Please, turn on your stereo as you read this

26 Apr

There was this giant, side-by-side slide. You and a partner donned burlap sacks, sack-race style, and took off down the slope. It wasn’t set out to be a race, per se, but I defy anyone to climb up to the top with a friend and not say “I’ll beat you to the bottom.”

I did. Climbed all the way to the top, and I knew I’d be racing back. I don’t exactly know how one accelerates one’s path down a slide while in a sack, but who cares. I turned to my partner, and said “Race ya.”

And we raced. And I won. Handily, in fact. I got to the bottom, looked to my left and saw no one. A few seconds later, my opponent arrived. Somehow, on his way down, he had rolled over or something, and banged his face against the wall of the slide. His face was bloodied. It wasn’t bad, but still – it was a slide injury. Any blood is too much blood.

We all hurried over, checking on his condition. He looked over, saw that I had beaten him down, and wiped the blood from his face.

“Wanna go again?” he asked.
* * *

None of that would make for the most remarkable of stories. Interesting, sure, but not exactly legendary. Except for one thing. My opponent, that bloodied, bruised guy who only wanted to race down the Slide of Danger a second time, was no classmate, friend I had brought with me to the slide that day. My opponent was Bud.

Bud was my grandfather, and at the time of the slide incident, he was…I want to say 67? 68? Honestly, I don’t know. If I’m being completely truthful, I don’t even know if I have all the details of the slide story right. I think it’s right, but that was the thing with Grandpa Bud when I was a kid – we grandchildren didn’t feel the need to earmark special occasions with Buddy, because he didn’t feel like the kind of grandfather we could lose at any minute, the kind of grandfather you had to scrapbook special events with, because any event could be the last. I didn’t devote a great deal of RAM to each specific event with Buddy, just like I didn’t take the time to reflect on each night I slept over at a friend’s house. There would always be another one.

Until there wasn’t. Buddy, that slide-racing, plange-performing (look it up), adventure-seeking senior citizen, succumbed to cancer a few years later. It was an alarming transition, from active guy who happened to have lived a while longer than me to bed-ridden old man, swollen and absent, like a cruel Photoshop distortion of himself. By the time I realized I needed to make a real point to hang on to concrete, exact, no-question-about-it memories, memories of his active, crazy times, he was too far gone to make more of them.

The slide story is a cool story. It’s also a cool story to tell about when we were playing catch, and errant throw from me dented my mother’s car, despite my senior-citizen grandfather laying out in an effort to save it. It’s also a cool story to talk about trampoline flips, roller-coaster rides and Vermont planges. (I said to look it up. And imagine a 70-year-old doing it. I’m telling you, Buddy was cool.)

But not one of those is my most vivid Buddy memory. Not by a long shot.

* * *

Near the end of his run, when he was primarily confined to a bed, no longer able to carry on with any of us as he once had, some of us from Kentucky drove up to the Northeast. These trips were growing more and more frequent, as we wanted to soak up all the Buddy time we could while we still could.

On one of our last trips to see him, Bud got to meet his great-granddaughter Grace for the first and only time.

On one particular trip, we took Buddy out for a trip around the facility’s grounds in his wheelchair. He had at some point during this illness had a different chair, one that allowed him to recline, but this was not that chair. Regardless, he was convinced that it was, and he was adamant that we recline his chair as we traveled. After a few minutes of being unable to talk him out of this, I acquiesced, tipping the wheelchair back so it was in perma-wheelie condition, carting him around like a cocky teenager who had first figured out how to look cool in a wheelchair.

This walk was long. I don’t know the exact distance, but I do know that, by the time my mom looked at me instead of Buddy, I was dripping with sweat, and my arms were nearly shaking from the exertion of keeping my grandfather as level as possible over the walk. I lowered Buddy to his upright and locked position, we returned to his room, and that was the end of the walk.

On this same trip, someone had given Buddy the gift of satellite radio. It was still relatively new technology at this point, so I’m guessing it had cost a pretty penny, but Buddy couldn’t focus enough to read or watch TV anymore, and sitting around in silence can’t be fun, regardless of your level of health. When, before the walk, we had first turned on the radio, playing some satellite old-time jazz station, he had started snapping and bobbing, happy as a baby whose Christmas present was wrapped with a shiny bow and now has a bow to play with.

