I talk a lot about learning through mistakes and experiences, being thankful, and the importance of good relationships. But recently I’ve learned about creative nonfiction, and I wrote a piece for class that I feel reflects all of these together, so I just want to share that here. Bear with me – it’s not exactly short, and it might be emotional.
All Flesh is Like Grass
By Elizabeth Anne Calvert
After school, my brother and I went to stay at my grandparents’ house while my mom ran errands. Right as we walked in the door, my grandmother offered us cheese, Ritz crackers, and a Diet Rite while we sat on the couch watching Cartoon Network. After we finished our snack, I looked up at my grandmother as I fidgeted with my hands. Then I asked her if she had ice cream. Usually she had this on hand in case we came over but this time she didn’t. She looked up from reading a magazine and told me that my grandfather could bring it when he got home from lunch. I must have looked disappointed because she asked me if I could wait that long. Being the small impatient child that I was, I told her no.
At this point, my grandmother gave in, dialed his work number, and handed the phone to me.
As soon as I had him on the phone, I cut right to the chase. “Daddy Charles, can you bring me some Breyer’s chocolate ice cream?”
“Well, can you wait until I get home for lunch?”
“No, sir, I need it now.”
He only hesitated for a minute because he must have known the drill. “Ok, tell Nonnie I’ll be there soon.”
It seemed like forever, my mouth watering, just waiting for the moment he’d walk in the door, Winn-Dixie bag in his hand, and a big smile on his face.
My brother and I waited on the couch as he dipped the ice cream into four bowls. After he dipped it, my grandmother brought the ice cream on matching TV trays with a couple of paper napkins on each tray. She tucked a dish towel into both of our shirts like bibs, and then she let us dig in. I sat on my knees, wiggling and excited, while my brother patiently waited for the benefits of my begging.
After we ate our ice cream, it was time for him to get back to work, and it was time for us to say goodbye for now. We relented only after big hugs and “thank you”s. Before he walked out of the door he kissed my grandmother and then both of us on our cheeks. He told us he loved us, and we all watched him walk back to work until we couldn’t see him anymore.
As I started college, choosing a university almost four hours away wasn’t a difficult choice. I was ready to get away from home and do things on my own time, through my own experiences, have that Auburn University experience everyone talks so highly of. I’m sure most kids right out of high school aren’t thinking about what could happen the next week, much less two years later – I was one of those kids at this point in my life. So far, I had led an easy life, with a family who was always supportive, and, at times, spoiled me. Even though I had been through some rough situations, it was all self-inflicted because I didn’t understand life as it really is. I still hadn’t learned how to grow up.
I don’t remember the slow process leading up to my grandfather’s illness, but I remember going for visits during breaks from school and noticing that something was off. My mom was probably the first one to notice his lack of eye contact, softer-than-usual tone of voice, and lack of thought process. Nobody could really put a finger on what was wrong.
After a few months went by, and a lot of things felt different. Something about my grandfather and even family dynamic was off, and I felt the tension. My mom hadn’t been texting me as much as usual, so I was only talking to her once every few days or whenever she had time to say goodnight. I was frustrated and anxious because I wasn’t used to this, and I could tell something was wrong. My dad told me she was busy taking care of my grandfather, and I think he’s the one who told me that my grandfather wasn’t doing well at all. My mom was at her parents’ house every free minute she had, and I had no idea. I think they were trying not to worry me and let me focus on school because they knew it would stress me out if I knew the reality of the situation.
The next time I went home everyone in my family was acting more somber, but nobody would let on to why. I could tell that my grandfather was sick, but I thought it would take a while for it to become severe. Everyone tried to put on happy faces. As far as I remember, I hadn’t yet been told about the specific diagnosis, but I remember my mom telling me that my grandfather seemed different. When I asked her why, she finally told me that it was dementia. At that point I didn’t know what it was, but I knew it sounded bad. I thought it was the same as Alzheimer’s but soon after I understood the seriousness of it. This disease begins with memory loss and ends with a full-body shut-down, similar to Alzheimer’s, but most of the time patients are more aware of their surroundings. This isn’t something I wanted to think about, mostly because I didn’t really know what it meant, and partly because I wanted to believe everything would be fine and go as smoothly as it always had for me. Admittedly, it had been putting off thinking about this until now – when it all blew up. Apparently, it had been developing in his brain for a couple of years, but I always thought he was just a victim of old age.
At this point, I was a sophomore, and the year was going by at a typical pace. I was studying and working for the university, just floating around in my own bubble, completely unaware that things were getting more serious until I got a phone call at work. My dad was calling to tell me that my brother and I needed to come home as soon as we could because my grandfather probably wasn’t going to make it through the night. I remember the initial shock followed by dread, ending with stress. It was a Thursday, so this whole event felt inconvenient between work and class, I wasn’t sure if the school would allow me to miss class for an extended family member, and to top it all off, it was the day before my birthday. We weren’t even sure how long we would need to stay out of school since we didn’t really have a time frame. I remember trying to shake these thoughts away, feeling like I was being selfish. I’m not one to focus on one feeling at a time, so all of these were jumbled up in my head, making me feel helpless. But I left work, and we packed up to start the three and a half hour drive home.
