The Last True Love Story
CHAPTER 1 THE IMPOSSIBLE PROMISE
The day before we busted out of town and raced into the wide, windblown roads of America, I stood three floors below Gpa’s apartment, staring across the beach to the water, clutching a newly framed photo of two dead people.
Calypso Sunrise Suites Assisted Living Facility was plopped halfway between the Santa Monica Pier and the Venice Beach boardwalk, but in this strange nonlocation between the two, if nobody cruised by in front of me, and I looked past the few palm trees twisting up out of the sand, and the stretch of beach beyond them, and into the endless expanse of the Pacific—it could seem as if I was marooned on the edge of an island, lost and forgotten at sea.
At least that’s how I felt as I stood there and gathered my strength to bring the photo back up to him. The week before, Gpa had smashed the glass and frame while having one of his fits, and although I’d been able to salvage the photo without it bending or tearing, I’d sliced up my palm and fingers
on the glass. But at least I’d saved the photo. In it, Gma, her hair whipped up in one of those sixties beehives, stood in front of their old wood-paneled station wagon, holding the bundled infant version of my dad. Gpa hadn’t meant to ruin it, because it was his favorite one of her, but he’d swept it off his desk with everything else in a burst of rage, and it had shattered against the base of his floor lamp. I’d spent half an hour carefully vacuuming the area around his desk.
My hand still hurt, especially with Old Humper’s leash double-wrapped around it. He was going at it with the leg of a bench along the boardwalk, but I didn’t mind because I liked to let him get it out of his system before walking into Calypso, where pets were welcome, but not if they were going to get their freak on with any of the residents, guests, or staff. Still, he was small for an Amstaff, and with his dopey tongue hanging out over his teeth, the little guy could charm a smile out of a corpse. He finally grew tired and yawned to let me know, so I took him around the corner to the parking lot and up the steps to the front entrance.
None of the residents at Calypso were made of big money, but the place was still a wide, block-long, three-story complex with common rooms, an in-house bistro, an art studio, communal terraces, and a large garden off to one side, with a fountain and a few trees surrounding it, where I often met Gpa and listened to his stories, or read him poetry.
I knew most of the friendly, blue-polo-shirted staff, and I waved hello to the folks at the front desk as Old Humper and
I crossed the lobby. I checked the garden first—Gpa wasn’t there—and then doubled back to the elevator to head up to Gpa’s apartment. I knocked on the door. There was no answer, so I opened it and poked my head in.
“Damn,” I said. Gpa was having another bad day.
The room was wrecked. His bed was askew, the sheets rumpled like frozen waves at the foot, and his clothes were scattered haphazardly across the floor. He had pulled and emptied the dresser drawers from the unit and tossed them toward the door to the bathroom. Even that room was destroyed. He’d flung open the cabinet doors beneath the sink and knocked his prescription bottles, shampoo, toothpaste, and deodorant into the tub.
It wasn’t the real Gpa who’d done all this. It was the man who took over when he was having a fit—the man with a storm behind his eyes. A man I didn’t recognize. And sometimes, when it was really bad, when he looked out at me from under his angry brow, I was afraid he might not recognize me, either. But to say it wasn’t him, to say it really was someone else standing by the window in his room, was shitty on my part. It wasn’t fair to say that. This was Gpa. I had to get used to that, and I needed to figure out how to help him.
He stood in his usual outfit, the gray slacks, the two-tone guayabera, and he had his shoes on, which was a good sign, because it meant he’d probably left the room earlier that day. He stared out the window, over the boardwalk and the sand, and gazed into the Pacific.
“Gpa,” I said to his back. “Gpa, it’s me, Teddy.”
I let go of Old Humper’s leash, and he raced over to Gpa, nuzzled his leg, then came back to me, as if looking for direction, and I wished I could give him one.
I walked across the room and repeated who I was as I approached Gpa. He kept his back to me, and I didn’t want him flailing out at me suddenly, as he might, so I didn’t touch him. I stepped to the side and leaned against the wall. In the late-afternoon sunlight, his cheeks were a golden sheen of tears. “Gpa,” I said again.
Someone knocked on the door behind us. It opened before I could say anything, and two of Calypso’s polo-shirted brigade stood in the doorway, two massive beefcakes, Julio and Frank, who looked like the football players at school who puffed out their chests when they walked and hung their arms about a foot away from their bodies like they needed to constantly air out their pits. Julio and Frank showed whenever there was Red Alert Trouble in one of the residents’ rooms, or if someone was lost in the middle of the bistro, or the lobby, during one of the organized activities, or during a meal.
