What I Make Immortal
by Kyle Lee
The thing about Alzheimer’s is that it only leaves the memory of a person, even as they sit before you. There are glimpses of how things used to be, but those moments are fleeting and all the more painful because you’re made to remember all the good times when your loved one existed fully as themselves and not as a physical shell.
As a writer, I can make my characters immortal.
But not my grandfather.
By the time some of us realized there was a problem, he had already been slipping for a while. He said little at family gatherings. We didn’t think much of it since, like most of the men in our family, he was the quiet type. I realize now how much his engagement gradually decreased with time, and I realize how my own engagement waned during those years. Remembrance of that only added to my regret. His disease was a slow process that killed us all on the inside. I can only imagine how it affected him. He never spoke of it, at least not to me, and he always put on the stone face I remembered. Perhaps, it was the face I wanted to remember.
My grandfather could be described in a few words: stoic, put together, ready. To everyone, he lived as the foundation on which our family was built. In the last decade or so, despite his Alzheimer’s, that legacy remained through his children and as we all hope, it will through their children.
I came to realize though, that this was the curse of the grandchild. The generation that follows the next never knows their predecessors in their prime. Grandchildren cling to their grandfathers and grandmothers as children, but come adolescence, stupidity and delusions of ruling the world replace innocence.
Once, we were invincible.
Then comes the realization that it’s all too late. Grandchildren never realize they should have asked more. The important facets of family history have to come second hand, sometimes third or fourth. I can try and write all those tidbits of ancestry now, but I’m left to remember how many I’ll never know.
My grandparents lived far into the country, a good two and a half hour drive from Dallas. They had not abandoned humanity by any means, but the centers of civilization they claimed remained far removed from mine. Their farm, the family’s farm, remained a long drive even from any town or city of the region. Isolated from us, we worried.
One day, my grandfather hadn’t come home at his usual time. His daily chores entailed long hours, feeding cows, tending crops and maintaining the land as he had done for decades. But, he was consistent in when he would come home. My grandmother called the neighbors, which for her, all lived miles away. She asked if they had seen him and as none could answer they did, it didn’t take long for the group of them to start a search. They found him out in one of the family pastures, fallen over, dehydrated and delirious. He didn’t know where he was or what he had been doing to get there. That was the moment the family fully understood how bad things had become. We had to accept that it wasn’t getting better. The difficult decision to remove them from the farm, the very earth they had lived upon for so long, forced itself to be made.
My grandfather cried when we had to sell all his cattle.
My grandfather never said a lot. When he did, it was short, to the point and often filled with laughter. Except for one time, I never saw him mad. I was young and loved riding in the back of the truck with the square hay bales he’d take out to feed the cattle. I convinced him to let me ride in the back of the truck that one day. He agreed as long as I remained sitting down. Overjoyed, I rode. He wasn’t going all that fast, but it felt like I was blazing down that country road. But in my excitement, I stood for a moment to see into a passing field. The truck came to a stop and he told me to get up front. I didn’t have to hear the tone of his voice to know what it meant.
I understood his anger wasn’t at me. This clearly was more a fear for my safety. And you should also understand that this was years before Texas started to regulate riding in the truck bed with laws, statutes and enforcement. I could never remember the specifics of what was and was not allowed, but that’s how memory works sometimes.
I sat up front quietly, not upset I didn’t get to ride in the back of the truck anymore. Rather, I was upset that I upset him. This was my grandfather in a nutshell.
You didn’t upset him, out of fear of disappointing him.
Most of my memories center around the farm, whether it was riding in the tractor, throwing out hay and feed to the cows, or checking on the neighbors whose land my grandfather managed. Every time I visited, I’d ask him to wake me extra early so I could go out to do the chores with him. My grandmother made us sandwiches, sometimes with pimento cheese, sometimes with ham, and we’d be off. Always it was the same circuit, pasture after pasture, old farmhouse after old farmhouse. Thinking about it now, those were the years when he must have looked at those decrepit wooden homes and think about the ghosts of farm’s past. The family farm once stood near a thriving community. All that he had remembered about that time passed on into history, never to be written down. Now, not even the ghosts remember how it used to be.
The farm wasn’t always about cattle and tractors. I remember the layout of the house well. I remember the artifacts that probably had more meaning to me than anyone else: the gumball machine and the penny jar and the concrete turtle.
Oh, how I loved playing Smokey, Bandit and the Concrete Turtle.
Every child in the 80’s seemed to have that vehicle from a television show or movie that was theirs. Mine happened to be Burt Reynolds’ black Pontiac Trans Am. Every toy I wanted or owned seemed to be some variation of that glorious Firebird. I don’t recall if my grandfather noticed the consistency but he noticed the stories I spoke aloud to myself.
“Who’s chasing who?” he asked from his recliner.
So, I answered, going on at length about wherever my imagination ran at that moment and every moment after. He never said anything except to ask the occasional question but he sat there in his blue recliner, watched and listened. Bandit went on a run from Texas to Georgia. Smokey chased Bandit and it all took place around that concrete turtle.
It’s an old turtle shell, older than my father and even my aunt I’m told. Just like all the old farmers used to do, my grandfather made something, anything and everything out of whatever was laying around. A turtle came up from the Red River, way too far, and fell to a trap in the barn. So my grandfather took that old turtle shell, filed it with concreate and turned it into a doorstop.
To me, it’s an artifact.
To Smokey and the Bandit, it was a landmark.
The concrete turtle loomed as a landmark in all stories for those imaginary characters my grandfather learned about. I know that my grandfather could never see into my imagination and he didn’t often ask questions as he heard me play on and on. But he realized it before I did there was one character I went back to over and over. He drove the truck that Bandit distracted for. He didn’t have a name then but eventually I graced him with something to call him by.
