Tue 8 Jul 2008
he called Sunday night, said he wanted to check on how i’m doing with the ongoing bedrest saga. you’re just jealous, i said, of me getting to do all this laying around.
no no, he laughed, i’ve got enough of that going on myself. it’s terrible.
it’s supposed to be nice tomorrow, i said. i think i’m in good enough shape to drive the whole fifteen minutes outside town. you want to lay around together?
and he responded with something Child Protection Services would not approve of a grandfather saying to his granddaughter, and we both laughed and winked on our respective ends of the phone line, this arch repartée as old for us as the dirty jokes he’s dragged out and dusted off for every family dinner since my grandmother died and left him a second childhood.
that was how i came to sunburn my legs yesterday afternoon, reclined on the porch of my grandfather’s old plywood cottage on the shore just opposite the finest homes this city has to offer. even the old tumbledown cottages over on our side of the river are sprucing up, despite the fact that the land is rented in perpetuity and no one will ever be permitted to buy…two new facades have sprung up where there were once weeds and rot and paint jobs older than i am. the cottage next door has been a peeling-yet-bright minty green for as long as i can remember. yesterday, suddenly, it was faced in subtle brick-red siding, tastefully trimmed, gutted, a new deck gracing the view over the cliff.
my grandfather and i leaned back in our respective lawnchairs like two old coots. we gossiped, talked of our aches and pains, wondered at the state of the world and a few of my relatives. we watched a duck dive for fish, and marvelled at how far they swim underwater. he smoked his cigar, most courteously, with his right hand so as to keep the fumes out from under my nose.
he’s eighty-eight. he fell this spring and tore the muscles down his back and they’re not healing. he still goes into work every morning, at the autobody shop, still works a bit on ambulances and grants inspection stickers, but mostly i think he oversees or just sits, because work is somewhere to be. i come by my Really Useful Engine propensities naturally.
by noon, these days, he cuts out and heads home or to the cottage, because the pain is too much. that he’ll admit it, too much, so frankly and without pity sets off a panicky fluttering in my gut. i have a sneaking suspicion that his “too much” would be my “kill me now.” but painkillers wreck his appetite and he’s already lost twenty pounds, and so he sits on the florid vinyl lawnchair pillow with an icepack stuffed into the back of his flappy pants and nurses a rum for a few hours and watches the water to see if it calms.
any other year, he’d have hoisted the inflatable dinghy over his head already and made his way down the twenty feet of stairs that cling to the red mud bank, his white chicken legs comical, and rowed out to the small power boat that’s moored just where the high tide floats the motor. and like the Pied Piper, his appearance would have caused children to materialize around the raft, clamouring to waterski and kneeboard, and the afternoon would have been spent zooming across the water in ever-patient arcs, the second and third generation of skiiers and boarders he’s taught to lift themselves out of the water and balance and spin and spray all trailing behind him.
but this year, only one kid came around, just to see if he needed to be rowed out to the boat, if he was planning on skiing. i smiled at the kid, just growing now into his man’s body, still gangly and awkward. i remember holding the same boy steady on the kneeboard when he was all of five or six, a wild little towhead who forgot to let go when he fell off and might’ve been scared silly except my grandfather took most of the rest of the afternoon to make sure he got a proper ride and wasn’t left fearful. he’s a bit of a sour kid, or has been the odd times i’ve caught sight of him in the intervening decade. but yesterday he was polite and considerate and i beamed at him, full of gratitude at his offer, his remembrance.
they did not go out on the water, though. my grandfather’d had his rum and the wind was up a bit. maybe tomorrow, he said. and i realized, with a start, that even if they do ski tomorrow i cannot. he taught me when i was eight, and i have skiied behind him almost thirty summers. but not this year…if my doc does not approve of walking, no waterskiing probably goes without saying. as does the maybe never again.
i pretended there was cigar smoke in my eyes.
and then we sat there in the breeze and kept each other company, a matched set of shut-ins parked in the sun, enjoying the afternoon in spite of ourselves. and i have not felt either so useful nor so understood in months.