“Everything okay?” Julio asked, coming into the room, knowing full well it wasn’t. “We need Dr. Hannaway?”
“No,” I said.
Gpa breathed in and out softly and wiped at the tears on his cheeks, so I knew he’d already calmed down and the rage had passed. He was quiet because he was scared. His
eyes darted from me to the window and back. He probably didn’t know why he’d torn up the room. It was possible he didn’t even remember that he was the one who’d done it. Old Humper rubbed Gpa’s shin, and Gpa bent down to scratch him.
“I got this,” I told the giants.
“Doubt it,” Frank said. His bald head glistened as he dipped beneath the doorframe and stepped into the room. “Charlie?” he said to Gpa.
I stepped in front of them. “Seriously.” I put my hand up. “I got this. I do.”
Julio frowned. He nodded to the desk with all the drawers open and the pens, paper, and magazines pushed to the carpet around it. “Come on, Teddy,” he said. “We’re professionals.”
“And I’m family,” I said back. In fact, Gpa was about all I had for family. There was Mom, of course, but she was usually gone on one business trip or another, always working, gone that week, in fact, to Shanghai, and I saw Gpa more than I saw her, even though he no longer lived with us. Mom had probably only seen him twice in the seven months since she’d stuck him at Calypso.
So it was just Gpa and me and Old Humper, because Dad was gone too, and gone for so long we never even spoke about him. My dad: dead.
“I know, buddy,” Julio said. “But sometimes you have to let us handle these things. You can’t do it all alone.”
I wasn’t Julio’s buddy. I wasn’t frigging twelve, either, even though he spoke to me like I was on a middle school field trip, not the seventeen-year-old who was basically trying to keep his family together, or what was left of it, while the rest of the world didn’t give a flying fart if the Hendrix family just disappeared like one of Gpa’s memories: poof, as if we never existed at all.
“Gpa,” I said again. I stepped to the side, so I wouldn’t surprise or startle him. “Gpa, it’s me. Teddy. We’ve got a job to do.”
Teddy. We’ve got a job to do. He must have said that a million times to me as I was growing up. Mom was always working. It was just me and Gpa. Teddy. We’ve got a job to do. We would wash the kitchen floor. Teddy. We’ve got a job to do. We would sit down and finish my essay for homework. Teddy. We’ve got a job to do. And we would head over to St. Christopher’s Kitchen, where we’d cook for the homeless who washed up like driftwood on the beach and the boardwalk.
Gpa turned from the window, and I knew he was Gpa again. The old war hero, the disciplinarian—the half-smile that rose in the corner of his mouth was anybody else’s full smile. The clouds had passed from his eyes.
“What are we looking for?” I asked him, risking the peace of the moment. Julio and Frank hovered skeptically, as if they were waiting for Gpa to take a swing so they could shout See! I told you so!
“That photo,” Gpa said. “The one with your grandmother standing next to our station wagon.”
“Of course,” I said, trying to stay as calm as possible. “Our favorite one.”
Gpa nodded to me, the half-smile remaining. “Yes, exactly. Our favorite.”
“Guys?” I said to Julio and Frank. “A little space?”
They were reluctant at first, but Gpa assured them he was fine, and I did too, and as I started to clean up the clothes, Gpa began to fix the bed. Old Humper marched a line back and forth, keeping the giants on one side and us on the other. Eventually they left, and I thought about how the tables had turned and I was helping Gpa, like a parent helps a child, just as he had helped me when he came out to fill the hole left behind by Dead Dad.
But I also still felt like a damn kid, because I didn’t know what to do. As I got the dresser unit back together and put the clothes away, I couldn’t decide if I should tell Gpa I had the photo or not. I could easily pretend I’d found it under the bed, or I could tell him he’d broken it last week, and I’d promised to fix it, and I had, but not fast enough—in other words, the truth, but “truth” is a fuckedupedly deceptive word when your grandfather’s dying of Alzheimer’s.
Gpa finished tidying the bed, pulling the sheets tight and flat and tucking the corners beneath the mattress neatly as only a marine knew how, and then stepped back to the window. “I can still see her back then,” he said, looking out.
“The little silver bracelets, the flower-patterned shirt, the color of her hair. I can hear her too. Her laugh. The way she said my name.” He balled his fist and shook it like he was cursing the Pacific, way out beyond the beach. “Goddamn this disease. It’s going to take her away from me all over again.”
