In my relentless pursuit of living a life with no regrets, I made the decision four years ago to fly to Missouri to see my grandfather one last time without hesitation.
I believe I can fly
Are there people out there who actually enjoy air travel? Are they fine with placing their total safety into a stranger’s hands? Do they have complete faith that the nearly 75-ton 737 is going to get them to their destination and not, dare I say the “C” word, fall several miles to the earth, crashing into a fiery wreckage?
Maybe they don’t even think about all of that. Maybe I shouldn’t either.
After hearing from Dad that Grandpa Sid was, indeed, sick with bone cancer and his days were numbered, I summoned all my mental effort and pushed aside my fear of flying. Klonopin would have helped. But I wouldn’t receive my anxiety diagnosis for another two years, so I had to resort to good ol’ fashioned grit and determination. It was one of my few John Wayne moments where I “sucked it up” and did something I didn’t want to do. I believe that day was April 28, 2014.
Touching down at MCI
Dad greeted me at the terminal with a hug and the customary “how was your flight?”. Never one to feign macho manliness, I told him it was fine but I was scared of flying. I got an “uh huh” and we headed out of the airport.
Before the return to Braymer, we stopped at a restaurant in the city. I don’t remember the name of it, but the sign outside had a blonde girl on it. I do remember the pork tomahawks. They were delicious and every bit worth the mild diarrhea I had later. That’s not an indictment on the restaurant, by the way. My gut doesn’t always process things very well. Especially pork.
The Royal treatment
Dad seemed to wait for me to bring up grandpa’s health. I suspect he thought “Well, he knows as much as I do and there’s nothing to add to the conversation.” But I brought it up anyway.
There wasn’t much to add.
While we were having a good-natured pissing match over which of our states had shittier weather (that always seemed to end in a stalemate), Dad kept looking back over his shoulder to see the game on the TV at the far end of the restaurant. I remember wishing I had just let him sit where I was so he could see the damn game and at least pretend to carry on a conversation with me. I even brushed up on my Royals knowledge so we’d have more to talk about.
Some small talk with Dad between was still better than nothing, though. That’s about as far as he and I get when it comes to shooting the breeze. Sure, I gave him updates on the rest of the family in Texas, but we don’t have the father-son connection you might see in a Hallmark movie. That’s what happens after he and mom divorced when I was four, and she rapidly remarryied and subsequently moved back to Texas. He’s not Dad in the traditional sense, but I’m grateful that we reconnected after a ten-year hiatus.
Golden Age Nursing Home
Maybe it’s my natural inclination to be cynical, but I find it odd and more than a little morbid that the nursing home is the first impression you get of Braymer after driving down miles of country roads.
Was putting that building on the outskirts of town intentional? Sort of an out-of-sight-out-of-mind mentality? Placing it as geographically close to the hospital in Kansas City while still in Braymer. In many cases, the nursing home is the last stop before the hospital. And who knows if you’ll ever walk out of there?
That’s what makes me uncomfortable about nursing homes. Seeing the stark truth that people lose some or all of their independence while awaiting the cold touch of death. That could be a reality for me in four or five decades.
On the first day of my visit to the nursing home, it was sunny and felt cool. Not much breeze. Of course, what feels cool to this South Texan might as well be hellfire to the locals.
Y’all. Seventy-eight degrees with almost no humidity is fucking heaven, or pretty damn close. To this South Texan, anyway.
Metal double doors
I got out of Grandpa’s red Dodge Dakota, steeling myself for whatever I might see inside that building (which Grandpa helped build, by the way). I fully expected to have my senses assaulted by smells of hospital-grade food and stale piss, seeing older folks in whatever state they were in that warranted residency in such an establishment. Perhaps some desperate for human contact beyond the staff that cared for them. Maybe others lying in their beds, fixated on, but not really comprehending, their television screen.
Instead, I was greeted with a pleasant, sweet fragrance as I entered. I cannot recall if it was citrusy or flowery, but the only time I’ve ever encountered it since is in the restrooms of some restaurants.
Now, when that smell enters my nostrils, I think of the nursing home. It’s like traveling instantaneously back to those scrubbed hallways with the dully sparking white tile and the friendly receptionist with some kind of forearm tattoo who, upon finding out I was from Corpus Christi, told me she’d been there once long ago.
