The Obligation
by Josh Green


Grandpa isn't what he used to be, not even close. I can remember him as a barrel-chested ice skater cutting graceful lines on Schnabel's Pond, his black boots scuffed but fluid, his gray locks like fighter-jet wings escaping his cap. Back then, as a kid, I would waddle on the ice with my brothers and watch the man go. I wanted all the prissy little figure skaters and hockey punks to know the man in black was my grandpa, master of frozen public waters. I remember thinking he skated in perfect cursive.

But on this visit to the Shady Lane Care Center the ice king is decidedly imperfect. My girlfriend and I have come here--the first stop of a wandering vacation around the Midwest--to see him, or what's left of him. He's a lost and dependent version of his former self. Or so I hear.

My grandmother, a retired homemaker and general beacon of kindness, leads us toward his room. She points to a tall cage filled with dazzling little birds, the most notable of which is an Oriole, orange as summer dusk. She says this bird--this spunky little pugilist--is a popular distraction among the home's wheelchair-bound denizens. I can sense the commonalities: the feathers confined, the souls marooned, the frustration. We turn left at an adjoining hallway, nearing the truth. We pass through a keypad-controlled set of double doors and enter his neighborhood, a long carpeted corridor. Here a smiling woman with a tilted brown wig reads an old hardback aloud to nobody. This is a paranoid realm. It smells like a closet. When I see my grandpa's nameplate outside his door I feel the pinch in my throat.

"Here we go," I whisper to my girlfriend.

At first my grandpa, or rather a pale stranger huddled in his wheelchair, looks right through us, beyond us, pulled from his midmorning daze by standing visitors from the outside. His greeting is a soft wheeze. We haven't registered with him yet. Unconsciously I chronicle the new appearance of him: frail and unsteady in a manual wheelchair he can't push, he wears a collared, short-sleeved shirt and gray sweat pants, his bare scalp lifting from silver flames of hair above his ears. I tell him hello and gently shake his hand with my middle finger and thumb. His hands have withered. His bones are more prominent all over, evidence of an anxious skeleton. Shoe laces have become too complicated a chore, so he wears wide Velcro straps, his cheap white shoes flecked with fumbled lunches and what I hope is not feces.

Grandma asks if he remembers me, and I can tell by the light in his spectacled eyes that he does, thank God.

"You staying out of trouble?" I ask him, struggling to imbue comedy into this obvious physical tragedy. "You keeping all these ladies off you?"

He gives a twisted grin but I don't think he gets it. I don't want to push the issue. Last thing grandpa needs is another spoon-feeder.

# # #

I was warned by my uncles and brothers that what I'd see up on Ludlow Hill--home to the Dearborn County Hospital, a bevy of placid, planned communities, and a dazzling view of nuclear plants below--would hurt, but that seeing him is a time-sensitive necessity.

"He's getting bad," said my brother. "You need to come back."

So back we came, driving a Ford Escape despite the near-larceny price of gasoline. In the grand scheme it's really a small cost. The meeting here needs to happen. I can't duck it any longer. This is what you do when you move away from home. You lose people and rediscover them. Sometimes you are gone too long.

# # #

Grandpa lives with an absent-minded wanderer who has vanished today. If there was a Shady Lane newspaper, this man's disappearance would be the prominent headline: Where The Hell's Gerald? The cafeteria buzzes with speculation. Gerald could be in the courtyard. The woods, even. Or maybe he hitched a ride and broke east across the river, between the rocky hills, off to eat buffalo wings and celery at the Cincinnati Hooters.

"That rascal!" pipes one old lady.

In grandpa's room the mood is more somber. Grandma asks if anyone has been in to bathe him this morning. I can hardly listen to a question like that, can hardly imagine the humiliation of an assisted bath. He answers yes, then no, and then he just moans. I turn away.

Behind me lies his bed, a disheveled, cockeyed tangle of sheets no bigger than a cot. It's on wheels, replete with a mechanism to lift and sweep the defiant or incapable occupants out of bed. His roommate's bed is similar, only stained and with an odor. In my mind's eye I juxtapose these digs with his comfy suburban home--unquestionably my favorite structure in the world--with its kitchen views of geese, cattails, the pond, and a beefy hill beyond. The scene from that window always bade contrast to the flatter, duller Indiana where I was reared, three hours west. Grandpa's view now is the parking lot. Not much, but certainly a tempting alternative.

Grandma gathers his laundry into a heap. She wears a T-shirt that reads "You're making me crazy!" in cursive across her upper chest. I see this as her off-to-visit-grandpa shirt, an ironic little anchor dragging the silt of her lonely new world.

"I'm crazy over you," grandpa says suddenly, without prodding or practice, perhaps quoting some moonlight lyric he hummed in a faraway decade. "Yes I am."

# # #

We wheel grandpa to the hallway and talk about him, right over him, as if he is a plant, a puppy. We sit near the thick windows of an atrium that's scattered with toys and books. Grandma asks us about Atlanta, and we try not to talk too much.

"There's a little train depot they made into a restaurant, right down the street from us," I tell her. "He would love it. Or, I guess, he would have." I square a little plastic basketball goal a couple feet from his wheelchair and toss a spongy ball at his chest, which he catches. He is still left-handed--somehow I thought his body may have forgotten that--and with that hand he shoots a marvelous free-throw, a high-arching beauty with backspin, a perfect swish. He erupts with glee.

"There you go," I say. "Now give us another."

He calls for another shot. And he calls me by name.

In this moment grandpa embodies the whole tragic arc of the human experience, a babbling infant in gray sweat pants, a loose-fleshed ghost, all at once. In sitting here with him I feel the circumstances are unjust. Knowing that strong and bighearted Jerry Green, sailor of Ohio River vessels, knowing fisherman, dignified laborer, a quiet community relic who never hurt anybody, could come to this, a stubborn little burden on everybody, a familial duty kept quiet at Shady Lane, is a travesty of the highest order.

But some things just are, I suppose. This is nothing new. They have names for this but I see it now as the natural downward pull at all our necks. What a stealthy, nondescript, and cowardly ailment to swipe the knees from an ice skater, the brawny arms off a sailor, the mind from a kind man. In a place like this the ailment seems inescapable, like gravity. The human spirit goes here too, because gravity always wins. At least in the case of my grandpa it doesn't go without a fight.

"Hey," I say, as a nurse wheels him squirming to the kitchen. "You hang in there, man."

When we leave grandpa he whimpers that he wants to come along. I can't bear that sentiment so I bee-line for the door, uncertain I'll ever see him breathing again.

The remainder of our trip feels surreal, like a long-sought privilege come to fruition. We chalk hundreds of miles in the summertime, a blur of city lights and landscape so beautiful my heart aches. I am able to go now and grandpa would like that. I embrace these abilities and hold on tight. He is here with me on every flowing river.


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