Autumn where I live in Alaska comes early and summer where my grandfather is dying in the midwest stays late. The dark air of the morning is cold on my neck when I walk away from my dog, my work, and the hills’ turning colors. I leave these in favor of an airplane idling on a paved corner of the valley below.
In the minutes before takeoff the land grows streaked with stretched shadows of spruce trees. It is that first light of morning, light that shoots from the horizon along the flat earth like a stone skipping on water. Numbing my forehead against the window of row nineteen, I watch this light. The flatness of the valley leaves space for dawn’s momentum.
Some drop hefty obligations midstride to board airplanes like this one but the truth is my dog doesn’t really need me. My work doesn’t either. Still, I am hopeful that the forest’s leaves will cease their turning when I leave, that without me the world will lose its purchase on autumn. I imagine my absence being dire to the birch trees, that their shift toward nakedness depends on my view of them from the porch. Leaves are always tumbling in feather pillow bursts these days. It is my practice to sit with the dog while leaves alight first here, then there. We watch the pockets of yellow flurries breathe like so many autumnal snowglobes, and I don’t know about the dog but I am always willing myself into that globe, carol book in hand. Do those soft blizzards continue to swirl in globes without carolers?
You know, there are green pools sitting high in the mountains. There is snow all around them and they flame in the sun. Some of the highest mountains on earth bellow in the distance between the place where I live and the place where my grandfather is dying. But airplanes fly over them every day, at all hours.
I am on one such plane, watching the North American continent pass below. There is a lot of snow, and later on, there isn’t any more. South.
What my grandfather does and does not understand becomes tangible with the shifting landscape: midday over the continent the mountains smooth to plains. Roads multiply, compartmentalize. I remember when he stopped understanding that I do not play music any more, that I’ve nestled in with tidelands and forests rather than chamber ensembles. My grandfather is not senile. But he is urban, from the generation that invented diet soft drinks, Barbie, and the hydrogen bomb. There is a prim decency to this land’s patchwork and what does not make sense within it does not make sense to my grandfather.
When my grandfather stopped understanding that I listen but no longer play, I started lying about it. It’s okay. Now if I tell him something about a Brahms sonata — and he knows when I mean the one in F minor for clarinet — he probably understands something of the isolation and clarity and exhilaration I have in mind. Even if they come from the edge of a subarctic sea somewhere, I may well have learned them first from Brahms. I don’t know. So I’ll mention the sonata and my career-oriented midwestern urban grandpa will nod, eyes closed, accessing what he can of puffins on barnacled rocks at precisely the pace that they begin to elude me.
The continent passes below and all day I watch the distance. It occurs to me that if I have traded music for space early on then he has done the opposite, and it also occurs to me that it is too facile a progression by which to chart this life, either mine or his.
Eventually the front exit of the airplane opens under orange outdoor lights and runway blinkers. The seatbelt signal has yet to ding but already steamed air hits. It hits hard, like a wet throw rug. It is night on the shores of Lake Michigan, ninety degrees, and my grandfather doesn’t need me any more than autumn did.
This essay is the latest installment in my asking my grandfather to die. I have been asking as much for ten years.
Two memories: first, the pinecone I bring him from Madera Canyon that I hand him in his chair and which he sets down on the table next to his chair and which stays there on that table next to the chair. This chair is where he sits and that table is where he sets things. Once a year I come to him at his snowbird home in the Sonoran Desert and sit on the floor before him, shouting into his deafness and petting his little knees when he falls asleep sitting. The years pass. He is always here in this chair when I come to him, sheltered from the sun or the wind or the heat or the cold or whatever it is about the desert that ought to stay outside. Books on America’s founding fathers move on and off the table by this chair where he sits, cycling in and out around the pinecone. The chair is leather, dark red.
And this one: the year he gives me his clarinet, saying that my tone is better than his, that his hands shake too much, that he won’t play it any more. He clicks open the case on the guest room bed. Whether conscious of it or not, we inhale the minty smell of cork grease just once, but deeply, before handling the instrument. Then we scrutinize the sections one at a time, letting the desert light slant beneath each keypad and tapping the keys to test their tiny springs, noting the adjustments I must ask for at the shop.
The day he passes his instrument on to me, he draws a clear line between mortality and immortality. Music will continue. He will not. I don’t want to take his clarinet, I don’t want to learn the feel of a different instrument, and I don’t want ghosts to trouble my own playing. But the symbolism of his gift restores my hope: he is carving out a crescent of space between him and his life. He was never sent to fight the war he wanted to fight and has been unhappy with the life he took up since. A widening distance between him and this life of his — this is what I want for him. I want a buoyancy to find him as he draws nearer to death; I want his white-knuckled grip on the world to loosen.
