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Taking Care of Grandpa.

Taking Care of Grandpa.

Jon Moy is a freelance writer based in Detroit. He’s written about a lot of things, but mostly about fashion. He’s just happy to be here.

Taking care of someone else is hard. Being emotionally available, being a good listener, holding love and patience for someone, all of that is difficult enough on its own. But like, physically taking care of someone? I never knew how hard that was. It wasn’t until I was in my 20s that I realized what it’s like to really take care of someone. 

I never really thought much about how I ended up being one of four full-time caretakers for my grandpa. It just sort of...happened. It started with the falling. That’s when we realized my grandparents couldn’t live on their own anymore. He’d fall, need to get a few stitches, and then, a few months later, he’d fall again. My grandpa was just getting old. And getting old is tough. It’s obviously hard on the individual actually aging, but there are subtle ways it messes with the people around them. If you’re lucky, you can pretty much take care of yourself while you get older. Or at least for the things we’d all rather do ourselves.

It was my parents, me, and my cousin. My cousin and I were in our early 20s and we helped out on the days we weren’t in grad school. It averaged anywhere from 3-4 days a week. We were lucky because we normally didn’t have overnight duty, which was exhausting because one person had to sleep on the couch downstairs in case grandpa needed to go to the bathroom in the middle of the night. It was especially rough on my parents because they were the de facto 24/7 caretakers. After a few months, we had our schedule down pat. My parents would make breakfast, get him settled, and leave for work. Then my cousin or I would come for the afternoon and early evenings, depending on who had class that day. We’d do lunch, snacks, and sometimes dinner. My parents would come home, often we’d have dinner together, and then I’d bounce back to my place or to a night class. A lot of times, on Fridays I spent the night so they could both sleep in their bed. 

It was a weird time. 

It was also, in its own way, a great time. I hadn’t spent that much time with my folks since high school. My cousin and I were inseparable when we were little, and this time helped us reconnect.  And probably best of all, my grandpa became a whole person to me, instead of the sort of flat character grandparents can often be in our lives. I heard stories about his stint in the Civil Works Association and the time he was a firewatcher in the forests of northern Michigan. I got to learn more about what it was like to be a Marine in WWII. And not just the fun times when he crossed the Equator or goofed off on base. But also the terrifying times. The scarring times. I learned how much he loved to go snowshoeing when he was a kid. And best of all, I learned bits and pieces of the minutiae that you crave to know and hold close in your memory about loved ones.  I learned his food preferences, what he liked to read, what kind of kid he was, what his parents were like. I learned his sense of humor and how much of a smart ass he really was. How he reacted to good and bad news. I learned who my grandpa was. 

But like I said, it was a really weird time. I know my cousin and I aren’t the only ones, but most people in their 20s don’t spend their free time freelancing as home health care providers. I’ll never forget when we took him to a dermatology appointment and the doctor was like, “So, yeah, this is cancerous, but by the time it gets problematic...well...he’d be like 110, if he’s still alive.” I learned that at a certain point, getting older becomes an extended euphemism for dying.

I’m not sure if immediate family members are the people best suited to be caretakers for their loved ones. There are times you resent the person you are caring for. You resent the people not helping. You resent yourself for feeling resentful. My cousin and I never knew how to explain it to our friends, to classmates, or even professors. Talking about it outside of the family always felt like a weird betrayal of his privacy. I think my cousin and I realized it wasn’t exactly normal for us to be learning how catheters and oxygen tubes worked and which baby wipes were the best. But we also knew it was the right thing to do. The only thing to do, really. We’ve spoken about it since he died, and neither of us regret a second of those years. I learned a lot about priorities in that time. I never heard my grandpa, after looking back at his life, say that he wished he worked more.

When you can’t leave for vacation, or even sometimes just for a drive, when you’re inextricably linked to someone else’s schedule, you promise yourself that once you’re free, once your time is yours again, you’ll do all the things you daydreamed about while sitting, while making sandwiches, and waiting in hospital rooms. Life has a way of pushing you along with a momentum that seems inexorable. “Grandpa” had become a one word mantra for my life. I couldn’t move to New York or Los Angeles because of grandpa. I couldn’t work full time because of grandpa. I didn’t date because of grandpa. The fucked up thing about a good reason is that it can turn into a bad excuse without you ever realizing it. When the day came and I was free, I felt rudderless. I had lost a sense of purpose and drive that took years to rediscover.

As I sat down to write this, I realized I don’t have any strong, narrative memories of the 5 plus years I helped take care of him. It’s like one big sense memory. To be honest, I’m not sure if I’ve ever totally processed that experience. I just remember being tired. I remember the first time I had to help him in the bathroom. I remember the way nitrile gloves felt. I remember feeling bad for my parents. I remember how exhausted they looked all the time. I remember the hospital stays. I remember my last night with him. I remember answering my parents’ phone and the doctor saying he died. I remember the doctor said he had ‘expired.’ I remember having to wake my parents up to tell them. Telling my mom that her father died is still the hardest thing I’ve ever had to do. I remember not crying at the funeral until my cousin came up to me and hugged me harder and longer than he ever has. I remember my immense guilt about the sense of relief I felt when I realized there weren't any more bathroom trips to help him with.

It’s been a long while since my grandpa died. I don’t see my cousin as much as I used to. And because of the pandemic, I don’t see my parents much either. I miss them all terribly. I don’t think about the time I spent taking care of my grandpa as often as I once did. I certainly don’t talk about it all that much. But every once in a while, it comes up. 

My mom and dad have always been incredibly kind, patient parents. And in the years since we took care of my grandpa, it feels like their patience for me is even more expansive. Sometimes it feels like their understanding is an expression of how guilty they felt about needing my help. They’ve never pressed me about my career. Or money. Or really any other traditional milestones. 

The only thing they press me on is to be happy. To do what makes me happy. To be with someone only if they make me happy. I worry about living up to the patience and love they’ve given to me. I worry about them. About them aging. About being there for them. About what I can do to make them proud. But for now, I’m just working on the one thing they press me on. 

There are a million things I want to try - I've had a lot of time to think about them. And I’ve been lucky enough to meet someone that I want to try them with. Someone who makes me happy. I think my grandpa would really like her.