house on Fair View lane for six months before he died. I got him up to par on how my life had ended up, before I came here to clean up stale cat shit and order broccoli and bean curd with my relatives whom I haven’t seen in ten years.
“Did you see that Geico one yet? I swear to God it had me cracking up!” my mom, Amy said one night around the dining table.
“Oh yeah!” my family laughed, “the one with the pig?”
“Is that the one where the piggy
bank gets smashed? That’s so sad!” my aunt Linda said.
“No the one where it’s head is stuck out the window and it’s yelling WEE!” my mom said.
“That’s been on for years,” I told her.
We were all around the table with cards in our hands. I had just taught them how to play rummy and my uncle George was holding up on his turn to talk about their favorite commercials, something they somehow always ended up talking about, even ten years later.
“Thank you, Lily, but I just saw it for the first time and it had me cracking up! I couldn’t stop laughing.” They were starting to sound like my patients back in New York.
“George,” I said, “it’s your turn.” He picked up and put down three aces before discarding.
“That’s good, right?” he asked.
“Hey, everybody, look up!” Aunt Jess was standing with her back turned to the table, trying to take a picture of her and us behind her. “Smile for the selfie!”
Our conversations were never interesting at the dinner table and often lead into complaints about young kids like me and our obsession with technology, which isn’t fucking true. We often talked about what our plans were for the next day, and who would be going to the grocery store. I often thought we weren’t alive anymore here; it made sense my Poppop wasn’t like he used to be.
My Poppop used to sit me down in the living room, back in their old house at home, while my grandma scooped out ice cream sundaes for us in the kitchen. These were the days when we had better conversations. Since I was three, he placed me in the middle of the room, in front of their TV and VHS library so he could tell us stories while he kept an eye on the golf tournaments behind me.
Many times, he told me about cuttinggrass at the arboretum in the next town over when he was a teenager, hisinjuries left over from the military and his encounter with the mob back whenhe installed air conditioners for businesses and private residences.
“I used to install air conditioner units,” he always started with. “If you ever want to break your back like me, well, first off marry this woman,” he would say, pointing to Grandma, because she was always there, “and then go into air conditioner business to raise this one,” he said, pointing to my mom, who wasn’t always there. If she was, she usually shook her head and left to get another drink.
“I got a call one day to put in a unit for a sixth-floor loft over in Lafayette Hill. Me and my pal Jim brought the unit over, carried it up to the sixth-floor, okay? We get up there, I knock, someone answers the door. It’s this short guy with a purple track suit on and greased hair. Jim and I install the unit while the short guy and a few of his pals play some poker. Low and behold, we end up playing ten rounds with the fellas as the air conditioner cools the place down. I lose two-fifty, Jim loses three. They thank us for our service and tip us on the way out. Twenty bucks. And that was it. Later, Jim tells me those were the same guys that our friend Carl got messed up with.”
“Didn’t get my Easter ham that year,” Grandma always said, shaking her head. “That’s not the point!” Poppop said. Grandma would interrupt his stories to fill in little anecdotes that added more color to his stories, but Poppop always yelled at her and called her woman, even after years of telling the same story. He learned when to pause so she could interrupt him on time. By the time they were seventy-five, the two of them choreographed at least fifty stories of their lives, back and forth like they were playing catch.
She interrupted one of his stories about his blind drive down what he called Snake road in the middle of the night with his friends. “No streetlights, no headlights. Just our wide eyes and good sense of direction.”
“Just your raging testosterone and lack of will to live, is what I say.” It’s what she always said when it was her turn.
“Ellen, please!” he said, reliably.
“Had your Poppop made a wrong turn you–”
“Wouldn’t be sitting here,” I said. They told this story together as we ate at my high school graduation lunch and, for the last time, my last time at least, at the arboretum, the same one where he cut the grass, where they renewed their wedding vows.
It wasn’t long after that I became Poppop’s story partner. The first time at Grandma’s funeral reception, in front of her large portrait next to the white lily basket arrangements and rose arm carnation cross. “And I wouldn’t be standing here today,” I said, before my family cracked into the beer trough and sang “May the Road Rise to Meet You” as they got drunk.
That was the second to last time I spoke to my aunts and uncles and a few weeks later I was on my way to college in New York where’d I’d stay.
We knew we had to pick up the pace on getting the house together when Poppop started calling me Ellen. “Ellen! Take this to the mailbox,” he would say, holding out his empty hand.
“Poppop, it’s me. Your granddaughter, Lily.” But it was no use. He kept calling me Ellen.
In the next few months, my mom helped me give him baths and take him to the doctor’s office. She watched him while I cleaned the rest of the house, the second floor, the basement and garage. Before long, I had donated all of my Grandma’s clothes, sent their obsolete appliances to the dump and narrowed down the maze of newspapers in the hallways. My aunts argued over who gets what, putting sticky notes on the furniture and the china and even the bed post where Poppop slept.
In the mornings, I took off the sticky notes that were on the dishes that we still used and plated Poppop’s breakfast. I fed him slowly for a half hour as I read him the newspapers. One morning, after exhausting the sports page, he sat a little stiller than usual.