Sure, it might seem odd having this slight, knowing smile while I’m taking a leak at the Texas Roadhouse on Greenwood Drive, thinking about my last few days with Grandpa feeling nothing but gratitude that I got the opportunity to see him one last time.
What room number was it?
Back in the nursing home in Braymer, four years ago, I asked the receptionist where Robert Cockrell’s (who never went by that name, as far as I could recall) room was and if he was doing OK.
What can you expect to hear except the standard-issue “he’s doing fine” while knowing that “fine” by these standards has absolutely no meaning to you? How do you define “fine” knowing one of your last living grandparents has cancer running amok in his body and you’ve been told by other relatives that he’s in extreme pain because of it?
But the answer is acceptable and you move on to the room. The last stop in the last stop. You want to say things like, “This hard-working man of God built half this fuckin’ town so you better treat him with the goddamn respect he’s earned. Or else.” You could say that, knowing you’ll probably never see any of these workers again, knowing you’ll be about a thousand miles away in a few days and they’ll be here, possibly shrugging off your fiery, passionate semi-threat that sounds somewhat the same from every other concerned, scared person checking in on their loved one in this place.
Or, you realize several things all at once. You’re not that kind of guy. And you’re aware of the futility of that kind of statement. And you’d just say something like that to make a scene, or possibly get escorted off the premises, so you don’t have to face the reality that the person in the room you’re about to enter is irreversibly ill.
Strong, yet fragile
After the eternity of these thoughts and scenarios play out in your head, you realize only a few minutes have passed since you got out of the truck and are now standing in the hallway, just outside your loved one’s door. You wish that door had been closed. One last chance to say, “Well, maybe he’s sleeping and I should come back later.”
My heart thudded in my chest as I entered the room. The Royals were playing on the TV, the volume was barely audible. Drawings and crayon-colored pictures depicting Jesus were tacked on the wall next to the TV. “I love you grandpa” was written in purple crayon on one of the pictures. Along with “Get well soon” and a child’s name scrawled on the bottom.
I walked over and gave my grandfather a hug as he lie in his bed. He managed to get an arm on my shoulder in return. How could this powerful pillar of a man, one whose booming voice would strike fear into me as a child and stop me in my tracks when I ran carelessly though his house, feel so small? So breakable?
“Hi Grandpa,” I said, looking into his tired eyes. “How are you feeling?”
“I’m doing fine. For an old man,” he replied, that booming voice reduced to a shaky pitch barely above a whisper.
We talked for a few minutes. He asked my how my flight was, when I was heading back, how Lacey and the boys were doing.
“Fine.” “On the fourth.” “The wife still enjoys nursing. The boys are growing like weeds.”
I had brought some photos for him. They were of Lacey, me and the boys, but I don’t remember the specific occasion for which they were taken. Was it from Easter? Perhaps a trip to the beach? He flipped through each one, slowly, deliberately. I can only wonder what thoughts might have gone through his mind as he went from one photo to the next.
After he was done looking at the photos, he placed them back in the envelope and let it fall to his side. I couldn’t read any emotion on his face, but I’d like to think he was pleased that the latest generation of Cockrells were healthy, vibrant, and most of all, happy.
The ball game continued on in the background, but I don’t think he paid it much attention. Maybe having the familiar background noise brought him comfort. You’re never too old to seek comfort in the familiar things.
Grandpa started to slowly doze off. A faint snore started to issue from him, but I sat with him for a few more minutes.
This patriarch, in the purest sense, this man who built a life on hard work, the root of the family tree as we knew it, was entering the last known adventure. The one we all face, but might not have the benefit to live a long, fruitful life filled with love. Thus, the family tree branch would again, this time the sons and daughters, having formed their own roots, trunks and branches, would become the eldest keepers of the Cockrell blood, if not merely in name.
Cheap beer and a ballgame
I left the nursing home with Dad and we headed back to the house. Dad flipped on the TV to finish watching the game, sitting in his office-type chair, close enough to the glare of the screen that, had our roles been reversed, I might have said, “Sitting that close to the TV can damage your vision, son.”
Grandpa’s recliner sat empty. It seemed disrespectful to park it in that blue recliner (even though there was no glare on the TV and the room temperature always seemed perfect while sitting in it).
