A Ghost In The House

My grandfather haunted the house even before he died - a ghost who broke his nose in his seventy-eighth year.

He looked his age. He was pale, large but frail, and had taken (quite unwittingly) to walking about the house slowly, with the beet-red lining of his mouth open to inspection. He looked like a lumbering, liver-spotted old fish, finning his way through the living room.

But he still had his wit. True, he did tend to repeat himself, often interrupting my grandmother and I while we watched T.V. Most of the time, I didn't mind, and tried to act as if I hadn't heard the story before. One time he asked me whether I thought he was senile or not. I said no, I don't think you're senile, but I do think you're a Casanova. Wanting to play, I'd ask my grandmother why she married Pa. Was it his good look? She rolled her eyes, saying "that blozart?" Blozart? What the hell is a "blozart," I laughed. It turns out that she was trying to call him a blow-hard, and for shadowy and mysterious phonological reasons, "blozart" is what came out. She was tough on him, but she loved him and - even as he began to fail in body and in spirit - she relied on him. She yells at him, calls him "simple" ("Oh, you're simple, Jack!") and (my personal favorite) "Cheektowaga Pete." Yet, she is devoted to him and fiercely protective.

I lied, just now, when I told you that my grandfather has died. He hasn't. My intention, however, was not to mislead you. It's just that I have sensed his death approaching, and in the vain hope that I possess - or am humanly able to possess - the means of bracing myself for his inevitable demise by hardening myself, I hope to let him die inch by inch. It's a form of murder, actually, and I suppose I should be ashamed. But in my heart, I love him enough to kill him. He wants it to end, you see, or so he leads us to believe, but falling out of love with life - enough to want to leave it - cannot be easy to do, even when your bones creak, your eyes have gone bad, and your bones are warped by arthritis.

But it has all gone wrong. In seeking to make myself hard, I have succeeded only in loving him more deeply. When he fell and broke his nose, I heard the awful thump from 2 floors down, and ran madly up the winding flight of steps that lead to the attic. Fearing the worst, I found him sitting upright on the dirty floor, shaken and still. The attic walls and floor were built of rough-hewn wood, and for a minute it felt as though I were looking into his casket.

I wish I could take my fist and crush the part of my brain that holds the memory of his pale, stupefied face, looking at me blankly. His eyes bugged out, big as elbows. I had never seen him look so old or so vulnerable. I somehow felt as if by being witness to his accident I had violated some deep, unspeakable privacy. This man, who I adored, and who, as far back as my memory would carry me, was the very physical embodiment of security, safety, warmth and protection, was now humbled by the indignity of being unable to lift himself off the ground.

I helped him up. His white t-shirt was dirty, and small flecks of wood and splinters clung to his clothes. I noticed a deep gash on the bridge of his nose, where the force of the fall had driven the frame of his glasses into his flesh. Slowly, we made our way downstairs to the kitchen. He didn't make a sound, but the silence was numbing. It was as if a cruel voice - one that I was utterly unable to silence - mercilessly taunted him with his own fears: "You senile fool! You're as weak as an old woman! You've lost it, Jack! You're failing! I've got your number! Why don't you just go away!"

All I could do was to try to stop the bleeding and run my hands through his thin, straw-like hair, and in the vain attempt to still the quiet of the room, I softy asked him "Are you OK? Are you OK?"

*

And so we held our breath, fearing the worst. But the old fish, the man who (as time would prove) was the glue that bound our family together, surprised us all. As if by some perverse reversal of the ordered and predictable understanding we had of him, the time that my grandfather spent in the South Buffalo Mercy Hospital Emergency Room, flanked by my aunt and I, he reasserted himself and emerged more alive than he had in months. I marveled: how can this be when the fish is out of water? It was as though the pain and humiliation were kicking him in the ass, saying, "Look sharp, old man!" Is this what it takes to get the old man out of the house? Maybe he was just nervous and scared.

