Voices of Poetry & Prose Issue #1 June 2014 - Page 18

Prose

Chance to Know Him

by Mark Paxson

Dear Workshop Friends,

I wanted to apologize for leaving early last Saturday. I hate when I have to do that. Usually, it’s because my kid has a soccer game, or there’s some other family event that draws me away before the time is right. The worst is when I find out about that event via text right about 2:15.

This Saturday was a little bit different. I had to leave for my grandfather’s memorial service. Here’s where I wish I could tell you about him. Only I can’t. I never gave myself the chance to learn a thing about him.

When I was eight and he came for a visit, I wanted nothing to do with my grandfather. He was a scary man whose nose whistled and whose ears grew tufts of hair. He spent the month with us and I remember far too many times my play in the yard interrupted by his calls to me to “come sit with me for a moment, boy.”

I would go because Mom told me I should. “That it was the least I could do. Considering.” Yes, considering that his wife had died the year before and now he drifted between the homes of his children.

Tromping up the stairs to the porch, I would watch in horrified fascination as he plucked his dentures off the table and popped them in his mouth. “Come sit with me,” he would repeat, patting the seat next to him. I would, while he filled the air with bug spray, weaving the can back and forth as he was painting an intricate pattern on a wall. Grandpa would put the can down and lean over to me, his breath smelling of stale cigarette smoke and overcooked broccoli, and whisper, “You must not let the skeeters nip you or you’ll get the malaria.” I would shrink away as much as I could.

For what felt like hours that turned into days, he would then speak of his wife and the war, of the old country, and the old days. And I would wander in my head back to the yard, where I was building a fort with scrap lumber my father brought from work. The next day it would happen again and again. For a month, he spoke and I wandered.

When I was eighteen and Grandpa came to stay, I had no time for him, just as I had no time for the rest of my family. My father and I barely spoke to each other, sharing an angry silence, while my mom pleaded in anguished silence for me to stay and sit. I ran from them both.

Grandpa spent most of the day in the front room, sitting in the recliner with a blanket covering his legs. The TV on, the volume down low and he would watch it through heavily-lidded eyes. When I hurried through the room to or from my bedroom, I tried to avoid him. I imagined that I was too quick for him most days. By the time the sound of the slamming door alerted him to my presence, I was already entering my room and slamming that door as well. Every now and then, he caught me.

“Mark, what’s the hurry? Come sit with an old man.” Even though I couldn’t see my Mom in the kitchen, I could see her suddenly stop whatever she was doing and raise her eyebrows. When I stopped and honored Grandpa with my precious time, the sighing of the seat cushions that announced my decision brought her to the doorway, where she would lean her shoulder and her head against the frame and watch her father and her son.

He would speak to me as he had ten years before. And I would wander. As I had ten years before. While he spoke of his travels and his dreams, I thought of the time that was wasted, whether my friends would wait for me. I have no idea where he went or what he dreamt. But I never forgot the sight of my mother’s silhouette in the doorway, framed by the kitchen light that streamed around her and leaked into the front room.

When I was twenty-eight we moved him into the home. I helped and I stayed, but by then he was too far gone. He had withered and shrunk as it seems all old men must. His body’s shell all bumps and ridges like a walnut. I sat with him that first night instead of returning to my wife and young son. All he did was ask where he was and why he wasn’t home. He called my mother Greta, his wife’s name, far too many times and had entirely forgotten my name. But I stayed as long as I could.

In the years since, I rarely went back. Mom told me I should visit. “You were always his favorite of the grandkids, you know.” I argued with her and suggested that it couldn’t be. “Yes, you were. He always asked about you first.” But, I couldn’t go back, the man who lived in that home was not my grandfather and any chance I had to know him had long past.

He died last week. I only wish I had given myself the chance to know him.

© 2014 Mark Paxson