When we were driving back, Dad had bought a case of beer from Casey’s (the small town Missouri version of a Stripes or Valero). Maybe having a Casey’s in your town meant you were a real Missouri town, the way having a Dairy Queen in your Texas town gave further reason for residents to swell with Texan pride.
I don’t remember exactly which beer Dad bought. Miller Light? Keystone? Maybe Old Milwaukee. But I realized that an opportunity to partake in maybe the final father-son bonding ritual, an opportunity I hadn’t realized I so badly wanted until the moment it presented itself: Having a beer and watching the game with your dad. At least, that’s what it was to me. Dad missed out on all the others after I learned to ride a bike at four. We never played catch, he wasn’t there when I lost my first tooth, when I started school, when I started driving, shaving and going to dances with girls.
So, sitting in the living room of that house, one that is more of a landmark than a house in Braymer and in my heart, I had a cold, crappy beer with Dad and we watched the Royals. We’d talk between the commercials about how they were playing this season, about the new ace Yordano Ventura (the fella that died in 2017), about the weather (and how it compared to South Texas at this time of year).
I must be getting old because I realize I actually like talking about the weather. Not in a condescending Phil Connors sort of way, but more like I’m talking to an old buddy, reminiscing about the good ol’ days.
On the last visit, on May 4th, I walked into the nursing home with barely a “hello” to the receptionist, heading for Grandpa’s room. I knew, without any doubt, this day would be my last one with him. As I made a beeline to his room, the receptionist said Grandpa was in the rehab room.
After she directed me to the room, I thanked her and stood outside for a moment. I’m not sure how long it was. Not long enough for me to calm my heartbeat, but enough to shore up any tears that might fall. It now saddens me when I think of the amount of energy I wasted covering up my emotions to avoid embarrassment. Who would have given a tiny rat’s ass if a grown man shed tears because he knew he’d never see his grandfather again after quitting the building? Not anyone whose opinion mattered, that’s for sure.
Grandpa was sitting on exercise equipment I’d never seen before. Like a stationary bike, but for your upper extremities. He slowly pedaled on that wheel, the nurse asking him if he’d met his quota of revolutions. He said, “I’m not sure, but it feels like I’m probably done.” The nurse smiled at this sweet old man whose sense of humor was still intact as his body slowly died. She asked him to do ten more reps and he obliged, never one to shy from work, even if it was at a pace that belonged to a man well past his prime.
Seeing Grandpa on that equipment seemed so foreign, so alien. When we would visit him in previous years, he didn’t “exercise.” Not in that sense. He’d tend to his garden (I loved the okra the best) or he would read a book in the kitchen, not slouching lazily in the chair like some of us sloppy young folks are apt to do. He knew his limitations, I’m sure, but Grandpa was active. He had only recently tapered off his carpentry work when we first visited in August of 2009.
So, while he was working on his final ten, I asked him how he was doing.
“Oh, about the same.”
I didn’t, and still don’t, know what the best response to that, given his situation. So I said, “That’s great.”
I sat in a chair a few feet away, watching him exercise. To me, it seemed like he slowed down when he thought the nurse wasn’t looking. Maybe he was being sly, or maybe he didn’t want to admit he was simply tired and wanted to go home. Not home to his house at the end of Richie Avenue, but home to his “reward in heaven.” To see the love of his life again.
I took in the scene one last time, looking intently at Grandpa’s face. It was exhausted but resolute. The face of a man who didn’t fear death, but knew it would come for him sooner rather than later.
After a few more minutes, while feeling a bit awkward for staring at him on this contraption, I told him I had to go. I had to fly back to Texas. Back to my life of working, raising my boys, loving my wife.
And just as if we were saying our farewells on the old wooden porch of his house, he said in that papery voice, “Thanks for coming to see me.”
“No problem,” I replied, barely above a whisper that cracked with grief.
I put my arm across his shoulders and placed my head next to his. He reach up to pat my hand with his.
“I love you, Grandpa.”
“I love you, too.”
The carpenter first, then Star Wars
For me, May 4th is bittersweet. Foremost, I celebrate it because it marks the last time I saw Grandpa Sid alive. I’m grateful forevermore that I got to tell him I loved him before he passed on. Much like I had been able to with my other grandfather on January 19, 2008.
Having those opportunities to express my love for both of my grandfathers before they rode on ahead are priceless. They’re a quiet, satisfying ending to a chapter in my life.