When you get to Des Moines’ Airport you have to take an escalator down from your terminal to the baggage claim area. Those eight or ten other times I’ve come through here before, it turned into a game; a game to see how long it would take for me to catch a glimpse of his Rockports. The escalator would take you down and as the ceiling would rise up it would reveal his light blue jeans, baggy around his skinny legs. Eventually it would give way to the rest of him and then it became a waiting game.
He had terrible eyesight. How long would it take for him to realize it was me right in front of him?
Each trip the time elapsed was longer and longer but it wasn’t necessarily because of his bad eyes.
When he’d hug me with one fist pressed into my ribcage and the other into my shoulder blade, he’d always make a wisecrack.
“Wasn’t sure what color your hair would be this time.”
My grandfather’s death certificate says his primary cause of death was pneumonia and the secondary was dementia. That’s probably because the medical examiner doesn’t have a listing for pride, stubbornness and reckless independence.
Every time I came here I was silently, or not so silently, tasked with an important duty. I had to evaluate whether he was still doing well enough for the living situation he was in. If he wasn’t—if the situation was no longer sustainable for both him and his sister—I needed to convince him to move into a care facility…like, yesterday.
No matter how nicely I tried to bring it up, it always ended with the same scowl and dismissal.
“It costs too much money and I don’t need it. You and your mom gotta be taken care of right.”
The last time I was here in November of 2011 I didn’t see his legs, but his sister’s as I came down the escalator. She handed me a three-page note and told me I had to read it later, but that we had two months to get him out of her house before she was taking an Alaskan cruise. He was too much work and she was getting too old herself, so we had to move him back to Oregon or else.
Or else what?
She told me she’d do what she’d have to do.
A few weeks later she called the cops. She said one of those things that as a woman you can say to automatically get a man put in the back of a squad car. They never charged him, but he spent the next six weeks in a psych ward, a hospital, skilled nursing and a respite care facility getting sicker and sicker, until he finally died.
When I got here to Iowa for my writing residency on Monday obviously I knew I wouldn’t see his legs, but I wasn’t sure if I would get emotional about that or not. I’m back here to work on that book—the one I keep telling myself I’m going to write—the one where I talk about the family dynamic we had. I want to talk about how when I was twenty-six years old, my best friend was an eighty-year-old man who was steadfast and convinced, to a fault, that his life for some reason was culminating in my well-being and success.
I have to talk about how broken both of our brains were and what got us to this point.
I didn’t cry at the escalator, but what I didn’t expect was how the night before I had to fly out I started getting completely terrified.
What if couldn’t do his story justice? What if he had really made the wrong investment all those years ago?
The residency I’m at is located is on a farming complex about forty-five minutes away from where he lived. That’s not really far, unless you don’t drive but I don’t. To get groceries it’s about a five mile round trip.
Instead of bothering to cozy up with any of the other artists and ask for a lift into town, I start the trek along the highway’s edge—just me and my Converse, in the rain.
Two weeks ago I moved into a new place in North Portland. This means doing the fun task of lifting, rearranging, and unpacking—and for me—assembling a large bookshelf.
The last two I had were IKEA and both never stood correctly, or they flat out broke weeks later. My previous roommate made some snotty comment about my lack of craftsmanship being tied up with my tits, as opposed to it being shitty IKEA particleboard. This time around I spent the extra $30 and then armed with an electric screwdriver and a hammer, I got to work.
It took two days, a lot of rearranging of furniture, a sore knee and a hole in a t-shirt, but I assembled the hundred and twenty-five pound behemoth, stood it up and pushed it the thirty feet to it’s resting place by myself. My roommate’s friend kept offering to help me and while it would have been easy to just say “sure”, this became a point of pride. I had to prove I could do this by myself.
I hope it’s still standing.
There have been a lot of moments like these for me lately. But when I see things like that escalator it reminds me of the old guy in another way; that sometimes you need to be willing to be vulnerable and ask for help. Not everything has to be a battle where there is a winner and a loser.
When you step on an escalator you can choose to stand to the right and let it move you to your destination, or you can walk up it on the left side. Either one gets you there ultimately.
I go to a Subway somewhere on my journey back to the farm because every other café I’ve seen sells roast beef and ambrosia salad. When the woman at the counter starts asking me about myself I tell her where I’m staying and it takes her a second for recognition.
“You’re on foot?”
“That’s quite a walk! Did you walk into town too?”
I tell her I did.
“It’s raining and cold. You should call someone from up there to come get you…or if you wait an hour I’ll be off work and I could drive you up myself.”
And for a minute I think about it but then I remember exactly why I’m here.
I think about how he died for me to live a better life and there’s still a lot of guilt there. It’ll lessen eventually but part of this trip is about making sure it wasn’t all in vain.
So I tell her thanks, but no thanks and I head up the hill towards the blue barn.
There will be escalator days in the future where I let someone move me—I promise, but today is not one of those days. Today I’ll take the stairs.