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.
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.