While celebrating Christmas together, a grandfather shares eight keepsakes with his grandson, inviting him to choose just one as a gift after he has heard each one's remarkable story.
- B&H Publishing Group
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- 5.00(w) x 7.00(h) x 1.00(d)
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When my father called to tell me about Grandpa's impending death, I must admit I wasn't concerned. I hadn't seen much of Grandpa in my almost twenty years of life, and the brief family visits we had shared had been wrought with a curious tension between my grandfather and my dad. More than ten years had passed since I last tossed a baseball with Grandpa, and all I really remembered was trying to catch a fastball that was too fast for a nine-year-old. The ball skipped off the top of my misplaced glove and hit me squarely on the nose. The blood I licked with my tongue ended up being thicker than that between relations, and my family left Grandpa's house that day for good. I came to believe that that hardball had caused feelings too hard for reconciliation.
"Alan, your grandfather's dying, and I want you to stay with him for awhile," my father told me on the phone, grabbing my full attention. "You're through with your exams today, right?"
I would take my last exam in one hour; then I was free for the Christmas break. "Yeah, but I was planning a ski trip this weekend," I protested, "and it's my birthday the twenty-fourth. Besides, I don't even know Grandpa. What's his problem anyway?"
"He had a heart attack a few months ago, then another two weeks ago. I didn't know about the second one until a doctor called last night to tell me his heart's giving out. He's got a thickening of the heart muscle and lots of damage. It's called cardiomyopathy."
I absorbed the news, then blurted, "Where ishe?"
"His home? In Montana somewhere?"
"Yeah, in Darby. He wants to die at home, but I'm told he needs someone there." After a short pause, Dad added, "Look, I can't get off work until Christmas. If I get you a plane ticket, will you stay with him for a week or so?"
Reluctantly, I flew from Detroit to Missoula, Montana, the next morning. In my mind, both my holiday vacation and my twentieth birthday were ruined. Taking care of a bedridden old man whom I hardly knew was not my idea of a Christmas seasonor a birthday.
The flight itself was uneventful until the plane descended out of the clouds and I saw the mountains below. Grandpa had made the move from Michigan to Montana a few years ago, but I had never been west to see him. My first look at the snow-covered Rockies elated me.
Once on the ground at Missoula International Airport, I rescued my two suitcases from the baggage area and followed the signs to Hertz Rent A Car. It "hurt," all right, filling up my credit card, but the new indigo blue Taurus awaiting my arrival fit me well.
Following the directions my father had given me, I drove two-lane Highway 93 all the way to Darby, population 625, some 62 miles south of Missoula in the Bitterroot Valley.
The hour-and-a-quarter drive was the prettiest I'd ever made. Snowcapped, jagged, forested mountains, one after another, greeted me on my right while smaller, more rounded and brown mountains closed in on my left as I traveled down the valley floor. The sky was a rich blue with nary a cloud and seemed bigger somehow than back home. Small western towns popped up every ten or fifteen miles on Highway 93, with names like Lolo, Florence, Stevensville, Victor, and Hamilton.
Because my father's directions only got me to Darby, I stopped at a convenience store called Mr. T's to inquire about my grandfather's whereabouts. I parked beside a red sports car bearing a license plate that read "PSALM 1."
The pretty but flighty cashier inside "T's" was just a high school kid who seemed too self-involved to know about an unrelated, dying old man. I borrowed her phone book, but there was no listing for my grandfather.
A young, red-headed woman, perhaps twenty years old, caught my attention as she approached the checkout counter. She was beautiful in her blue denim skirt and jacket, and her big, blue eyes were gazing right at me.
"Excuse me," she said, smiling. "Did I hear you say George Maki's your grandfather?"
Feeling a bit uncomfortable, I shifted my weight and uttered, "Yeah."
She extended her right hand toward me. "I'm Robin Patterson, a friend of your grandfather's."
I grinned and shook her hand. "Ah, I'm Alan Maki. Nice to meet me ... uh ... you," I stumbled, blushing.
Robin kept smiling. Her perfect teeth were the whitest I'd ever seen. I imagined that my face was the reddest she'd ever laid eyes on.
"Listen," she said, "go four miles south of town and turn right just before the bridge over the Bitterroot River. That's the West Fork. Drive half a mile, and George's place is the little white house on the right. Look for the white fence. You can't miss it."
I walked outside with her and thanked her for her help. She climbed into the car with the godly license plate, and even I could discern that Robin was a heavenly girl. Someone "up there" had broken the mold with her.
Smitten, I wondered if I'd ever see her again.
Several minutes later, I discovered that Robin Patterson's directions were accurate. Just beyond a mailbox with "Maki" painted on it, I turned onto the ninety-foot paved driveway to the house. My eyes darted from the little house to a small red barn to the south, then to the barking German shepherd running toward my car. As I stopped alongside an old, black Chevy truck in front of a one-car garage, the dog stood on its hind legs and pawed vigorously at my driver's side window.
"Get down!" I cried, rolling down the window. The dog kept at it. Realizing the rental car's paint job was in jeopardy, I flung open the door.
"Get away!" I gasped, anticipating the teeth. Instead, I received the slap of a long, wet tongue on the back of my left hand.
"Buck!" A high-pitched voice rang out from the house. A short, elderly woman leaned out the front door. Buck loped toward her.