I find a promise of freshness on this day, a shedding, an exfoliating, a preparation for the journey. But it will still be another seven or eight plodding years until he starts to die, and even then, it will just be a start.
The stairs are rigged with alarms. I take the elevator. Black ladies lounging around in their busily patterned scrubs greet me with stunning accents on the fourth floor of the building in which my grandfather is supposed to die. We know who you are!, they sing out to me. We know who you are, he’s waiting for you, he said you were coming! No one stands up; they just point. Everyone is awash in grins and sweat from the humid night. Right down there, end of the hall honey, mm-hm!
Four days ago I insisted that the telephone be handed to my grandfather. Four days ago I insisted on trying to talk with him. Four days ago the nurse insisted that due to his deafness he could not use a telephone but propped it into his pillow anyway. Four days ago his little brittle voice fell through the phone lines and satellite dishes into my sodden heart: Is it you? I shouted that it was. Then I shouted to him that I was coming to him and he said What and I told him again I was coming to him and he said I can’t hear so well anymore. He said I miss you. That was where I slipped. He asked if I could come to him and my sodden heart fell out of my chest into the dirt at my feet and I shouted Yes—just one word for him to try to make out, uncluttered with other syllables, one word, I shouted to him Yes and his little voice croaked What? He said I can’t hear so well anymore. The air moved, a flurry of golden leaves lifted off the birch branches, and I shouted something else, a last resort, the three words of final necessity. He said What and my tears were hot and got in the way of my voice and I kicked my stupid sodden heart laying there in the dirt and shouted again into the telephone while leaves papered the ground. Then, I love you, too, he answered.
I walk everywhere here. The sidewalks are lined on both sides by identical bars of clipped grass and huge, evenly spaced deciduous trees whose leaves won’t turn as the birches’ at home for perhaps another month or two. I walk everywhere sort of hating it and sort of in awe. Some large churches and homes are made of brick, not logs, and they are not flanked by mounds of homesteading or construction junk; instead, ivy climbs certain walls with a civilized, intellectual cachet. Where do such people stack their old tires?
As I walk from my grandfather’s house where he isn’t to the care facility where he is, I yank flowers out of people’s flowerbeds. The goal: a sweaty fistful of stems. A bouquet. I yank people’s flowers up and follow young professionals down impeccably landscaped suburban sidewalks. Off to work. The men are very clean shaven and their bottoms are flat. Fresh newspapers protrude from shoulderbags; this generation has forsaken the briefcase. Elderly women in nightgowns stand on front lawns in their slippers holding the leashes of lapdogs more elderly than they. When their backs are turned I yank their flowers, which I will put into glasses of water, and line up neatly for use as a barricade against the blank black screen of the television sitting before my grandfather’s bed in the room on the fourth floor of the building in which he is supposed to die. I walk everywhere here where it is too hot and humid for young professionals to wear suitcoats. I walk with yanked flowers thinking of the room on the fourth floor, stepping aside as a grandmother in curlers stoops to pick up the dropped end of her pug’s leash.
He lets me read to him and he joins in at moments because he knows these words inside out and later his eyes close and I keep reading and later still his eyes open and I hear the melody of my performance and for a while, he does again too. He smiles at all the moments in which he has always smiled, and when it is finished he says to me There is a genius in that writing.
He is right. We are reading The House at Pooh Corner.
Who is E.H. Shepherd, he prompts. It is not a question.
I could cry. But I swallow that thing I call my sodden heart and hold to our script. He did the decorations, I answer.
We have many such choreographed conversations and exchanges. It is a patterned sparring, with space for improvisation but always fixing us on common ground. Members of my family meet up with verbal repetition, with established stories.
Decorations by E.H. Shepherd. The recognition creases my grandfather’s face and pulls the thread from the seam of me. Already it is gone, but I witnessed his half instant of relaxation. His brush with peace.
Sometimes ritual means, what we have always done is what is dearest.
It is important that we do what we have always done.
Un-hinged. Dis-tracted. Be-wildered. This hot morning, yanked flowers in hand, getting lost on Maple Street which turns where it oughtn’t, the hot wind blowing in my yellow dress, playing my skirt more vigorously than is strictly decent, how strongly compelled I feel to keep smoothing it down despite having my hands full of flowers, and finally resolving just to trust the yellow dress to be clothing and to clothe me, seeing as that I can’t manage the flowers properly and mind my modesty and the former being so much more dear. I will arrive on the fourth floor flustered, and change into pants. Humid heat be damned.
