Grandpa Choo-Choo

“What did you just call him?”

That’s the first thing everyone automatically asked me when I greeted my grandfather, or as I call him, Grandpa Choo-Choo. Technically Cliff is my step-grandfather, having married my grandmother when I was just a year old. But he’s been around my whole life so he’s grandpa to me. And as the nickname suggests, the man friggin’ loves trains.

But he doesn’t remember his fondness for trains at the moment. Hell, he doesn’t even know who we are thanks to the absolute evilness that is Alzheimer’s. And soon — in a matter of days or even hours — he will be with us no longer.

My first hazy memory of Cliff is on a train to New York City with him and my grandmother. I remember being petrified of the loud whistle, but he held me close and told me everything was OK. Apparently, to distract me, he had me sing the national anthem to the entire railroad car. He always smiled when he talked about how I got a raucous ovation. Cliff also taught me my first Irish drinking song, and as a toddler I routinely belted out “In Heaven There Is No Beer.”

In heaven there is no beer.

That’s why we drink it here.

And when we are gone from here.

Our friends will be drinking all our beer.

Yo hoy!

OK. So truth be told, there weren’t really any quintessential grandfather-grandson Kodak moments with Cliff. My grandmother, who died a little more than a year ago, loved my brother and I with a fierce passion because we were her only grandchildren. And when we were over the house, we were hers. Period. End of story. Cliff, about as mild and passive a man as you’ll ever meet, couldn’t have gotten us to himself even with the help of army.

Cliff, who is now more than 80 years old, worked full-time well into his 70s. He routinely handed over his full paycheck to my grandmother, who would usually end up spending that money on me and my brother. Cliff was working at liquor stores and Stop & Shop, so we’re not talking about a rich man here. But whatever he made, he shared with his family.

And for years he took care of both my grandmother and my aunt, who were constantly in and out of hospitals. And he never once complained.

In all honesty, he and my grandmother were not what you’d call the lovey-dovey type. But as often as she got on his case,  I don’t remember Cliff ever raising his voice or battling back. He just wanted to go along to get along and not make waves. As long as he had the History channel on his TV and his beloved cats by his side, he was content. He served in the military, worked blue collar jobs, raised three kids, got divorced, married my grandmother and helped bring up me and my brother. Cliff wasn’t flashy, but he was something many men today are not: solid and dependable.

That’s why it killed me to visit him yesterday.

The nursing home he was placed in last week is, in a word, depressing. Not the facility itself, which is nice and clean and filled with caring workers as far as I can tell. But the mere fact that it’s a nursing home makes it one of the scariest places on Earth for me. The people are all at the tail end of long roads, plagued by health problems and on the brink of breaking down. They sit in catatonic states watching TV shows that are surely not even registering with them. Their dead eyes and vacant stares are something I will never forget.

Please don’t get me wrong, my dad and uncle did the best they could and I know nursing homes provide an essential service. I’m not knocking people who put their relatives in nursing homes. But the fact remains it’s like Death’s on-deck circle in there.

Cliff used to live in an assisted living facility that — perfectly enough — allowed him to see the trains going by several times a day. But a few weeks ago Cliff’s health began to fail and he had to be moved because he could no longer take care of himself. He couldn’t perform basic tasks, and increasingly didn’t know where he was or who we were. So my dad and my Uncle Paul made the heart-wrenching decision to place him in a nursing home last week. Since then he hasn’t been able to eat. My dad called me last night and told me there’s not much time, so I took the day off with Will to see Cliff.

I almost wish I hadn’t.

Cliff was always skinny, but now he’s just bones. His head was slumped listlessly to the left and he couldn’t open his eyes, nevermind talk to us. I’ve seen better skin color on corpses. My dad prepared me for all of this, of course, but there’s a little known fact about me some of you might not know.

For all my bitching and negativity, I’m actually an eternal optimist.

I secretly eat up happy endings at movies, I believe in love at first sight and even when all hope seemed lost this summer for Alexandra, I continued to believe everything would be OK until the very end. Because I’m a sappy idiot.

So even though everyone told me Cliff was unresponsive, I believed I had the secret weapon in Will. I truly thought I would walk in there, have Will call out “Hi Grandpa Choo-Choo” in his cute little voice and suddenly Cliff would come alive. Needless to say, it didn’t happen. Will took one look at Choo-Choo and knew something was wrong immediately. He said “Grandpa Choo-Choo not feel good” and “Grandpa Choo-Choo have boo-boos.” I felt bad for taking him with me but I wanted him to see Cliff one last time, even though he’ll never remember it.

