Sunday, May 06, 2012

And it keeps coming, and it keeps coming, and it keeps coming, 'til the day it stops

I had a vision of my grandfather the other morning.  The bottom of his feet, actually.  His skin was so tan and leathery, but the bottoms of his feet were a pale yellow...

This vision arrived during meditation time at the end of my yoga class.  I was lying flat on my back in shavasana, a cold lavender-soaked towel folded over my eyes, feeling relaxed and groovy.  It's a lovely time; you're all sweaty and wrung out from being strong and bendy and focused for an hour, and then you finally get to relax and lay there, trying to empty your mind and just BE.

So I was thinking about my breath, or trying not to think about my breath and just breathe (I'm never sure which), thinking about how my breath just comes and goes without my having to expend any effort to make it happen.  You never have to say, "I'm going to breathe now - here I go!"  Your breath just happens, in and out, like the ocean.  So then I started thinking about the ocean, and how the waves feel on your body, pushing against you indifferently - you know the waves will come and go whether you're there to feel them or not, and you know your breath will come whether you think about it or not.  I remember how as a kid after my parents were divorced and we'd spend our custody-agreement-mandated eight weeks with my dad in Delaware for the summer, he would rent a beach house in Rehobeth for a week.  I remember how if you spent all day in the water, the waves pushing at you, when you came home and got in bed at the end of the day, you could still feel the waves on your body.  Lying flat on your back in your scratchy-sheet rental house bed, you could almost believe you were still in the water, feeling the surging and receding of the tide on your prone body.

And then I remember my grandfather.  Pop-pop.  My dad's dad, a retired engineer (the train kind) and WWII veteran.  When my grandparents came with us to the beach, my grandfather, who went by Pete even though his given name was Stewart, would always float on his back while we played in the shallows.  You could look out to the deeper water and see him there, bobbing up and down with the rise and fall of the waves.  I say "floated on his back," but it was more akin to sitting in a recliner.  His head was almost upright and his feet stuck up out of the water, their pale yellow bottoms a shocking contrast to the rest of his brown skin.  He would rise up on the swell of a wave, grinning and paddling his hands at his sides, and then sink down and disappear in the trough between that wave and the next one coming in, only to re-appear on the crest a moment later.  So strong, so vital - it seemed effortless, how he floated, and no matter how he tried to teach me I could never quite match his ability to ride the waves, relaxed and happy.

That's almost 30 years ago now.  Pop-pop was in his 60s then, an active, interactive grandfather, the kind who talked to babies in gibberish they seemed to understand and made up stories about the golf-ball-sized lipomas on his arms - "I got so mad when I missed that birdie shot that I swallowed the ball and that's where it ended up!"  He ran five miles every morning and every time he would take a sip from his glass of Laird's Applejack, he'd wince, then smile, and then say, "One hundred proof."  He grew his own vegetables in a garden behind the house, worked on his vast model train display in the basement, and told us edited-for-kids stories about his scars and tattoos from WWII.

Pop-pop is in his 90's now.  He's had Alzheimer's disease for about 15 years, as near as we can tell, and his wiry, tanned body has become a pale, whiskery, shapeless mass.  The last time I saw him in the assisted-living home Mom-mom finally moved him to after caring for him at home for too many years, he was in a wheelchair, mute, his sweatshirt stained with food.  He doesn't recognize anyone anymore, not even his wife, and he can't use the bathroom on his own or sleep in a bed without rails to prevent him from falling out.  He is, in essence, an infant again, helpless and frail.  His blue eyes are vacant.  There's no Pete in there anymore.

So.  Yoga.   I lie on my back, in corpse pose, thinking about my grandfather, about his long slow decay and how difficult it is to mourn someone who's still biologically alive but mentally and emotionally not in existence anymore.  Mom-mom sends birthday cards whose postscript reads, "Sweetie, pray for your grandfather to die." 

I see the bottoms of his feet bobbing up and disappearing, bobbing up and disappearing.

I'm trying very hard not to cry.  I'm trying very hard to acknowledge my thoughts and then let them pass by like clouds in the sky.  It's not working, and I'm silently shaking with sobs, tears rolling out from under the lavender-scented washcloth.  There are of course other people in the room, other yogis and yoginis trying to relax and clear their minds, and I'm desperate not to disturb their meditation.  I get a hold of myself for a bit, and then I see his feet again, feel the waves crashing on my prone body, and the shaking sobs return.  I become convinced that my grandfather has in fact died, that I am having some kind of hippie woo-woo psychic connection to my Pop-pop as his tired spirit finally leaves his body, his strong healthy body that has lingered on so long after his mind has gone.

So I get up and leave the yoga studio.  My teacher's eyes look at me questioningly, but I give him a feeble wave and sprint as silently as I can for the door.  I run into the hall and into the bathroom, turn on the fan, and let the sobs come.  The release is what I need, and it doesn't take long for the tears to run their course.  I splash water on my face, pat it dry with paper towels, and rejoin my class.

When I get home I call Mom-mom.  She sounds tired but happy to hear from me, and I mentally vow to call more often.  Pop-pop is fine, of course, or as fine as he can be.  Mom-mom confesses that she doesn't go to visit him every day because it's too depressing. 

He's already gone.