No one visits him on the shores of Lake Michigan in the summer when they could visit him in the Sonoran Desert during the winter, but now he will not be returning to the desert. I have seen him in the Sonoran Desert nine years in a row, the most recent ones ringing with the sound of the bassoon, stereo turned to full volume out of objection to his encroaching deafness. In the end, after seventy-odd years of clarinet playing, my grandfather was spellbound by quintets and concertos that featured a more droning sound, a more viscous timbre, edges almost imperceptibly dulled next to the crispness of his own instrument. I would marvel at the utterly un-Alaskan ocotillo and barrel cactus through the window, my grandfather would drift in and out of his catnaps, and we would pepper the seconds of silence between blasting bassoon pieces with murmurs of musical commentary.
But I did not go to the Sonoran Desert last year and now I have had to come to him on the shores of Lake Michigan. There are no roadrunners here. No shrieking quail or sandcolored bunnies. Just as many tanned men in white visors, though.
Having avoided the midwest since my childhood, I have only fractured memories of this place near the lake. His house. The music stand, listening to him play clarinet in the basement, my urge to crawl into his lap while he played, the Barbie clothes my grandmother sewed. The sting in my spirit when he didn’t want me in his lap near the clarinet. Is the sewing machine memory from the basement, too? Now that I’m here, the sewing room is obviously upstairs. I remember the music was surprisingly loud and clear. I had never, never seen myself as a hindrance, an encumbrance, an annoyance, until just then in the basement when he shrugged me away from his lap. My own redundancy was a sudden piece of self-knowledge that came with the same clarity and volume of his performance. Turning slowly on the carpet, trying to steady the placement of that day in my mind, I can’t get the memory of those handmade barbie clothes out of the basement. But I also can’t separate them from the sewing machine.
My grandfather stares at the menu dropped into his hands. He reads it, I think. There are always two choices here: two choices for a starter. Two choices for an entrée. Two choices for dessert. The choices are printed up on a hard-back orange-trimmed menu every day of the week.
Marmite, he finally says, excruciating American accent unveiled. Marmite. What is that.
He may be joking. Hard to tell. Poker-faced bilingual humor is common currency with us, but he’s not exactly at the top of his game.
Either way it’s my turn, so, Marmite! Uh—pot, soup pot! Cauldron, throw it in and stir it up. Like witches, les sorcières autours de la marmite, you know? I keep making cupping motions with my hands, hoping he’ll wink or something.
No recognition. He doesn’t speak French anyway. I do. The game is that he prompts me and then takes pride in my fluency, but today he looks blank. What is marmite, he says again.
A nurse overhears and interjects. She explains that it is like a soup pot. He understands it better from her.
The last year I make a pilgrimage to my grandfather in the Sonoran Desert he is sitting on the metallic mesh of an outdoor chair. We occupy one end of a banquet-inspired picnic table in a tent filled with patio furniture. The space is busy but slow, thick with the seared smell of burgers. Noise echoes too jovially for my grandfather to hear through it. He cannot participate. He labors over each bite of hamburger anyway.
Then someone in a crowded group adjacent to us rises and plucks an empty chair from the unoccupied, far end of our table. He turns it a simple one hundred eighty degrees, from our table to his, perhaps making space for another of his brood to join in the banter.
A self-righteous, chauvinistic sense of decorum takes its loathsome place in my grandfather’s expression. He wipes his wooden mouth. He grasps the metal arms of his chair and manages to rise from his seat. The skin of his hands is only a residual sheen on those white knuckles. It takes an eternity for him to shuffle down the length of the table but an eternity passes and he takes back the chair. The effort astounds. He can barely walk, hasn’t the vigor to converse, but sheer will coupled with the malevolent strength of his grip on the chair suffices for the task.
It is lucky that he is too weak to address the group, lucky he hasn’t the force to spit his damning words and gestures. He shuffles the ten-mile stretch back to his seat, plunks down, and exhales.
Part of growing up in this family means learning to apologize for my grandfather’s behavior. Part of growing up means rising from the table to follow this evening’s shaking waitress. Part of growing up means learning to express a respectful sympathy to the visitor my grandfather has just driven into a state of hiccoughing sobs. And so, flushed not from the Sonoran Desert sun but from humiliation, I move to apologize. My brow is wadded like a discarded tissue and I open my mouth but the man who had taken the chair is already interrupting me, already laughing off my grandfather’s behavior, already ushering me back toward my own burger, already off to find a different chair for his growing circle.
