I had never struggled to maintain composure so hard in my entire life, and I hoped I would never have to do it again.
We drove for hours, the sunlight passing over my face, the deep country of Pennsylvania passing us in a haze of frosted pastures. Rose and I had spent the trip to the farmer’s market singing, laughing, taking snapchats and posting them to Facebook and Tumblr. I’d sent Dakota so many pictures and videos I’d lost count, and he humored me. It was surreal, feeling like there was an actual connection there, a friendship to build off of. Potential, maybe.
But riding back, dread seeped in, apprehension for what was to come. I didn’t want to think of my grandfather as he was now, didn’t even want to admit that he wasn’t the strong, dependable man who’d helped raise me.
I shut my eyes and thought back, reliving moments spent with him with painful, beautiful clarity. Standing in my grandparent’s townhouse, in the living room, The Lawrence Welk Show playing big band music in the background as Grandpa and I swayed together. Eating cookies on the couch as he tried to teach me algebra– which never really worked out, but bless him, he tried so hard. Listening to him tell me all about historical figures he admired and read about. Sharing his cereal as a toddler. The smell of his deodorant. The feel of his shirt under my cheek whenever I hugged him. Cheeto stains on his tee shirts. German chocolate cake.
He was the kind of man I would have chosen as a partner, if I chose a man in the long run. Dependable. Honest. Strong. Brilliant. He always found a way to fix things, to solve problems. Perhaps he was colorblind and almost deaf, but by god he never let that stop him. He provided for his family, lent a hand when he was needed. He spoke well of people, and despite his conservative views often clashing with mine, he wanted to see good in the world. He cared about his fellow men, but most especially, he cared about his family. He was proud of all of us, and he loved us dearly.
At his funeral, Mom would tell us how sitting and talking with him during her twenties shaped her worldview, her religious beliefs. My cousins would talk about him telling stories, or holding their children. My uncles would both talk about how dependable he was. Grandma wouldn’t speak, because she’d be barely keeping herself together. Whatever story I told would be trivial and simple in comparison, but it would be my story, whatever memory struck me at the time as the most Grandpa-ish thing he’d ever done, the thing that shaped my view of him. I would shake, and stutter, and cry, but in the end, I would speak. And I would remember.
Grandpa hadn’t been himself for years. It was overnight– one day, he just began to shuffle rather than walk. He misplaced things more easily, threw things away by accident, forgot what he’d said or done recently. He got frustrated more easily. But still he remained proud of us– of me, his youngest grandchild, the baby of the family, save my cousin’s twin toddlers. Grandpa always told me how proud he was of me, how much he loved me.
Perhaps that was why he was the only man in my life I’d ever genuinely respected and loved, without reserve or exception.
I didn’t want to see him today. I didn’t want to face the idea that he wouldn’t recognize me, that he’d be anything other than strong and happy and kind. Alzheimer’s changed people, not always for the better, and I didn’t want to see its effects on him. Without a doubt, I knew that this would be my goodbye to him. I would not see him after today.
As the sunlight flickered over my face, I opened my eyes and turned to Rose, who had her hand on mine. She smiled and laced her fingers with mine, and we rode in the backseat of my mom’s car together, just like that, watching the cows and horses pass us by.