When we got there, I walked into my grandparents’ house expecting to see this horrendous scene of my grandfather lying on his bed, struggling to breathe. But my imagination was mostly wrong – he was walking around and sometimes he was even smiling. Their house was full of extended family who had driven from hundreds of miles away so they could say goodbye to him, and I think he thought we were having a party. He was saying “hello” to everyone, making sure he welcomed them to his home. He kept asking my grandmother, “Do we have enough beds for all of them?” I know he was concerned about hospitality, but we had to explain to him that they wouldn’t be staying at the house. After a while it made him nervous, and he was ready for them to leave. I don’t think I had ever seen so many people in their house before, and it now seemed tiny in comparison to what I was used to.
I can hardly explain the confusion I felt. Of course, I was comforted that I didn’t have to walk in to see my grandfather in the way I thought I would, but he still didn’t look like the confident man I once knew. Usually towering over my five-foot-one height, he had begun to hunch over, making him look much more fragile than I was used to. His hair was white, but somehow turning back to black on the sides in his old age. Even though he was in a wheelchair most of the time, he continually asked if he could help cook dinner or set the table, taking napkins and placing them where he thought they needed to go. When he walked, he shuffled his feet in his tattered, white slippers while someone guided him to the room he wanted to be in.
He owned a drugstore distributing business, for most of his life Sundry Distributors, and he got started in the business by traveling around the state working for a distributing company called McKesson’s. He sold anything and everything except the drugs. Once drugstores bought his merchandise, they would sell them in their stores. In the same building, my dad managed Sundry Printing, part of the name that my grandfather owned, a place my brother and I went so often that it felt like we lived there. Even though my grandfather was always in front of a computer at a big, heavy desk, to my knowledge it wasn’t usually on. He preferred plain pen and paper and a clunky calculator to do his work – the old-fashioned way. The desk was full of folders that were stuffed with papers, but I never saw what was on them because I was only a kid and I didn’t quite understand business. He was the silent type, and he said what he was thinking more with actions than with words. I never saw him being lazy; if he wasn’t walking around the storage room working on stocking it, he was either paying bills, taking care of sales, or studying his Bible at his other desk at home.
We sat in their house and ours went by, then days, with no changes. We waited… and waited… and waited, until it was time for my brother and me to go back to school. We thought we would need to stay longer, but we went ahead, and my mom said she would call us if something happened, and we would just have to pack up and come home again.
Later we found out that the nurse taking care of him didn’t even have the authority to tell us if he was in a dying state yet or not. She was only supposed to be helping change him and make sure he took his medicine and ate what he needed to, but none of us knew that. I remember my mom saying, “Hospice is definitely going to review her. She had no right to tell us any of that.” She told me this as calmly as she could, but I could tell she was livid. None of us could believe the stress that nurse had put us all through, especially my grandmother.
Once I got out of school for the summer, I went home and got a job at a local bookstore/coffee shop that was only a couple of minutes away from my grandparents’ house – I could walk there if I wanted to, and a couple of times I did. Most of my family was busy during the day, so I would go and help my grandmother with things around the house and visit with them until dinner time. Eventually, I started to help my grandmother take care of my grandfather as we wheeled him around the house in his wheelchair and make sure he knew he was needed.
It was one rainy Fourth of July when my family had gathered all of the red, white, and blue decorations off of the patio to try to reassemble them in the dining room. Once we sat down, he still tried to ask me the ever-popular, family-dinner question: “Do you have a boyfriend?” I was the only one who heard him say it, and I remember my family turning to look at me when I started answering the question, not knowing I was talking to him. Sometimes I felt like nobody paid attention to him even though, when he talked, I thought it was valuable. I slowly repeated the question back to him to make sure I heard him right. He nodded and seemed to be thinking about my answer, maybe trying to figure out what he should be saying back to me.
Later that evening, my family was working a puzzle. We had moved the red, Fourth-of-July designated placemats out of the way so we could fit the box and the pieces on the dining room table. I think it was supposed to turn into a giant picture of lots of different colored buttons. My grandfather wore his blue-and-white-striped pajamas, because that was easier for him than wearing jeans and a dress shirt as he used to, and he sat in his wheelchair at his designated spot at the table; he had a determined expression on his face. Then he asked for his glasses, more with gestures than words. “Your glasses?” my mom said. He nodded slightly. We looked around at each other, wondering if he was going to try to work the puzzle with us – things like this always came at surprising times.
After searching among the Hospice hospital bed and piles of papers full of medicine schedules, receipts, and doctors’ instructions, my aunt brought them to him. He quietly thanked her. “Why don’t you try finding this color?” my mom said, and slid a handful of puzzle pieces in front of him. He looked up at them, trying to find the colors my mom had suggested. He tried for several minutes, without breaking concentration and without getting frustrated, to work the puzzle with his family. The whole time, he sat quietly, observing the pieces and pushing them around. He looked at the box a couple of times, trying to ingrain remember the colorful pieces and the picture he was trying to form so he could work the puzzle more efficiently. He still couldn’t put them in the right places, but gears were turning in his mind. Eventually, he stopped working it just because he said he was finished, and probably because he wanted a piece of cake – if I remember correctly, he ended up eating two and cleaning his plate both times.