My spirit is limp. My disbelief, palpable. Someone has interpreted my grandfather’s behavior as senility. Finally. He is so frail that someone waved him off as batty.
While I know my grandfather was sincerely hostile, for he always has been, the unknown man’s utterly misguided understanding breaks a dam in me. Such is the force of relief. Through it, I catch sight of the fragility nesting in my grandfather.
My clearest memories involving my grandfather are ones like this, ones in which I am overtaken with relief. The surge strips me to my rawest; in these moments I realize the extent of my clenching, my bracing against the condescension, the disdain, the isolation, the grief, the pity.
On the fourth floor I am rooting around for water glasses, smiling broadly to the nurses who direct me to the cafeteria, putting clumps of flowers into three glasses of water and then setting them one by one on the shelf in front of the television screen and him saying again and again Beautiful flowers while he is dressed.
I am fussing over the flowers listing in water glasses and the nurse is fussing over her patient who is distracted by the flowers. She is pretending I am not there and I am pretending the same of her, but it is not out of antagonism. A tall Liberian woman dressing my grandfather gently and surely, like a doll: this is not real. She knows.
Then, when she is ready to leave us: Would you like your shoes on, Mr. Cook.
Yes, he says.
A pause while she loosens the laces. Then he points at one set of toes. That one goes on this foot, he tells her.
And the nurse laughs, she actually laughs. This frail old man so slow to die in the heat of summer on the shores of Lake Michigan makes the nurse guffaw.
She places the shoes on feet that no longer walk and ties white bows.
Would you like to lay down or stay sitting, Mr. Cook?
I’m good at laying down.
It is my work to radiate. It is my work to radiate, and it is his work to know that a few flowers tilting in glasses of water are beautiful. He is doing his work better than I am doing mine.
His hand on his forehead, a difficult frowning: I wish he would sleep. He persists in frowning, one shaky hand cupping his forehead, eyes fixed on something that is not in this room. I try to read while his hand shakes through its grip on his forehead but can’t and finally lean in to ask what I know he will not hear. How does your head feel? He turns his face toward me with the mild confusion of broken concentration and says What and I ask him again. He straightens his head on the pillow. He blinks slowly, but has lost sight of whatever it was he had been watching a moment before.
It feels like it needs me to hold it, he finally answers.
As of this writing, my grandfather is still on the fourth floor of the building in which he is supposed to die. His strength is all but gone. What remains of it churns solely in his hands, in that grip.
Destitute, lost at sea: stepping in the gate and standing still for a moment with the planters in the courtyard. The smallness of outdoor music. Over past the picnic tables there is a pony-tailed girl playing a violin. A woman in blue strums a guitar. There is a music stand for the girl. But she either knows the songs or she is reading off the binder on the table because the music stand is empty. The three-part throb collapses the space in my ribcage before the words find me, but when they do, I hear a bicycle built for two and I am shipwrecked.
Daisy, Daisy, give me your answer, do
I’m half crazy all for the love of you
They play for a crooked shell of a woman who’s bundled in a blanket despite the heat of the day and has been wheeled outside in a reclining bed. A curved airline pillow keeps her head somewhat propped up and someone has placed her huge glasses onto her face. She is all forehead.
It won’t be a stylish marriage
I can’t afford a carriage
A white-haired man in a polo shirt is there too. He is hard to see at first because he sits next to the contorted woman in the reclining bed, one arm around her shoulders and leaning in as closely as can be, singing right into her eyes. The trio’s performance is fully for her, fully expressive of what overflows between humans. The man’s voice doesn’t even shake: he pours himself out. Into her. I listen, nearing the eventual end of my own dogged, misfiring efforts to achieve half as much with my grandfather.
But you’d look sweet
Upon the seat
Of a bicycle built for two
Sometimes the trio stops to talk about what song comes next. Sometimes the man gives the other two directions; You come in here, you change chords there. Then they do another. And another. My grandfather is alone in a room on the fourth floor where he is supposed to die and outside in the courtyard small waltzes are offered, and disappear, over and over into the foliage overhead. At one point, the man in the polo shirt conducts Home On the Range with his free arm, milking the fermatas. “Milk the fermata” — that is something you hear in rehearsal; all conductors say it. It means don’t just hold the note, nurse it.
Corinna Cook holds a B.A. from Pomona College and an M.A. in Northern Studies from the University of Alaska Fairbanks. Her nonfiction appears in Flyway and is forthcoming in Alaska Quarterly Review.