My ninety-six year old grandfather has returned to us. He was away for a few months there, physically present but mentally checked out. The pain medication he was given for a broken arm reacted badly with his anti-depressants and he began having delusions.

“The Nazis are coming,” he told my father. “Who will protect me?”

My father brought the security guard up to visit my grandfather. The broad-shouldered man showed my grandfather his gun.  “Look,” my dad said. “This is the man who will protect you.” My grandfather eyed the guard suspiciously, but said nothing.

When he and my father were alone again, my grandfather said: “I’m afraid that man is not up to the task.”

“I’ll protect you, dad,” my father assured him, the university professor with a penchant for anti-aging face creams.

“Okay,” my grandfather said, calmed for the moment. He settled back into his flimsy hospital bed.  “Okay, then.”

After the injury, my grandfather wasn’t allowed to go back to the assisted living facility where my grandmother still resides. The home informed my family that my grandfather’s needs now exceeded their capacities and he would have to find somewhere else. My grandmother was devastated. She fretted when she had to be away from her husband for an hour or two to get her hair colored and styled. Now we wanted her to sleep alone?

“It’s inhumane,” she told us.

A week into my grandfather’s hospital stay and he was still refusing to walk. He languished in bed, growing weaker. He was barely five feet and one hundred pounds to begin with so it seemed like he might just disappear altogether. He began verbally abusing the kind nurses, calling them all sorts of unpleasant names. Once in a while he threw a metal tray at the wall. My charming grandfather was gone; someone angry had moved in. This new person was downright nasty, even to my grandmother when she visited.

I called my grandma one night to check in. She didn’t have time to chat. “I’m going to the movies with the neighbor,” she said. Her neighbor is an Italian widower with blue eyes.

“Is she dating now?” my dad asked.

“I think her motives are pure,” I assured him.  My glass half-full grandmother was not the kind to seek out fun and I was glad she had found some.

My grandfather started accusing my father of trying to steal from him. He wanted to see the accounts. He wanted to talk to lawyers. Most of all, he wanted to be left alone. That’s what he said but when my father got up to leave my grandfather began to cry.

Meanwhile, my dad was searching for a new nursing home to park his parents. This would be the third move in six years, as my father had been moving them alongside him and his wife as they moved for their careers. There were waiting lists everywhere, or places that would take one of them but not the other. My grandfather stopped eating. My grandmother became despondent again. I wondered how it could be that two people in their nineties who had spent the majority of their lives together might possibly be forced to die apart.

And then one day, for no reason at all, my grandfather woke up from the waking nightmare he had been lingering in as he recovered from his injury. He agreed to physical therapy. He agreed to eat the runny chocolate pudding the hospital staff warily placed in front of him each afternoon. He began dressing himself again, looking tidy in cuffed khakis and buttoned shirts. He was always stylish.

My father and his father have a new joke now. Each morning my dad says: “You look sharp as a matzo.” My grandfather responds: “I feel twice as crummy.”

My grandfather is a man of few words and fewer expressed emotions. Yet three days after his return to us he told my father about a dream he had. “I was dying,” he said. “I knew I was dying and that I was supposed to let go.”

“And how did you feel?” my father asked.

“Scared,” my grandfather whispered – a word I have never heard him use before. “I’m not ready to go yet.”

We are not ready for his departure, either, though I’m not sure we ever will be.


RACHEL FRIEDMAN is the author of The Good Girl’s Guide to Getting Lost: A Memoir of Three Continents, Two Friends, and One Unexpected Adventure (Bantam Books, 2011). She is also an excellent pumpkin bread baker. You can find her at: www.rachel-friedman.com.

4 responses to “An Unexpected Return”

  1. Gregory Messina says:

    That was really sweet, sad, and uplifting all at the same time. Situations like these are the hardest to deal with, and the saddest to witness. You described it well without falling into the trap of being overly sentimental.

  2. poignant, yet there’s this kernel of “this is the hand we are dealt,” about the situation. well done.

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