"Hello!" I hailed. "Is this where George Maki lives?"
The woman waited until I reached the porch before answering, "Yes. Are you Alan?"
I nodded. She grabbed the dog's collar with one hand and held the storm door open for me with the other.
"The dog's still young," she explained. "Come in out of the cold!"
It was warm inside the house, but dark.
"Please have a seat," invited the woman, "and I'll see if your grandfather is awake." She headed toward a back room, with Buck trotting after her. Over her shoulder she said, "My name's Opal, by the way. I'm a hospice nurse."
I took off my leather jacket, tossed it on an armchair beneath the only window in the living room, and sat down in another chair. Short chintz draperies filtered the light of the midafternoon sun. On the rug-covered floor in the center of the room sat an antique coffee table. Hanging on the blue-gray barn-wood wall behind a wood-burning stove was an old wooden sign that read, "Notis you: Who's to givit you promisson for huntit my land? Better you to lookit outdt else I sootit you wit da 2-pipe sotgun." I couldn't help but smile.
"He's still asleep." Opal was back, carrying her purse and coat. Buck was with her.
"Listen," she said, "I've been here quite awhile waiting for you, and I've got to go. I'll leave a list of medications and a time schedule." She took a piece of paper out of her purse and handed it to me as I stood up from the chair.
"Leaving so soon?" I asked, suddenly apprehensive. I glanced at the list, and the responsibility distressed me. "Can I do this?"
Opal grinned. "You can do it," she assured me, moving to the front door. "There's plenty of food in the kitchen, and the dog food is in the pantry. Wood's stacked out back."
With the door opened, she added, "The medicines are on the dresser in George's bedroom. I'll be back Monday afternoon to check on things." Then she was gone. The door clicking shut made my stomach sink.
I folded the paper and shoved it into my back pants pocket. Buck emitted a short whine, reminding me of his support. I reached a hand toward the dog.
"We might as well be pals," I said, hearing the Chevy truck's engine start up. I stopped stroking the dog and walked through the dining area past an oak table and four chairs. A small kitchen was located to the right, but I veered left and entered a short hallway. On the left was an open door, so I stepped inside, finding a large bathroom decorated in shades of blue.
As I left the room, Buck trotted to the closed door at the end of the hallway. Sure that Grandpa was on the other side, I moved toward the door, only to pull up short at an array of family pictures displayed on the right side wall.
A large photo of Grandpa and Grandma Joyce, taken perhaps a year or two before her death in 1978, was the centerpiece, surrounded by about twenty smaller pictures. I quickly found two oldies of me with my younger sister, Linda, and my parents, along with my high school graduation picture. There were a couple pictures of my father as a young man and another of a man I thought was my grandfather's brother, Leonard. A half-dozen others depicted my grandmother in attractive poses, while some more recent photographs showed Grandpa in camouflage hunting clothes. An old, yellowed, black-and-white photograph of a young man and woman in wedding attire hung above all the rest.
Buck's scratching at the closed door drew me away from the pictures. I quietly turned the doorknob. Buck would have none of it and bulled his way into the room. As the door swung wide, I laid eyes on the old man in his bed. His head was sticking out from under his blanket and was elevated by a pillow. He didn't move as the dog paced from one side of the bed to the other.
Gingerly, I approached, struggling to recognize the grandfather I had not seen in ten-and-a-half years. His face looked old and gaunt, and the wavy, wheat-colored hair of his younger days was gone, leaving a bald head. His nose was narrow, widening at the bottom where a nasal cannula was inserted into his nostrils. His lips were pencil-thin, and his chin was quite pointed.
Suddenly the blue eyes in the face popped open, startling me. They then squeezed shut as though what they had seen was too horrendous to look at. I stepped back, tripping over Buck, and almost fell down. Buck, bewildered, dashed out of the room. I expected the commotion to wake up Grandpa, but he remained still. I watched him for a minute, noting the shallowness of his breathing. Then my eyes began to wander.
To the right of the bed, placed below a shaded window and next to a portable oxygen tank, sat an old dresser with four plastic medicine bottles lined up in a perfect row on top, surely courtesy of Nurse Opal. I then looked further right at a three-tier, hardwood bookshelf filled with more than a hundred books. Above the books, a wooden, square-faced clock was bracketed on the wall, and next to it hung a colorfully dyed wool rug, about four feet long and three feet wide.
At the right foot of the bed sat a metal folding chair with a padded seat. To the left of the bed was a teak end table with a simple glass-based lamp sitting on it, along with a small picture of my grandmother, a Bible, and a pair of reading glasses. Behind me to my left stood a five-foot-tall, black steel, square-bodied floor safe. I peered at the combination lock in the large, sealed door. Naturally, my curiosity peaked. I wondered what was hidden inside.
Glancing at Grandpa, I noticed a framed print of Jesus hanging on the wall above the head of the bed. Only the head and shoulders had been painted, and they were life-size. The dark brown, glistening eyes seemed to look through me.
"I've heard your grandpa's got religion now, so don't be surprised if he hits you over the head with it," my father had warned me earlier in the day at the Detroit Metropolitan Airport. This Jesus picture certainly hinted at religion, as did the Bible on the table; but by the looks of Grandpa, I doubted he was strong enough to hit me with anything.
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