At six, the old man teaches her to play poker.
They sit at the kitchen table while her grandmother cooks dinner and her baby brother watches intently as he teaches her the basics of cards. Aces are the highest, then kings, and so on. She likes the face cards best because they seem to wink at her and whenever she has them in her tiny hands, she always wins. She picks up on it quickly and by the time dinner finds its way to worn tabletop, she’s beaten him ten times over and has accumulated a somewhat large pile of pennies.
He lets her keep the pennies, much to her mother’s chagrin. Her father, on the other hand, thinks it’s the funniest thing he’s ever seen.
At eight, almost nine, her grandmother passes away and the house changes. The old man’s smiles become rarer and it takes him longer to acknowledge things than it had before her grandmother had gone into the hospital and never came home. It lasts a little over a year and then, suddenly, he is himself again.
Well, almost himself.
Even at nine, she knows he’s different. He has to be, her child mind reasons, because she is. Maybe no one notices it, maybe she never makes a show of it, but she is different. Slightly cracked in the same way a beloved China teacup often is.
By the time she turns ten, it’s like the tide has come in and washed it all away. They move on.
She’s twelve when he teaches her how to bet perceptively during a poker game. They sit at the kitchen table with a deck of cards between them and a pile of pennies and he teaches her how to win.
‘Don’t bet too high outright, they’ll know your hand is big and they’ll fold. You won’t get anywhere.’
He picks up his cards and, after considering them for a few seconds, tosses three pennies into the center.
She consults her cards – three sixes, a two, and a misplaced jack – and matches his bet.
‘Dad says you were shot, back in the war.’ She doesn’t really know what the war was, but she knows it wasn’t Vietnam. Her dad was in Vietnam and the old man is much older than her dad.
He tosses out three cards, waits for her to toss out her two, and then deals them each a set of replacements. ‘Yep, in the leg.’
Her two new cards – another two and a new seven – don’t really help, but she adds three more pennies to the pile anyway. ‘Did it hurt?’
He matches her three pennies. ‘Yep.’
‘Who shot you?’
‘Did they know you?’
She doesn’t mean the question to be sarcastic, but that’s how it comes out and she freezes. The old man looks at her over the tops of his glasses and she feels herself blush.
‘Grandpa,’ she starts, hoping to apologize for her momentary lapse in respect.
He begins to laugh, loud and hard, and she blushes a little more. ‘Nope, they didn’t,’ he says once he regains his breath. ‘Probably a good thing, too.’ He tosses his cards down – four eights – and leans back a little in his chair.
She puts her cards down. ‘Because if they had, they’d have shot you twice?’
He laughs even louder this time and pulls the pile of pennies toward him.
‘Been talkin’ to your dad, have you?’
She thinks back to what he said about keeping her cards to herself. She looks at him with what she hopes is a good poker face and shrugs. ‘Maybe.’
She’s nineteen and she knows something is off.
It’s Christmas Eve and they’re up at the house to exchange gifts and visit. This is her second Christmas in college and she’s glad to be home. The old man is happy to see her and he’s moving around fairly well, despite the fact his leg has gotten more arthritic and he’s a year older than he was last Christmas. They’ve gotten him a new cane and a really warm flannel shirt that she picked out and his favorite candy. It’s a simple Christmas, but he’s a simple man and she knows he’ll love his simple gifts.
‘How’s college?’ he asks her when she sits down next to him and kisses his cheek.
He smells clean and his cheek is scratchy from a five o’clock shadow he forgot to shave off.
‘It’s good. I’m glad to be home.’
He looks at her and his eyes can’t seem to focus and for a minute the world stops spinning.
‘Liz?’ he asks in a soft voice.
Liz was her grandmother, a woman who died ten years earlier.
She shakes her head very slowly. ‘No, grandpa. It’s Meg.’
His eyes come back to rest on her face and he smiles, reaches out and pats her cheek. ‘You look good, kid,’ he says.
She smiles. ‘Thanks. You look pretty good, too, old man.’
He laughs and she tells herself that she imagined the earlier moment. It’s easier than accepting the old man is finally getting old.
She’s twenty-one when they move him into a home.
It’s a combination of Alzheimer’s and a stroke no one knew he’d had and the realization that they just can’t take care of him anymore. To her, it feels like they’re abandoning him, though she’d never speak those words aloud to her family. It isn’t her place and she doesn’t know everything, just the bits and pieces that filter down from her mom.
She decides to visit him on her next trip home. She drives to the nursing home and tries not to hyperventilate in the parking lot. She isn’t good with sick people, isn’t good with hospitals and what they mean. It’s hard when it’s someone she knows and it’s terrifying when it’s someone she loves.
She asks for his room at the front desk and is led to it by a nurse she knows, the mother of a boy she went to high school with and who she sees occasionally when she’s home. The nurse tries to prepare her for it, tries to comfort her before the door even opens, but she very gently pushes her away. This is something she needs to do on her own – she hasn’t told anyone she’s here for the fear they would have wanted to come with her.
She opens the door and says hello.
He is positioned on the bed, sitting upright and staring at his hands. At the sound of her voice, he looks up and a wide smile crosses his leprechaun face. It makes her happy to see him smile and she returns it with one of her own.
Her smile falters slightly.
‘It isn’t Elizabeth, grandpa. It’s Meg. Your granddaughter.’
He looks at her and his demeanor changes. He isn’t smiling at her anymore and the expression on his face isn’t one she’s ever seen. She imagines it’s the same expression he turned on the Germans all those years ago and it makes her heart stop.
‘I don’t have a granddaughter,’ he says, his voice cold and confused.
She backs out, closes the door, and runs to her car. She doesn’t speak for a day and when she finally does, she tells her father and it is the hardest conversation they’ve ever had. The doctors ask her not to come back and she can’t help but feel like it’s her turn to abandon the man who taught her how to bluff and what fresh blueberries taste like straight from the bush.
It breaks her heart.
She’s twenty-five when the old man passes away.
She flies home for the funeral and a very somber Thanksgiving meal and she spends two days trying very hard to be strong for her dad. Her brother helps, as does her mom, and she manages to make it through her stay without too much sadness.
In the middle, there is laughter and alcohol and the opportunity to spend time with family members she does not see often enough and they all wonder if the old man knew this would happen, that his death would finally bring them all together for a holiday dinner.
It’s two weeks later, when she is back in Maryland and she has a chance to slow down, that it hits her. She’s on the commuter train, on her way home from a long day at work, and she’s reading a book about baseball – the old man’s favorite game. She thinks about her memories, about the million little things he taught her. Before she can stop herself, his memory invades her senses completely and she’s overwhelmed by his death, by the fact his mind was gone for so many years before his body joined it.
Surrounded by people she does not know, she cries heavy, salty tears for the memory of her grandfather and for the memory of the old man he once was.
In loving memory of my grandfather, Winston Hunt, the best old man a silly girl like me could have ever asked for.