It was almost funny, really. Just a few days earlier I had lost my patience with him. I had grown tired of what, in my youthful ignorance I saw as weakness of character. I was tired of the chronic complaints of aches and pains, his refusal to engage life at all, and what seemed to me to be his rolling over, belly up, and bearing his throat to death. And yet, as I sat in one of my college classes, I found my mind drifting, as it often did, towards home.

I was haunted by the grim movie that played uncontrollably in my mind: I would return from school. The air would feel unnaturally heavy, and there would be an alarming number of cars parked along the side of the house. When I came to the front door I would find would be a note, scribbled in my mother's handwriting, telling me that one of my grandparents had been taken to the hospital. But I would know what they were waiting to tell me to my face that one of them had died while I was at school.

It's not perversity, or at least it's not intended to be, but I would indulge these grim daydream as a reminder that I had damned well better be kinder to them: especially Pa. I would solemnly vow to show him more understanding and to show him, in ways that he would understand, just how much he meant to me. Being young, I would step onto the bus that would take me home full of good intentions and love for my grandparents. I would do the right thing. But being young, I would invariably find myself distracted by beautiful women I would wistfully admire as the bus drove past, or I would find myself lured away by the seductive voice of my muse, or I would lose myself in a book. And somewhere during that long ride, I would forget my resolve.

Sure enough, one day I returned to see my grandfather break his nose and batter his face. Some joke, huh?

*

It is with resignation that I see, a mere three weeks after the accident, that my grandfather has plopped back into his wet, fishy world. Only now, he hesitates to even swim. Oh, to be sure, he always has his blue-felt slippers on. I have seen the stitched fleur-de-lis shining up jauntily from the slipper tops, but it's all for show. He sits. And he sits. Or sometimes he gives us all a start by turning too fast on the steps, causing us all to steel our muscles, ready to act, in case he falls again. But he doesn't. He just laughs.

I suppose that I haven't done all that I could do. I've failed him, and I know it. No one needs to tell me. I know that it has been far too long since the two of us sat across the table from each other, pleasantly registering the warm sounds of my grandmother dozing in font of "her programs" on the T.V.

It's late. Pa and I are alone. I watch him butter toast and I remember. So many good memories: Big hands peeling apples for me as a child. My grandfather looking down at me, speaking the language of children. "Pick a hand," he would say, and when I would reach up and tap one of those big hands, he would open it and I would find a cookie. His gift to me was a glimpse of the short arc of my life: where I had been, where I was, and where I would one day be.

If I catch him in the right mood, we have some wonderful talks about Ireland, his mother (who spoke Gaelic and died when I was 2), and tall tales of his wild youth in Buffalo's old First Ward. I would walk away heartened by how cogent, entertaining and charming he could still be. Sleep was especially sweet, those nights. But this is happens less and less. He is "on" less frequently, and he seems to draw further and further into himself. Even when he does talk, I can't seem to get past his discourses on the history of and ever-expanding list of aches, pains, medications, pills, and doctor bills.

If you listen closely, he is saying, "I'm tired, Danny. Just plain tired." But I know he's in there. Somewhere. It's just that he comes out so rarely that I fear I will lose him. Can he really be that tired? Should I blame the drugs that they pump into him? Is it wisdom to know when your time has finally come? Maybe you have to be seventy-eight to know...

*

I wonder: what is he doing now? I sit hunched over a keyboard, writing and stirring up things and setting wheels into motions. I am wrestling with things that I know, even if were to live ten lifetimes, I will never be able to resolve or understand.

So yes, I am ashamed. I am indulging myself. Growing fat with self-reflection and introspection. I should be upstairs with Nan and Pa. And while I am there, I should breathe deeply - so deeply that my lungs ache. For, nothing is permanent, and one day they will both be gone. So what if I hear him tell me why he can't walk halfway down the block without finding himself heading back home? And why, in the name of all that I love, should I not allow him to dwell on the collapse of his body? It's still my Pa. His voice, at least, has not changed.

...Old age is such a vicious, jealous, rotten bastard...

Copyright © 1991 Daniel J.S. Lewis. All rights reserved.

Copyright © 2003 danieljslewis.com. All Rights Reserved.