I grabbed the bag by the door and joined him at the window. Even though I stood taller than Gpa, I felt so small and stupid, holding that bag with the photo of Gma, as if a photo could ever replace the real person. I put my arm around Gpa and followed his gaze out to the water and wondered if love was the thing that made us attempt the impossible, like Gpa, trying to hold on to every memory of Gma he could, despite the disease that was quickly stealing them away.
“Gpa,” I said, pulling the photo out of the bag and handing it to him. “I have it.”
He took it gently in his hands, and as if the photo itself pulled him away from the window, he held it in front of him as he walked to his bed and sat on the edge. If only I could have gotten it back to him sooner, I thought, I could have saved him from ransacking the room like a pirate pillaging what already should have been his.
But I hadn’t. I’d been too damn slow. I’d taken too much time, and time wasn’t something Gpa had the luxury to waste. Dr. Hannaway had told me he was entering the middle stages of Alzheimer’s, but that he could still interact with the world, and that he should. She told me he needed
to get out of his room and be with people more. I was trying, but he had no interest in the activities at Calypso.
Gpa looked up at me. He patted the space next to him and I sat down. Old Humper followed me and squeezed in between Gpa’s legs. Gpa rubbed Old Humper’s face, then hugged him with his knees. He put his arm around me, as if he wanted to cheer me up, but the almond slope of his eyelids looked heavier and sadder than usual. “I want to go home, Teddy.”
“I know,” I said, shaking my head. “I want you home too. It’s not the same without you. But Mom says you’re too sick. She says you can’t.”
“I am sick.”
“No you’re not.” My voice cracked.
“I am, Teddy. It’s awful. I know it. I can’t hang on to things. Like this photo. How could I lose this photo?”
He trailed off. I swallowed the giant softball in my throat. “The photo wasn’t lost,” I told him.
He narrowed his eyes but didn’t say anything to me.
“I was here last week. The frame . . .” I hesitated. “Well, it was broken, and so I took it to the shop to get fixed.”
He pulled his arm away. He breathed deeply, then reached for my hand. “Teddy, I don’t remember breaking the frame.”
“It’s not a big deal.”
“It isn’t,” I lied. Not telling him it had been another one of
his bad days. All the cleaning and calming I’d done to try to avoid having Julio and Frank come in.
“Come on,” I continued. I squeezed his hand back. “Don’t worry about it. That’s nothing.”
“No. No, it isn’t nothing,” he said. “I have this awful feeling that people are looking at me, as if they just spoke to me, just asked me a question, and I don’t know the answer. I don’t even know what question they asked.” His face was red. “I don’t want to lose everything. That’s why I want to go home.”
“I can’t bring you home, Gpa. Mom won’t allow it.”
“Not here,” he said softly. “Not your home. Mine. I want to be home in Ithaca, back where all my memories of her are. I want to be there before they’re all gone.”
I rubbed his back, but he glanced at me and his face softened. “Don’t let me forget her. Please.” I wasn’t sure if he was talking to me or just thinking out loud now; his eyes were glassy and distant. “What I would give to walk down Mulberry again with her, and up the steps of St. Helen’s, just like we did when we got married. Please don’t let me forget her. Not her.”
I held him and said I wouldn’t let that happen. “I’m with you, Gpa. It’s Teddy. I’m right here and I won’t let that happen.” I kept repeating that and holding him as we rocked gently on the corner of the bed.
He caught his breath and straightened, and I knew he was present with me in the moment. He grabbed my arm
and held me tight. Those same blue eyes as my own stared back at me intensely. “I don’t give a damn what happens or what it takes. Just don’t let me forget her, Teddy.”
“Promise me.” He gripped me tighter, and I knew what a promise meant to Gpa.
“You are your word, Teddy.”
“I know. I promise,” I said, but the knot cinching tight in my gut told me I was telling him a lie, even though it was a truth I wanted to believe. It was the third time he’d asked, the third time I’d promised, and I really didn’t know if he knew that or not. After the last time, I’d come up with the only solution I could think of, and I called it the Hendrix Family Book. I’d started taking notes, jotting down everything Gpa said and remembered. I wanted to get it all down, from beginning to end, all the little stories that, when woven together, made up the big story—especially his life with Gma, the story that mattered to him most. The HFB was all I could think of to try to preserve her for him.
The anchor of his life was buried in the ground, but with his mind cut loose, he drifted further and further away from her.
Gpa, the old war hero, had survived Vietnam, the long road home after the war, the backlash at home that he couldn’t understand, my dad, his own son’s, death, and his
wife’s death. But there, withering away in a room on the edge of the ocean, hiding from the world behind his veil of tears, Gpa was losing the battle against Alzheimer’s.
“Let the disease kill me, Teddy, but don’t let me forget her.”