Well, at the end of this walk, he was no longer that happy version of himself. His music wasn’t playing, and despite his insistence that we “flip the toggles” on his chair to recline it again, my arms just weren’t able to tilt him to his reclined status again, and he was in the same state as that baby would be if you then took their bow away. Even getting him back in his bed, back to a supine position, wasn’t enough to satisfy him by that point. He wasn’t altogether sure why he was distressed, but that didn’t change the fact that he was not where he wanted to be in life.

Now, there was a lot of family around at this point. Who knows exactly which of us were there, but Buddy had a wife, had eight kids and a small city’s worth of grandkids. The room he was in was crowded. Had to have been a dozen in there, not counting the old man and his enormous bed.

I stood in the doorway, out of the way of most of the goings-on, while he did his best to convey that he wanted improvement, damnit, and we needed to help. But no one could really figure out how.

I won’t claim that what I did next was because I was some sort of genius savant. I feel like I was really just taking a shot, trying to remember what had last made him happy and making it happen again. I maneuvered my way behind the semi-circle of relatives, to the end table opposite Buddy’s bed, and tapped the play button on the radio.

A few seconds later, that same old jazz station started up. A few seconds after that, Buddy’s ire was gone, and he was snapping and bobbing around his bed again, excited to have his sound back.

* * *

I thought of that memory tonight. Someone had posted a video to Twitter, about seniors reacting to music on iPods, and I realized near the end of it that I was…well, not crying, really, but my eyes weren’t dry, I know that much.

I don’t know how to insert videos. Click this.

I love music. Can’t play an instrument or sing worth a damn, can’t tell a high A from a middle C from an underneath Q, but my iTunes has 21.8 days worth of music on it, and I spend 93% of my workday with my earbuds in one or both of my ears, playing some song or another.

I’m not claiming to be unique here. It has long been established that music is as powerful as anything when it comes to forming powerful connections. But seeing videos like this one, seeing my disconsolate grandfather suddenly snap back to himself within the first two chords of a song, only cements that truth.

If there is a God – and no, I don’t think there is one, but if I’m wrong about that – you’ll find him in music before you’ll find him in the Bible, in a church. That’s why every church worth its salt has a choir and an organist. It’s why, any time someone asks me one of those “worst-case scenario” questions about whether I’d rather be blind or deaf, I pause. Being blind would suck, no question. But being deaf? No music, ever again? I really don’t know. I hope I don’t have to worry about it.

There’s really no grander point here. I’m not saying anything any of you don’t know. “Music good” is not exactly my greatest insight, and I’m hardly known for my great insights to begin with. But any time I can watch a six-and-a-half-minute YouTube video at work, wipe away tears at the end and spend the next hour thinking of my grandfather who has been dead for six years? I don’t think I could live with myself if I didn’t write about it.

That video shows an old man who snaps from being nonresponsive to singing a damned impressive amount of a Cab Calloway song. He remembers going to dances as a young man. He remembers himself.

Growing up, I never made a conscious effort to log specific memories of Grandpa Bud. The big moments are in there, but they’re floating around, mostly remembered dreams in which the specifics get jumbled. There was a slide, and there was blood, and we raced. That’s something, but it’s not everything.

But the most concrete memory I have of my grandfather came near the end. Part of that was because I knew I was running out of time, sure. But just as much of that was because of the same thing that snaps old Henry back in that YouTube video. I can remember my grandfather’s reaction to his music.

I’ll always have that. At least, I hope I will. Someday, I too will probably be old. Maybe I’ll forget myself. But if I ever do, I hope that someone remembers to toss on some good music for me to listen to. If there’s any justice in the world, I’ll hear it and I’ll remember myself. And I’ll remember Grandpa Bud.

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4 Responses to “Please, turn on your stereo as you read this”

  1. Jennifer Holbert April 26, 2012 at 3:20 pm #

    Sent here via KHall and so glad I read this. Beautiful.

  2. robinsonsrants April 26, 2012 at 3:49 pm #

    I think the slide story is awesome. The way you talk about your memories of your grandfather reminds me of how I feel about my papaws. Beautifully said DK.

  3. Joe Conley April 26, 2012 at 4:03 pm #

    Great read Daniel. Thanks for sharing and for making at least one guy pause for a moment to do a little thinking today….

  4. Brad April 26, 2012 at 5:04 pm #

    I really enjoyed reading this. With my grandmothers passing occuring just days ago, I found myself remembering tons of memories that I had not channeled in years. Thanks for helping during this tough time.

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