Yesterday, while my grandfather was dying, I led a book group discussion on Rousseau’s Confessions, another man’s attempt to square his stories with the world, and all I could think about was my grandfather’s endless stories at the diner, imagining Rousseau’s protégés rolling their eyes when that story unraveled again. Rousseau was obsessed with truth, but was also full of shit. Many of the stories my grandfather tells himself, about the past and present, are not true. I mean, he can be so full of shit. Old men and their old stories, welcoming death with open arms.
I guess some people tell themselves stories in order to live. My grandfather has been telling himself stories in order to die. About a year ago he told my mom he was going to die in the next year or so and asked would she help with a few loose ends he had to tie up. He had to finish his book (note to would-be writers—this is apparently a problem that will haunt you into your 80s) and he had to see his parents’ graves, and he wanted to see all of us and make sure we were doing okay, and he told himself we were—even those of us that aren’t—and I for example am fine, though not married, and he told himself I was—and now he is dying. Just two days ago my mom took a picture of him eating a jelly doughnut and texted it to me. Yesterday evening I heard him in the background while I was on the phone with my mom; his breathing sounded like sonar pings from the void. He has been unconscious for many hours now, but we are told he is comfortable.
He told himself, and us, the same stories all year, so I have come to believe that when dementia strips a person of everything he has carried with him through the world for decades, the stories it leaves behind are the ones he has been telling himself all along to keep one foot in front of the other. I have heard these stories for the past year, on every visit, usually in the car on the way to the diner, or in the diner. My grandfather is a very good eater, and he can tell stories at the same time. I mean, he could tell stories at the same time. Different breakfast orders, same stories. Very picky about what jelly he’d put on his toast.
The funniest story he would tell, more and more frequently in the last few months, was about the time he drove my Nana home—this was before they were married—and brought her inside, and they—well—he always said that they fell asleep on the couch, his face the picture of innocence, but I know for a fact both of my grandparents were absurdly good-looking back then.
Anyway, the story gets good when Nana’s mother, Peg, woke them up “shrieking and hollering and carrying on, you know,” and here he likes to waggle his head a little, because he had left his car parked where everybody could see it. Then he would smack his hands together, one rising into the air, to indicate her anger—“whacko!”—because what would the neighbors think? Can you imagine? Here’s my young grandfather, war veteran, scared shitless of little old Peg Holcomb. So scared that now, after his brain forgot everything else, he remembers Peg hollering at him in her nightdress. It must have been exhilarating, don’t you think, and terrifying? They must have been so in love. He will take that story all the way home. He positively titters when he tells it.
Oh, he told us stories and he liked to read the headlines in the newspaper and make up stories about that, too, because he couldn’t read the real stories. In the last year while he told us about the international section, he started calling Vladmir Putin putain, so that he could tell us it was French for whore. Then he’d get mad at whatever politician was closest. I’d like you to like him, so I will not tell you what he had to say about the Pope. He believes in liberation theology like you believe in oxygen. You’ve never seen a man so mad the world isn’t a better place. As a young man he was one of the first Allied soldiers to open Dachau and his heart has bled ever since—ah, but this is not a story he tells. It is a story others tell about him. So it will keep.
Along with Peg, this last year my grandfather was also haunted by many men in many suits; the story of when he was fired, or quit, his job as a university chaplain, depending on who you ask, and no matter when he tells the story it’s inchoate. He’s remembered, over and over, sometimes multiple times a day, this meeting, the many men who sold him out, the accusations, the fury, the big table. He is still very angry about whatever happened. He has been carrying it with him for decades and it is still killing him. He forgot our birthdays long ago, but the details of that day are in his veins like a slow poison.
Closest to his heart was this, though: when he was still in the ministry, my grandfather’s calling was working with suicidal people—people all the way to the ledge, cold and scared, people he understood. He still remembers this about his life, thank whatever he believes in. He is carrying fear and rejection and Dachau above those knobbly knees. But he also still remembers the nights he spent with these hurting people, almost all young people, the hours he listened to their stories and told his, and he still remembers that in all that time, he only lost one. Proud and sad and pained, he would say: “And I only lost one.” Then: a rare silence.
He’s almost gone, and all that will be left is his book, a sheaf of very good poetry that is impenetrable to me, because it is awash with a love of God that reads like a foreign language. I have been sifting through it to find out what really happened to him, even though he has been telling me all along, but the stanzas glide by like swans, floating away with him, and his stories, and everything else.