my grandfather is back in the hospital.

for two weeks, he was out. in a community care facility, a convalescent ward carved out of the old, cavernous, high-ceilinged Protestant hospital where i drew my first breaths.  decommissioned thirty years ago in the name of ecumenism, the place has been relegated to the old and the frail: we newly non-sectarian citizens gained a modern, Star Trek-style facility in the bargain. but i remember the old hospital from childhood, my grandmother and i trolling the rabbit-warren halls and narrow doorways with the Ladies Auxiliary snack cart, great workers for the cause. there is a big new plasma tv where the canteen used to be: i glance to that corner and see both, equally present, shadows competing.

he had a roommate named Chuck, a retired RCMP officer. they watched Jeopardy, and Chuck liked to pronounce on the failings of modern society. i snapped out answers on American lit before Alex Trebek had the questions out of his mouth, so Chuck approved of me, grudgingly. and my grandfather sat in his contraband LaZboy, shifting from side to side to ease his bedsores. he ate licorice, shared freely. Oscar liked to visit. Grandpa was walking to the common room for meals, getting speedy with his cane. they came very close to sending him home. we all held our breath, uncertain.

then, a week ago, a midnight run in an ambulance, back to the “new” thirty-year-old hospital, the one with actual nurses and meds and doctors. congestive heart failure again, and one arm swollen up like a football, red and hot and angry. cellulitis. antibiotics. catheter and IV and no appetite, once again. he lay in the bed, small and crooked, white waxy-ice feet poking out from the bottom of the sheet.

i asked. he nodded permission.

when you go back to the hospital, the pretense of being able to do it yourself drops away.  i picked up those waxy, frozen, narrow feet, the nails yellow as horn, and gently rubbed them, mindful of small sores and broken skin.

and just like that, we stepped beyond a veil that has separated us for nearly four decades, since i was last a bare-assed infant in his presence.

cream for his thin legs, his wide back, scabbed from skin degeneration. the arms, one big as Popeye’s.  my hands in his soft hair, only gone white these last few years, straight as a pin and cowlicked. i held his teeth in my hands and marvelled at the oddity of dentures, a whole generation plucked jaw-clean. for the first time in my life, i saw his face naked of glasses and teeth, and smiled to realize i still know him under all that i had not recognized as artifice.

he held himself with grace, accepting this breach, this intimacy.

the line around us all is invisible.  we construct it for our children as it was constructed for us, strengthening it with each step away from diapers. we make it sacrosanct and powerful, and if we do our jobs well it  holds their small but burgeoning bodies as we ourselves are held – unwitting within its iron boundary for decades. we pour energy and identity into protecting it, equating it with worth, making it a requisite of pride. we hide our waste, our blood, our wetnesses. this is what it means to be an adult.

we live in bodies and pretend they are private, machine-like. we prefer not to acknowledge we were ever cast from the Garden of Eden.

for most of us, only in childbirth, illness, old age, do we find ourselves naked and exposed in all our human vulnerability. if we are lucky, it is a fleeting thing. if we are not, we must shift, find a way to continue to live without the invisible garment of privacy protecting us.

to grow old and frail is to be stripped of the privilege of hiding from the unspeakable shame of…ourselves.

to be alongside someone facing their own decline is to be stripped of the comfort of that privacy. but also of the lie that independence is a necessary part of dignity.

that is the gift, if you can stay and not look away.
++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++

my grandfather is a WWII vet. when i was a little girl, his stories of the war were still under oath, still secreted away, parceled out only in small, screened nibbles. i knew he had been a spy, knew a little about places he’d been, though Yugoslavia or Tehran or San Francisco were no more real to me then than Disneyland, and less interesting. what i did like, and he shared freely, to the eternal tightlipped disapproval of my dourly beloved grandmother Hilda, was Colonel Bogey.

if you have ever seen A Bridge on the River Kwai, you’ve heard Colonel Bogey.

whistled, it’s a jaunty tune, a wartime march. it was written in 1914, and was a million-seller, but somewhere between the two wars it took on a whole other life as a jolly, vulgar insult ditty, in the vein of “I Don’t Know but I Been Told” and rugby songs of all stripes.

the version my grandfather taught me goes like this:

Hitler has only got one ball
Goerring has two balls but they’re small
Himmler has something similar
and Doctor Goebbels has no balls at all
(la da da da da….)

no one can say my childhood was not rich in history.

the other night at the hospital, after my grandfather’s skin was creamed and his feet covered, i realized that i had no clue how to lift him safely and properly back toward towards the upper middle of his fancy Craftmatic, which, when lowered, had unceremoniously slumped him down towards its own left foot. with the IV and the catheter and the oxygen tubes all protruding, and his arm swollen and tender, he wasn’t able to maneuver far on his own. i called the nurse.

she came in, prompt and kind, and pointed out to me the blue pad underneath him. she and i positioned ourselves on either side of the bed and tugged upward. he came easily. he is not heavy now.

his johnny shirt, caught under him below the pad, came easily too. a little too easily. and though my brain shrieked don’t look Bonnie!, just like a personal Ray Stevens novelty-track in the back of my mind, my eyes were not so quick.

there are things a granddaughter ain’t supposed to see, in this life. we all know it. i still saw. and he knew, and i knew he knew.

the nurse covered him swiftly, all business-like. she walked away. i smiled at him, swallowing my own embarrassment. i asked if he was comfortable.

he met my eyes, grave and present. i looked back at him and decided if he can live without the veil, so can i.

i’m good, dear, he said. thank you. then he paused, sized me up, made the joke he couldn’t resist. and nope, i’m no German.

he winked at me and began to whistle Colonel Bogey, his good hand dancing, conducting the march.