I don't know how much I've talked about it here, if at all, but my grandpa has Alzheimer’s. He's had it for a few years now, but it was pretty sudden - a quick decent, but he's been more or less at the same level for quite a while. He's in a wheelchair all the time now, and he doesn't talk much, and when he does most of its incoherent. He does respond to stories and familiar voices sometimes though, and he'll hold your hand and not let it go. He's surprisingly strong still. He always has been. It's always hard every time I go down and see him because I can't help but remember all of the adventures we'd use to go on growing up.
Right up until a few years ago it was always some combination of camping, hiking, rafting, target practice and games and stories. My love of all things outdoors-y, rough-and-tumble came from all of the family trips we'd used to go on together as an extended family (all the fault of my grandpa and his brother(s)?), as well as the ones with just my family. And I'm not talking about taking a trailer or RV and parking in a state campground, or renting a yurt. That's not really camping. I'm talking about the kind of camping where you pitch a tent in the middle of nowhere and go dig a hole in the woods. It's thanks to him that I know how to rough it: I love sleeping out under the stars, I'm a pretty decent shot (if a little rusty now from disuse), I can pee in the woods without too much complaint, I can go a week without a shower, and my sense of direction is pretty good. I've done off-trail hiking, using landmarks, moss and sun to guide me (compasses and maps also help, and I'm not bad with those either). I'm quite handy with an ax and have been the Designated Wood-Chopper on some trips. I know how to build and start a fire without newspaper or pre-made kindling (let's go on a gathering trip! Find dry moss and small twigs, then some larger stuff!), and while I haven’t had to use flint, I know the theory and I've watched my dad do it before. I've been in the position of having to apply first aid, both to myself and others when we've been hours if not days away from any real form of help.
If the Zombie apocalypse happens, or I find myself thrown into the Hunger Games, I think it's fair to say I'd be able to last a little while at least, and it's all thanks to my grandpa.
Even when I was a little kid and my grandparents were still living in-town, my grandpa would take my brother and I (and latter my younger siblings as well) for the weekend or the afternoon. Whenever he picked us up in his jeep we'd do a little call and repeat song - Going on a Lion Hunt, and we'd take a round-about route to their house.
The house that I remember most had a massive back yard - I think it was something like a triple lot. The part closest to the house was a beautifully manicured lawn with several huge trees. Each tree had a flowerbed - some with ivy, some with tulips and other flowers- around the base, with a brick edge. In one of the trees he built us a tree house. My brother and I loved it and would spend forever up there. I remember being both a little scared (because it was so high up) and supper excited while he was working on it. The original ladder, I believe, was a rope ladder, and it terrified the shit out of me, so he installed a row of 2x4's screwed into the trunk. This led up to a simple platform high in the branches with a railing around the edge. It didn't have a roof, so it was sometimes slippery and cold and damp up there, but I loved it all the same. I'm having a bit of trouble remembering, but I think my grandpa might have added on a small second level - a crow’s nest, as it were, and that really was just a tiny spot to perch. I don't remember having spent much time up there. Behind this lawn was what I always thought of as a secret and enchanted area: an overgrown sometimes garden, a field of wildflowers, a plum tree and a tangle of raspberry bushes. Next to this was a small forest of bamboo, which shielded from the house and immaculate law an ancient and rusting play structure - the kind with a couple of swings, a slide and some bizarre teeter-totter contraption. While I loved the tree house, I think this shaded, secluded and hidden spot was my favorite, and a prelude to the forts my brother and I would build later, and the hidey-holes I would make for myself. The adults almost never intruded on my enchanted country.
There next place was a home my grandpa built himself and my grandma out in Madras. I remember spending a week or two out there -10 or 12 years ago now- that summer. The foundation was done, and the base of the floor put in, and I think a lot of the frame and walls were up, but it was still all see-through and roof-less. We ended up pitching our tent in what would be the living room of my Great Aunt and Uncle's house next door. (They were building their houses at the same time.) This new place was a far cry from the lush backyard I was used to, but the landscape had a rugged beauty that couldn't be denied. It helped that their lot faced a massive communal pasture, and several of their neighbors had horses. There was a path all along the outside that I loved to walk around and say hello to the horses that I longed to have, or even just to ride a for a little while, but never could since we lived in the city.
This house was the launch-point of many adventures. Smith Rocks was near-by, and we hiked around and explored that area a number of times. There was also an abundance of BLM land close-by, and that's where I learned to shot a shotgun. At first it was just cans propped up with a cliff-facing behind it, but after that I got to try my hand at clay pigeons. We had a skeet-shooter that we brought with us sometimes, that launched these brightly colored clay discs - think 5" mini Frisbees- high into the air in an arc. The goal, as I'm sure you can imagine, is to shoot it into tiny bits before it gets out of range. The last time I went shooting I whooped my brother's butt at it too. We also set out from there to the Alvord Desert a couple of times - primitive camping and land sailing on a dry lake-bed at the foot of the Stenes Mountains in the very southeast corner of Oregon. Despite the sometimes oppressive heat, the fact that you had to bring all your shade, that the bathroom was a tiny port-a-potty stuck behind some sagebrush, or that the only way to get clean (for varying definitions thereof) was a hot springs nearby which your could use to take a bucket shower (Hop in the hot springs to get wet, hop out, soap up, and dump a bucket of the stuff over your head away from the springs themselves to avoid contamination.), or the crazy-long drive to get there, I loved it. I loved taking the land sailor out for hours on end, sometimes going all the way to the other side of the lake-bed, feeling the rush of wind that took the edge off the heat. I loved sleeping out under the stars. Down there, at least three hours away from the nearest city, you could see everything. I loved watching as the night sky moved; the stars rotating, tracking satellites in their orbits from horizon to horizon, shooting starts streaking past and the moon, ever bright and clear, inching its way up in the sky as I slowly drifted off with a contented smile on my face.
I feel like I'm writing a eulogy, and in a way I am. It seems a bit silly, having this drawn-out and stilted sadness because he's not dead. But he's not really here anymore either, and I miss him more than I can say. What makes him the amazing, strong and capable man that I knew and loved growing up is gone. In his place is a confused old man that drools and yells and babbles incoherently and holds your hand like a lifeline and breaks your heart every time, and it hurts.
Most of the time I'm okay, but most of the time it's because I'm not thinking about it. Then there are times when it just hits me, this trembling wave of sadness, hurt, confusion and longing, and I don't think I've really even started to deal with it or process at all, until perhaps now. Lately I've been listening to this amazing and absolutely beautiful song by Of Monsters and Men called Little Talks. If you don't listen to the lyrics it sounds like a pretty upbeat song with a repeating quirky trumpet line and a couple of voices. The lyrics, to me and my dad at least, tell the story of an aging couple, and the woman has some form of dementia or memory problems. You don't really get that until almost the end though. For most of the song it could be about a couple going through a rough patch it their relationship - possibilities of cheating, etc. but there are a few lines and word choices that make me think it's about an older couple. The bridge at the end get's me every time.
You're gone gone gone away
I watched you disappear
All that's left is a ghost of you
Now we're torn torn torn apart, there's nothing we can do
Just let me go we'll meet again soon
Now wait wait wait for me
Please hang around
I'll see you when I fall asleep