Most days, he went quiet and held his hand out over the table, looking down. His fingers were curled lightly to his palm. I always grabbed a pen and slipped it into his hand and he would write in the air. “Poppop, here. Write here.” I showed him some scrap paper underneath his hand and he started scribbling illegible notes. Before, when he sometimes found a pen on his own, he would scribble on the table, leaving permanent swirls and loops on it. My aunt Linda took away her sticky note from the table after that.
But on this morning, he stayed still. I instinctively reached for the phone thinking this might be the moment we were all dreading but also looking forward to. No one acknowledged it but it was pretty obvious that they’d all be happy if I called them that day. But he stayed perfectly still with a bit of a smile on his face. He looked a little younger; the wrinkles and the squishy spider veins weren’t working to age him. He looked like himself again, at least, the one I remember, so I talked to him.
“Hey Poppop,” I smiled. “Do you remember the story about the time we were on our way to the aquarium when you and grandma first moved down here?” I asked. “You were driving and grandma was listening to that book on tape and we drove into the rain cloud. We were going over a bridge and it was bright one minute and dark the next. And at the end of the bridge we were in the sun again. We drove in and out from a rain cloud and that was it. But you were so happy. I couldn’t believe it.” I pat his cold hands.
He stayed still and I thought I could keep going, but his lips fell down slowly and he was back to a minimally conscious state. It was quiet in the house, everyone was out. I just sat there with him but I felt alone. I wished he could come back to me for just another moment so I could apologize. I needed to do that for him. But instead, he frowned more and began to yell.
“Ellen?” he said.
“No Poppop, it’s–”
“Ellen! She’s not here.”
“Poppop, who’s not here?” I leaned in a bit more, looking in his eyes. They were dilated, they were always dilated, like he was always looking into a shadow. And then they narrowed when he saw me.
“Ellen,” he said, looking at me. “I couldn’t find Amy. She’s not in the back yard.”
“Poppop, Amy’s at the store. She’ll be back in a little while.”
“Amy didn’t come home tonight Ellen! Should we call the cops?” He started to shake in his chair and he grabbed my hand. He squeezed it but it didn’t feel like anything more than a caress.
“It’s okay, Poppop,” I said. “We’re here.”
His funeral was filled with the same white lilies and white carnation cross with a red rose arm that Grandma had. The church was taller than I remembered, and Jesus looked even scarier than I remembered. The priest stood at the alter while everybody kneeled. His voice filled the tall room with his creepy chant. Everybody in the room was crying except the altar boys. There were framed photos of him and the family on the table by the casket, the same ones my mom and I scanned through in the first days we were here. The biggest one was the family portrait from our family reunion fifteen years ago, with me, my parents, my aunts and uncles, cousins, my Poppop but not my Grandma. Everyone looked happy but they were all pretending they hadn’t heard the fight between my mom and I just moments before. The fight about the college money and the cheating and the stealing and the other shitton of secret Conner family baggage that showed up at our doorstep that morning.
The other photos, the few that weren’t from when I was young, were ones of when I wasn’t there. My Poppop and his golf gang, him and my cousins at Disney World. It was all standard but I wished I had felt it all. I wished I had gotten another moment when he smiled and I could tell him another story.
After the priest stopped the rites my aunts and uncle went to the front to give short speeches about their father and how much they’d miss him. They’d miss the monthly dinners at Jacks Lobster House before he went senile and the fishing trips at Breeze Point. My mom said she’d miss his homemade ice cream and my uncle the annual golf tournament.
Before I could catch my breath, it was my turn to go to the front and look at the crowd of faces I hadn’t seen in years. “Hello,” I started with. “It’s nice to see everyone despite these–unbearable circumstances. I’m generally not a super emotional person, even though you’ve all seen me act like a madman before.” I got a few smiles of acknowledgment from the family and confused eyebrows from the friends. I’m sure they all thought I was crazy.
I cleared my throat. “I was spending a lot of time with Poppop in the past couple weeks and I cleaned a lot of his crap, excuse my language.” I looked over at the priest who looked down. “Anyway, I came across something that really surprised me when I was cleaning out his office one day. As you all know, Poppop was a great storyteller and a frequent one at that. But something maybe some of you knew but I sure didn’t was that he liked to write. And he wrote a lot of those stories down and I have one of them with me today. This was my favorite story. I hadn’t heard it in a long time but when I read it, it made me really happy. So anyway, I’m going to read it to you.”
I opened the piece of paper in my sweaty, shaky hands and began to read my Poppop’s smooth handwriting.
“When my little son George was about seven years old he liked to play with paper model airplanes. He would save all his allowance to go to the craft store to buy these models and he ended up with a large collection. The first time he told me he wanted a model airplane, he came up to me and held out his hand.
‘How much money is this?’ he asked me. I helped him count it out and he looked at me with a frown and said, ‘I don’t have enough.’
“I went to my wallet and took out a few more coins, because things only costed a few coins back then, and handed them to him. ‘Wait,’ I said, before he went out the door. I pulled out a few more coins from my pocket.
‘For tax,’ I said. George nodded and went out the door.
“When he came back he had a frown on his face and I asked him where his model airplane was. He held up his hand and gave me a box of thumbtacks.
“‘I didn’t have enough money,’ George told me. ‘I only had enough for tacks.”