Helping Grandpa: On Watching My Hero's Decline

by Ellen Usher The smell of urine, thinly masked by ammonia and bleach, assaulted me every time I...

 photo grandfather-young-granddaughter.jpg
by Ellen Usher

The smell of urine, thinly masked by ammonia and bleach, assaulted me every time I entered the building. I hated going, but I had to. I didn’t want to see him, or rather the shell he had become. I had done it before in 1995 when I would lose the person closest to me. Before, I had time to prepare. An infection, a bruised leg, gangrene, lost of a limb, and a slow decline into senility had taken ten years, and by the end I was prepared. I had time and months away at college to cushion the blow of my grandmother’s death.

This time was different. 2006 began with me celebrating my hero and constant supporter‘s 90th birthday with hope and triumph. It would end with me helping him through his toughest battle and ultimate loss—an inoperable brain tumor. The man whom I depended on for strength and support throughout most of my life would need me to be his pillar that year. At a time when I didn’t think it was possible, I had given my grandfather what he had given me throughout my life: love, support, and courage.

Most of my life was spent living next door to my grandparents. My parents, my twin sister, and I occupied the top of a two family flat, with my grandmother and grandfather living downstairs. Being a twin makes one crave for undivided attention, and I found my solace at my grandparent’s house. Nana was the only one who truly understood me. Whenever I’d get in trouble, I’d run down stairs into my protector’s arms. “Irene, don’t get her this time. I’ll talk to her,” was my grandmother’s constant plea to my mother. Nana was my savior and Grandpa was her quiet, often scary, other half. When my father abruptly left when I was 12, my grandfather silently took over the role.

It wasn’t until after my grandmother’s death that I’d gotten to know Joseph McNeely. While I had heard stories of the pervasive racism he faced in Arkansas, the loss of his mother at 14, the profound effect the depression had on his psyche, and his subsequent closeness to his own grandmother (the daughter of a slave owner and a slave), it wasn’t until after my grandmother’s death that he began to tell me the stories. Franklin Roosevelt, geometry, Duke Ellington, and his trips to Egypt and India were among his favorite conversation pieces. Despite his only having a tenth grade education, he bragged about having put all three of his children through college. Honor, the importance of an education, and the value of a dollar were some of the many lessons I learned under the tutelage of my grandfather.

At 6' 5" my grandfather always stood tall. A carpenter by trade, there was nothing he could no t fix. A broken window, a leaky drain, or a squeaky door, he was always the go to man. Strikingly handsome, yet peculiarly unaware of his looks; he had admirers even in his eighties. Grandpa, who exercised regularly and not only ate an apple a day, but an apple and an orange, would live to be a 100 I naively told myself. His father, who lived to be 96, died of lung cancer. Grandpa didn’t smoke, so that clearly meant he’d live long enough to have Willard Scott post his picture one early morning. He had lived by himself 90 years with only one previous stay in the hospital at 88. That all changed Easter Sunday 2006.

At dinner, Grandpa couldn’t feel his arm. He was having a hard time using his fork. I hadn’t thought about the brain tumor he had had two years prior. His numb arm was followed by numb legs. Within two months he was unable to walk and had lost full function of his right side. In June we learned that the tumor was back, and this time it had grown faster and bigger than before. My grandfather was dying.

The rapid decline of my grandfather produced many challenges--the biggest-- pretending to be strong. His brain tumor changed his personality dramatically. The once stoic, emotionless man was now prone to emotional outbursts and crying. While it frightened me to see his vulnerability, I never let him see my fear. A reassuring smile, a gentle rub on the back, a light kiss on the cheek-life’s simple gestures, became the foundation of support that helped him in the twilight of his life. My grandfather lost his battle on October 21, 2006.

Photo: Shutterstock


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