Life takes us on quite a journey. We travel from station to station, sometimes going off the rails but usually getting back on track until our ride here is over. Cliff’s ride may be done, but I’d like to believe he’s got a ticket punched for some place happier. Some place with much less pain. He’s a good man who deserves nothing less, and certainly more than the living hell that is Alzheimer’s Disease.

All aboard Grandpa Choo-Choo.

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16 thoughts on “Grandpa Choo-Choo

  1. Alzheimer’s Disease really is horrible– it robs people of their memories, personalities, and ability to care for themselves. It breaks my heart to see my patients lost to it and to see their family members grieving someone over and over again as the disease progresses.

    Love & hugs to you and your family.

    Choo-Choo!

  2. Alzheimer’s disease needs to fuck off and die already. Seeing good people fall victim to it is heartbreaking, to say the least.

    You and your family have my condolences.

    (Oh, and I agree with you about nursing homes. Those places are fucking terrifying!)

  3. Great post Aaron. I’m sorry you and your family are going through this.

  4. Death’s on-deck circle in there.

    Such an apt analogy and so very right. My blog is filled with stories about my grandparents. There are tales, thoughts and ideas that I recorded there so that my children might know something about them. So that they would know that their great-grandparents were once vibrant, active people who lived life and lived it well.

    Sorry to hear about Grandpa Choo Choo, grandparents are special people.

  5. Your post made my eyes tear up. Deepest sympathies to you and your family. Will may not remember or fully understand but I’m sure you were glad he was with you to hug after your visit.

  6. I’m sorry to hear about Cliff. It’ll be weird not seeing him around placidly soaking up the insanity that is your family.

  7. I applaud you for having the courage for taking Will to see your grandpa. My grandmother had ‘early’ dementia for years and 2 years ago, after my grandfather passed away, it seems the majority of her memory left with him. My son was born about two weeks after his death and though she has pictures of him in her room, has seen him a few times and knows he exists, she often doesn’t know who he is. My father tells me she is beginning to (if not already entering) full blown dementia and though, I haven’t been told there’s little time, I wish I had a tenth of the courage you did. I haven’t taken my son or even gone by myself to see her in over a year. I feel like the worst grandchild in the world but I find comfort in remembering her as she was all of the years before he died than to see her in her increased mental and physical ‘frailness’. That said…your story has reminded me that regardless of what she’ll remember or how I feel, I won’t be able to live with myself if I don’t take the time to see the most wonderful grandmother I had growing up.

  8. And one more thing..my sympathies are with you and your family during this difficult time.

  9. “Fuck you Alzheimer’s Disease!” I’ll echo that. It’s a disease that is harder on the families than the sufferer. At least Will got to know Grandpa Choo-Choo. He may not remember this last visit, but will remember (or create) some connection to his great-grandfather. That’s an optimistic thread to hold onto while you grieve.

  10. I’m very sorry for what’s happend to your Grandpa. Alzheimer’s is one of the most awful things a family can ever endure. I loved your portrait of your GP. His relationship with your Grandma sounds just like my grandparents. I know the type well and he was surely a great man, the type of man the world needs more of. My condolences.

    I mentioned this on Twitter but I am seriously afraid of nursing homes. Imagine enduring all those terrible sights you described several times a week at just at a very young age. That’s what I did when I my Grandma watched me. The only thing I had was her to protect me. I get chills even thinking about nursing homes now.

  11. This entry was rang very true for me. I am a CNA at a nursing home and it is very painful to see residents that I work with start to “go downhill” over time.
    It is really heartbreaking to deal with a spouse of one of the residents I am assigned to. Her husband visits her everyday and he keeps talking about “finding a medicine to get rid of this disease (Alzheimer’s)”. I die a little bit inside every time he says this. I know he is in denial about his wifes’ situation but still… I can only console myself with the fact that at least I am helping people with doing things that they cannot do themselves.
    My sympathies to you and your family. I have seen firsthand what a living hell Alzheimer’s is to the people personally suffering with it and their loved ones.

  12. This entry rang very true for me. I am a CNA at a nursing home and it is very painful to see residents that I work with start to “go downhill” over time.
    It is really heartbreaking to deal with a spouse of one of the residents I am assigned to. Her husband visits her everyday and he keeps talking about “finding a medicine to get rid of this disease (Alzheimer’s)”. I die a little bit inside every time he says this. I know he is in denial about his wifes’ situation but still… I can only console myself with the fact that at least I am helping people with doing things that they cannot do themselves.
    My sympathies to you and your family. I have seen firsthand what a living hell Alzheimer’s is to the people personally suffering with it and their loved ones.

  13. It constantly amazes me that with all we have we can’t kill a fucker like AZ. Next time I’m on the train I will think of Choo-Choo.

  14. Your post really touched me… Reading this reminded me of my own experiences with my grandparents. Best regards to you and your family. You deserve to be happy. : )

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