I did go visit him partly for self-serving purposes, partly because I might could write him onto a page and feel as if I understand him better, give him a more real place in my life and in my story. One visit won’t do that, of course, and so I will go visit him again. He’s 90, living now in a tiny town near the Arizona/Mexico border, a town with one restaurant and a fast-food joint and a whole hour from his VA hospital. I can easily imagine myself in his shoes, all alone and waiting to see which year of the next 10 will be his last. Which of these breaths will suddenly stop? I know how quickly I will be there looking back. I hope someone will visit me then, and I partly go to build up stock in my karma bank for when I’m old too.
But visiting him was a wealth of surprises and feelings, stories I’d never heard and someone else’s explanations for things that were wrong. The more explanations I hear the more I feel as if I could draw a thread out of all of them that would be closest to the true beginning of the cloth, the one true explanation woven of pieces of all explanations.
I remembered him as a smiling presence, a husky soft laugh like my dad’s, vague memories of him taking out his false teeth and clacking them at me, liquor on his breath and that ha, ha, ha; Grandma with her louder cackling laugh and smell of cigarettes, all of them laughing at these teeth and me looking at him with no expression the way I often did. I always liked him well enough.
I decided to visit Grandpa since I’m living close to him again, for a few years signed on to the ebb and flow of the desert, the way it brings me closer to the younger me, to the family we had that passed for nuclear, to the traveling and the moving of my dreams each night. To the empty howl of a train, the night sounds of crickets and whippoorwhils and the dark silhouettes of saguaros against brilliant jewel-toned Arizona sunsets. To what passes for home.
I called him once and got the answering machine, leaving him a message that I’d call him after work. “This is- this is your granddaughter. James’s daughter,” I said, picturing him knitting his brows on the other end and trying to pick out which of his 50 grandchildren this could be. When I called later that afternoon, he picked it up right away as if he’d been sitting beside it staring at it, willing his hearing aide to work.