Monday, September 17, 2012

The Promise I Made as a Boy

I got to head down to Tennessee this weekend to celebrate my Grandaddy's ninetieth birthday (he actually turns 90 on Wednesday, but we celebrated early).  I've written before about my relationship with him and how much I really want to spend as much time as I can with him from now on out.  Needless to say, it was pretty great getting to celebrate his very long life with him again... even if it was a little bittersweet due to the loss of my Granny in late July.

After we celebrated Grandaddy's party at McEwen's "Stagecoach" restaurant we drove up the road to Erin, TN where we visited my (great) Uncle Howard Patterson in the nursing home to celebrate his ninetieth birthday as well.  Uncle Howard is my Granny's brother, and he has always been my favorite uncle because he's long had such a gigantic personality.  He has always been so loud and unpredictable in his remarks, surprisingly funny, but always kind and charming.  He killed hogs and raised beagles.  I think he's the quintessential small-town Tennessean.  In recent years, however, he's had more than his fair-share of health difficulties.  He has long since lost the ability to care for himself and is now confined to a wheelchair.  He has very few memories left, and cannot recall names and faces of close friends and family that he's known for decades.  Fortunately, however, God has still left him with his loud, unpredictable, joyful, cut-up personality.  As my dad likes to say, "He doesn't have his memory, but he's still Uncle Howard."

Uncle Howard, aka "Water Dog"
It was nice to be able to get the (aging) family together to celebrate with cake and presents with him.  But I must confess that simply being in that nursing home both saddened me and scared me.  All through the hallways and the bingo hall, elderly and disabled folks rolled around in their motorized wheelchairs.  A sweet but bewildered older woman rolled up to our party area and wanted to know if her glasses had arrived yet.  The bathrooms could only be entered with a very precise key code.  No one could enter or exit the building unless the attendant first unlocked the door.  The whole time we were there, a haunting rendition of Sonny and Cher's "I Got You Babe" looped endlessly on the single stanza: "I got you to hold my hand, I got you to understand" out of one of the rooms; I couldn't help but recognize the cruel and eery irony in that.

I have respect for anyone who chooses to work and serve in a nursing home for the love of the people.  And I know that Uncle Howard is often visited by family, but I wondered just how many of those other folks had family or friends to come see them often... if at all. 

Years ago, when I was very young and probably still in middle school, Mom made me promise that if something tragic every happened to her and Dad, that I would do everything I could to make sure that Granny and Grandaddy never ended up in a nursing home.  It was a terrifying notion for a kid as young as myself to even fathom.  But this weekend, I understood why my Mom was so insistent that I make her that promise.  I've always felt that somehow my grandparents were uniquely my responsibility to protect and care for.  Even when I went off to college and seminary, I returned home during the summers and spent most of my time over at their house, mostly relaxing and goofing off, but also being ready to do whatever they asked of me.  They raised me almost as much as my parents did, and spending time with them in their last years was the very least that I could do. 

In the end, Mom was the one who really made the sacrifice to care for Granny in her last days.  Throughout all the months that Granny resided in hospitals, rehab centers, and hospices, I don't think Mom ever went home to sleep in her own bed except for very rare occasions.  Granny ultimately died in her own home, not fully conscious of the fact that she was surrounded by family, but she nonetheless died quietly and (so I am told) with a smile on her face. 

Even though God didn't call me to make that particular sacrifice, I still feel responsible for Grandaddy.  He was the first one I visited when I drove in from Louisville.  I had planned to eat with him, and then head back home to Camden.  But Grandaddy said he'd rather me stay with him instead.  I had no regrets honoring that request.  It was my birthday present to him; one that I'll try to repackage as much as I possibly can.
May 2005
May 2012

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