Just the next week, I sat at their house reading my Bible paired with another book I was trying to study. I noticed that he kept looking up at me as I was reading. Finally, I said “Do you want me to read to you?” His eyes lit up in a way that I will never forget; he nodded. I started reading from 1 Peter 1 and read through the entire book. The passage was fitting for the occasion. I read verses 24 and 25 of the first chapter: “For all flesh is like grass and all its glory like the flower of grass. The grass withers, and the flower falls, but the word of the Lord remains forever.” While I read I’d look up every once in a while, and I noticed that he was thinking because he was looking at the Bible, squinting his eyes but not trying to read. I wish I knew what he was thinking about. Maybe he was realizing how much this applied to his life in the moment. After I finished reading the book to him, I said, “You used to read this a lot didn’t you?” He didn’t even have to think about his answer and said, “Yes,” followed by a quick nod. In this moment, I understood why he was so precious to me.
The next few weeks went by slowly but still too fast as I watched his condition worsen and his fight to make it leave him alone. I had to learn to keep myself calm for him and for my grandmother and my mom. I started feeling a change in myself that I knew could only have come from an event like this. I took it was a lesson, and I saw just how much life wasn’t about me. I saw the loving sacrifices my parents made for him – they basically had to treat him like a baby sometimes because he couldn’t do much for himself – and I realized that these are the same kind of sacrifices that they must have made for my brother and me. I learned just how much hard times can make a person stronger, and now I carry this perspective with me.
He got more and more frustrated, once to the point of trying to leave the house to “go home.” I had been told he did this, but I had never seen it until that summer when I stayed with them every day. He repeatedly told my grandmother that he needed to go home; she told him he was home, but he wouldn’t take “no” for an answer, trying to push her out of the way and unlock the door. For a man in a deteriorating, state he was strong. I tried to help my grandmother keep the door closed until she finally choked out, “Go call your mother.” If he got out of the door, we wouldn’t have been able to keep him from falling down the front porch stairs. My grandmother doesn’t cry very often, but that day she couldn’t stay strong. My grandfather kept struggling and trying to open the front door as my grandmother tried to keep it together long enough for me to call my mom and ask her to come over. It got to the point that he looked her in the eyes, pointed at her and said, “Let go. I have to go home.” He finally got the door cracked open, but somehow she held him back. As I was on the phone with my mom, all I could say was, “You need to come. I don’t know what to do but it’s not good, and you need come. Please hurry.” I paced the room in shock, and did what I could to hold him back until she got there to calm him down the rest of the way. I had known that his condition was bad, but this was the first time I realized the intensity. He always apologized when his senses came back to him, but it took over his body and his mind until he couldn’t control it anymore.
Once he got to the point when he couldn’t even get out of bed, he would look around and try to point at people he wanted to communicate with. Whenever my grandmother left the room he’d ask, “Jonnie?” Even when he didn’t recognize her, he knew she was the one who took care of him every day and didn’t want her to leave his side. She leaned over and whisper to him, telling him how much she loved him, reminding him every day that, even in his deteriorating state, she felt just the same.
She told him, “It’s OK to go. We’ll be OK,” even when it pained her to tell him he could go. After my family stayed up all night, a few hours before he was gone, I watched from the big bed next to his hospital bed as my grandmother leaned over to him to whisper that she loved him. I think my mom and I were the only ones in the room because – like mother, like daughter – we were both overflowing with emotions and didn’t want to leave the room just in case it happened to be the one time he spoke or the next time he needed someone.
But this time, before my grandmother could even say a word, he leaned up slowly and shakily, and said, “I love you” in the best way he could. It came out more coherently than most of his words as he tried with everything he could to remind her that, even though his memory was mostly gone, he hadn’t forgotten her. Then he leaned up shakily and gave her a kiss, and a dim light came on in her eyes. I think she was seeing him as he used to be because she genuinely laughed for the first time in months. I took a picture of this moment right before the kiss so I could remember the genuine happiness I saw in both of them during such a trying time in their lives. They never gave up on each other, my grandmother especially. She refused to give up on him, showing me the true meaning of “’til death do us part.”
On this Tuesday morning around 7:30 Charles Leigeber passed away. I remember this like it was yesterday, and I remember thinking about how unfair it was that he had to go like this because he was one of the strongest people I knew. But then I wonder just what would have happened if he had passed away under better circumstances. I think I had every feeling possible, but I remember realizing that this was when I learned to grow up. I was learning that the world didn’t revolve around me, and wishing I had done so earlier when I had more time to mentally prepare myself, and it took less time to drive to his house. Sometimes I’ve thought that things would stay the same as they did when he was alive, but I know better now. It was the start of a new understanding.