No, I give it up,’ Alice replied: `what’s the answer?’
`I haven’t the slightest idea,’ said the Hatter.
`Nor I,’ said the March Hare.
Alice sighed wearily. `I think you might do something better with the time,’ she said, `than waste it in asking riddles that have no answers.’
My grandfather passed away last Tuesday. He’d had Alzheimer’s for around five years. Alzheimer’s is an insidious disease that robs a person slowly of his memories, his sense of self, his identity as a functioning adult. My grandfather was a large man, broad shouldered, 6’4″. He served in the Navy. He worked on oil wells most of his life. He took in a young woman with two tiny daughters and raised them as his own. One of those daughters is my mother, but I have never considered him a “step-grandfather”. He was just my grandfather, period.
I didn’t get to know him much at all until my grandmother died. Before then, he was that funny guy who counted my ribs and called me “stinkerpot” for no particular reason. Also, he asked for sugar (that’s Southern for kiss). After my grandmother died – it’s been twenty years now – I got to know him a little better, though never as much as I should have.
He loved to play poker, but only certain types. 7 card stud, 5 card stud, 5 card draw, sometimes mix it up with “jacks or better”, and the usual “racehorse” in which we’d deal out cards for the whole pot. A pot of pennies and the occasional nickle – rarely did someone get brave enough for a quarter – but it was a lot of pennies, and we all wanted it. I played with my father and grandfather. They fought each other, watching what the other was doing, raising the bet (a penny at a time) on each other, trying to guess whether that person had a real hand or was just bluffing. They didn’t look at me, until I casually tossed down a full house or a straight. Then there would be – modified of course- cursing all around. At times I would want to leave the game, but they never let me, certainly not when I was ahead. I had to stay for the long haul.
My grandfather loved to eat. He made big breakfasts with sausage, biscuits, eggs, bacon, hashbrowns, and gravy – lots and lots of gravy. He didn’t believe in measuring, that was for sissies, so often he was stirring and stirring and stirring until it got to the right thickness or he gave up. And then he would pepper the gravy until it was black, and eat the bacon, fat and all. And yes, it was Alzheimer’s that got him, not heart disease. Take that, diet nazis! I’m eating my bacon.
He loved going to Vegas. My father and grandfather were like children at Christmas, unable to sleep or wait. They’d leave at 2 am and hit the road. Of course they were big gamblers, sometimes playing the quarter machine! But gambling wasn’t really what they were there for, they were there for fun. My grandfather liked messing with people, like the poor lady who sat beside him while he grabbed quarters from my dad’s bucket, not realizing that the two were together. He said, “I just grab some from people when I get low”. She moved. My grandfather couldn’t hear well, especially from one ear, so driving with him was an adventure. It was even more fun when he let out gas from his many cheap meals in Vegas, nearly gassing my father to death. This always prompted giggles.
He liked to laugh, and he did so often. Even after he forgot who we were, or who he was – it was always hard to tell what he knew – he still smiled and laughed. The only time he was mean was when the Alzheimer’s first hit. For some reason, his diseased mind focused on my brother and me. He was convinced we were stealing from him. The stolen goods? My grandmother’s diamond chip wedding ring and his hearing aid. The hearing aid robbery was especially interesting. Apparently we were selling the hearing aid on e-bay. Used grandpa hearing-aids are a hot commodity, didn’t you know?
It made no sense, but that’s Alzheimer’s for you. Why did he get this disease? Why and how does it erode a person’s brain? How much of our self is in our brains, these organs that science still understands so little about? Is there a soul, or is it just the sparks of brain synapses? Why is a raven like a writing desk? It’s a riddle with no answer.
But my grandfather was more than what the riddle took from him. He was a great man, a husband, a father, a grandfather, a great-grandfather, a best friend, a joker, a hard worker, and a generous, loving soul. I’m not sure what happens after death, but I do know that he lives on, at least in the hearts of those who knew him.