I don’t remember my grandfather telling his own stories. He always listened to them, mine and others. I don’t know what sort of imagination he had and I couldn’t tell you if he ever created his own Randall Osbourne. I did start to wonder if my grandfather was the Osbourne in other people’s stories at one point.
There was a time when I was around eight years old that we drove into Henrietta, the closet town to the farm, to run errands and visit one of his friends. I think the old farmer had a good ten to twenty years on my grandfather. Despite my grandfather’s relative youth, this man treated my grandfather like a wise elder who gifted him with a visit.
A brown recluse took a bite out of the old farmer’s leg, landing him in the hospital for a few weeks. My grandfather had visited him there but made a point to visit again at the farmer’s home. My grandfather listened with humility and put people at ease even though he barely said a word. A few minutes of addressing the recluse in the room gave way to a longer conversation about the farmer’s family and how things were going. My grandfather let the farmer do the majority of the talking, including old stories about things my grandfather had done.
It was other people who told my grandfather’s stories, stories that I hope to have the time to write down. Other people told of his serving on the school board, the power co-op board or as town elder. Other people told the story of his service during World War II, his entry into Europe through Omaha Beach the day after D-Day and driving a Jeep under the Eifel Tower. The man who listened to my stories was a certifiable urban legend in the community.
I heard these stores more than a few times and always my imagination created an internal movie. Over time, I added names and faces to the people who I assumed and imagined to be at my grandfather’s side. So it became Randall Osbourne who served on the schoolboard under the tutelage of my grandfather. It was Randall Osbourne swapping stories at the feed store with him. Osbourne watched out for my grandfather at Omaha Beach and vice versa. It was Osbourne egging my grandfather on as they drove the streets of Paris. I imagined my grandfather a hero and it seemed only fitting to imagine him a sidekick.
Randall Osbourne made it into his own adventures before long, fighting in wars, solving crimes, even becoming the wrestling heavyweight champion of the world multiple times over. I hadn’t thought about it all till recently but storytelling and writing was a calling I hadn’t heard in my youth, even if it blasted at high volumes. I would have loved to have one more conversation with my grandfather about that calling. I wish I could have written everything he had to say down. But the Alzheimer’s made him a shadow. I think he recognized me most times, even if he couldn’t recall my name. This could just have easily been my denial. He thought his own son was his brother and he rarely recognized his wife of over sixty years. We all hoped for those good days, even though the futility never faded.
As a writer, I could make my characters like Randall Osbourne immortal.
But not my grandfather.
I think he knew my calling before I did and I could never ask how he knew.
One thing that was always a highlight of our visits to the farm was a family ceremony we called “orange time.” It wasn’t just me who celebrated but also my brother and our cousins. The tradition began with my father and his sister when they were young. My grandfather would sit in his recliner in the living room, lay out a paper towel in his lap and peel the largest orange he could find in the refrigerator.
We’d all sit around him, waiting patiently at his feet as he pulled off the orange skin. Some were tougher than others but he’d always made sure those annoying white strings attached to the peel were all gone. He’d hand the pieces out one by one to his grandchildren. We’d sit there in silence and eat.
Oranges now represent my most vivid of memories.
I own particularly vivid images of his last day. I was wrapping things up at work and on my way out the door. My phone rang, the call from my brother. He told me our grandfather wasn’t going to last much longer. There had been nights filled with possible last moments but this one was different. Within the hour, I was at his hospital bedside, joining my parents and grandmother.
His breathing grew more and more labored as we watched and that fear sank in. There could be no denying that soon he would be gone, even if our selfish desires wanted the body to live though the spirit and mind had departed decades ago.
As more of his family gathered, the nurses of the hospital rolled in a cart of snacks and beverages.
“Things like this come so suddenly,” the nurse whose name I regretfully never learned began, “that family forgets simple things like eating.”
I appreciated the gesture but given the moment nothing seemed particularly appealing.
But there was an orange.
It took it, peeled it and handed a piece to my father who shared his own amount of orange time with his father.
Late in the five o’clock hour, my father whispered to my grandfather that his family was there and that it was alright to go. Moments later, my grandfather passed about as peacefully as anyone could hope.
No one likes to cope. No one likes to lose control. In grief, the rawest of emotions come free, despite anger or denial or any other feeling. I tried to maintain composure in hopes of being the stoic man my grandfather was and my father is. The struggle came with how to process my grief. Either I let it destroy me or make it something positive, something that would honor the memory of the man I had lost. Fight it as I did, I cried.
I tried to tell stories, share my thoughts with my wife but the words weren’t ready. Still, I needed to process it all, even if speech failed me. So I wrote. When I could gather myself, I wrote about my grandfather’s final moments.
I wrote about my memories of gathering for oranges.
I wrote about the phone call.
I wrote about the assembling of family at the hospital.
I wrote about the nurses and the cart of food.
I wrote about the final sharing of fruit before the final goodbye.
Everything written there was written here.
Not everyone knew my grandfather but they should have. In that moment more than any other, I felt determined that anyone who didn’t know him lost out on a wonderful experience. The world we live in has given us the technology to share our thoughts, dreams and loves. I took to the internet and posted my words, my grief, my remembrance.
Through words, I made immortality.
Kyle Brandon Lee is a Texas born writer of poetry, prose and plays. He's published at Mirror Dance, Furtive Dalliance and Soft Cartel. If someday they open an old and dusty tome made of pecan bark and armadillo hide, perhaps they'll find his work within. Hopefully, it will be plentiful. He can be found at his website www.hillsdreaming.com or on twitter @Kyle_B_Lee.