“While you were gone, a dog came in here. So help me God.”
My grandfather was in the hospital, and my sister and I had just returned to the room after a trip to the cafe.
“What did you do?”
“I petted it,” he demonstrated, patting at the air beside his bed, “and said ‘nice doggie.’”
This recovery period was so different from just 24 hours earlier, when the surgeon was gently preparing us for a tumor and I began preparing myself for his imminent death or, at the least, slow and painful descent into misery. (If you’re going to be bleak, might as well commit to it.)
But I’ll mostly skip those parts that involved steeling myself for the knowledge that one of those I love most in the world would no longer be in it. It was not a tumor. After the operation, even the surgeon indicated she had not expected such a good outcome; indeed, her resulting diagnosis had not been among the options she considered before the surgery.
In the next few days, during which my grandfather steadily improved, it was not too surprising that Walter Reed would turn up a dog. The hospital is full of sudden hallways and connecting tunnels and corridors that lead to other wings, none of which is anywhere near where you want to go.
But it was also full of kind, caring people who, to my endless amusement, could not pique my grandfather’s interest in their various activities.
One of the first was the musician, the type my 90-year-old grandfather would normally describe as a long-haired hippie. The hippie entered the room and very pleasantly asked if my grandfather wanted to make any music and, looking around at his assembled family, said he had enough instruments for everyone.
We all stared at him for a beat until my grandfather thanked him but declined.
Next was the arts and crafts lady, who had paper and markers and glitter and crossword puzzles. I could envision my grandfather gluing feathers and sprinkling glitter only slightly better than I could his playing a kazoo in a percussive-only family band. He was about to send her away too when I asked him, “Wait a minute, do you want to try a word search?”
“Ok, I’ll try that,” he said to the woman, who returned a moment later with a puzzle book. I gave him my pen, and he’s been seeking and finding words ever since.
One time, observing the needles and bruises up and down his arms, he remarked, “I look like a junkie.”
“Yeah. Kind of!” (Later, when he was home and hesitant about taking pain medication, I saw the bottle and said, “This is what I had after I broke my foot. It’s ok. Every day at 4:30, I’d pop one before I got off work.” “Yeah I heard it was good stuff,” he responded, now less wary, almost enthusiastic.)
About that time, the Eucharistic Minister came in and wanted to give my grandfather Communion, which he politely declined, just like the jam session and the arts and crafts.
“Well, can I say a prayer with you?” the man asked.
“Ok. Sure.” I suspect my grandfather didn’t want to disappoint the man and figured (correctly) that a prayer would be quick enough, so we all bowed our heads while the minister read something I didn’t recognize from his catechism.
Later, my grandfather remarked of the illness that brought him to the hospital, “That was the second sickest I’ve felt in my whole life.”
“When was the first?” I asked, though I already knew the answer.
“When I had malaria, in the South Pacific.”
My grandfather is a World War II veteran and, for that alone, drew not inconsiderable attention at Walter Reed. One of the technicians even said something like, “It’s an honor to take care of you, sir. We don’t see too many World War II vets anymore!” Of course, hanging in the air was the sad subtext, which she realized just a second too late: they’re mostly all dead.
Yet, I appreciated her gushing, which appeared completely genuine. And he is pretty amazing. One of the nurses commented with awe, “We usually have to catapult people in their 40s out of bed the day of surgery.”
By contrast, my grandfather was taking walks that afternoon. He wasn’t yet totally steady, so he held on to his companion’s arm, but he always made a loop around the whole corridor.
The morning I stayed with him, he wanted to go for a walk at 7 a.m., once the doctors made their rounds.
After our return, as he got back into the white-sheeted hospital bed, he glanced at the clock.
“I’d like to go around again at oh-eight-hundred.”