He spent the next several months in the hospital; in March the doctors let him know he'd be released the first week of April. Nobody in the family was available to take care of him then, but I saw it as a perfect opportunity to suspend my studies and get away for a while. I took an incomplete in each of my five courses; I didn't rightly care if I'd ever return to finish them.
I took an Amtrak train out of Union Station in DC. The ride started out all right; I got to sightsee for several hours until nightfall. After dark, I tried to no avail to get some sleep. When some employee or other announced that the dining car was open for breakfast, I was overjoyed. I practically ran to it.
When I reached the dining car, I noticed one other person had beaten me there. She was a black woman who appeared to be in her late fifties; she was dressed in what I imagined was her Sunday finest, complete with a fancy hat of some design I do not know. Being ever the sociable and considerate sort, I asked her if she minded if I joined her for breakfast. She graciously offered me a seat at her table; apparently she was traveling alone, too.
I engaged her in conversation about herself; I figured she might have a lot on her mind to unload. She was talking about the reason for her trip when, in mid-sentence, she fell asleep! I sat there staring at her, with absolutely no clue what I should do. It may have been five minutes or so before she woke up; it felt like an eternity. She picked up the conversation precisely where she had left off, in mid-sentence, like the awkward hiatus had not occurred. I found my thoughts drifting a bit; should I say something about it? What would I say? I decided it would be best not to embarrass her; certainly she was aware of her condition...
Throughout the conversation, she fell asleep several more times. Every time it was in mid-thought, if not mid-sentence; it became a little less awkward each time it happened. While I don't recall many specific details of our discussion, it still stands as one of the more memorable conversations I've had the pleasure to be a part of.
Grandpa came home on the second or third of April in a wheelchair. He had an Ilizarov fixator device on his right leg; he could not walk; he could barely stand up. This was a man who used to push my grandmother in her wheelchair from Seward Street (yes, Ilia, that Seward Street) to Wrigley Field, watch Cubs' games with her, then wheel her back home. He was always so strong and vigorous; it broke my heart to see him laid so low.
For the next four months, I wore many hats in service to Grandpa. I was his cook, housekeeper, gardener, landscaper, handyman, driver, nurse and physical therapist. I even took over his babysitting "duties," watching my seven-year-old cousin and driving her to and from summer day camp. When I wasn't teaching her basic geometry--the Pythagorean Theorem, scratched into the dirt with a stick, in a strange synthesis of ancient schools of mathematical thought--I was teaching her how to hit a baseball (albeit with a plastic bat and whiffle ball).
One beautiful day in May, I was tossing cupcake pitches to my cousin when I noticed a squirrel on the steps of the back porch, sniffing around my half-pound bar of Hershey's Special Dark chocolate. When it seemed to be maintaining an unhealthy interest in my candy, I went over to shoo it away. It grabbed the whole thing (we had eaten two rows of blocks from it) and ran toward the stand of trees at the east side of the yard. I ran to the first tree, wrapped my arms around it, shouted and grunted to try to spook the thief, then darted over to the next tree to do the same thing there. After three or four failed attempts to get away, the squirrel ran back across the yard with the candy bar still secure in its mouth.
It found the tree behind the back porch and climbed it amazingly quickly for a small critter carrying a load nearly its own size. I was getting kind of ticked off at this point; I grabbed whatever I could find to throw at the varmint, including tennis balls, a golf ball, sticks, the plastic baseball bat, the whiffle ball and a pebble or two. It jumped from the tree to the roof to another tree, then to the roof next door. I kept missing it (maybe somewhat on purpose so as not to hurt it and upset my cousin); it jumped from the roof onto a branch of the weeping willow behind the house next door.
I was throwing things at it the whole way; I almost hit it with the golf ball, but it was not at all fazed as it made its way to the nest near the top of the tree. When it arrived, I could tell by all the chattering that it was party time for the squirrels. Rather than climb up and fight the whole gang, I admitted defeat and bid them bon appetit.
It was around that time that my uncle fell ill; he had been battling a diabetes-related condition most of his adult life. We had a grueling stint one Saturday night in the emergency room of St. Francis Hospital (where I had been born nearly twenty-five years before). The doctor who "treated" him there was curt and discourteous, almost to the point of being abusive. We finally got him into a room at around two o'clock in the morning. I visited him the next evening and the following afternoon.
Monday's visit included a pleasant chat and an episode of Jeopardy!, which was my uncle's favorite TV show. Between us we answered practically every question (or is that questioned every answer?); I picked up his slack when it came to current (pop cultural) events (an area where I have since lost my edge). When it came time for me to return to Grandpa's to prepare supper, my uncle told me as I was leaving, "It is always good to see you."
The next day, as I was getting ready to go back to visit my uncle, Grandpa informed me that he had just received a phone call informing him of my uncle's death. I went to the back yard to reflect on the matter; after much thought I decided to use my uncle's last words to me as my standard or guideline for future interaction with people. My ideal became that anyone with whom I spoke should walk away from our conversation believing that it had been a good experience.
When it came time to leave my grandfather's side in August, he was back on his feet regularly. The fixator had come off a couple of months earlier, and my rigorous rehabilitation regimen had worked to great effect (Grandpa called me his drill sergeant). He was even able to walk around some without his cane. Someone or other then came up with a good and cheap way for me to return home.
There was a company whose business was pairing drivers with vehicles to get them from one part of the country to another. All I had to do was pay for gas. They had a Honda Civic that was to be returned to its owner in Norfolk, VA; I figured that was close enough (just a six-hour Greyhound bus ride home). To get to the office I rode the bus along Lakeshore Drive into the city; on the way, I witnessed something that caused me to purge my speech of an old saying. There were two blind men waiting at one of the stops. One of them helped the other onto the bus and into his seat. Never again can or will I say, "That's the blind leading the blind..."
Three days later I drove from Evanston to Kensington, MD, stopping only once (in the middle of Ohio) to relieve myself, eat lunch and refuel the car; I couldn't get back home soon enough.