Grandfather’s Coat

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That coat, its cavernous pockets, the hidden treasures within, it graced Benny’s Scarecrow now.

My hands were always cold. My earliest memories are of times I’d slip my tiny, cold hands into his and ask, “Grandpa, how come your hands are so warm?” He would tell me his coat pockets had special hand-warming powers. He would ask me to see for myself and every time I tried I would come up with candy bars or other trinkets I fancied. The coat had inside pockets as well, for his books, notebooks, pens and pencils. Grandpa’s coat was a source of eternal fascination for me.

I loved our long walks through the woods, the fields, hand in hand stopping by Pirates’ Cove. His binoculars would come out of those pockets so we could watch the Peregrine falcons perched atop the rocks or circling up above. We walked by the scarecrow in the field, its arms extended in mid-speech, exhorting crows to stay away from the corn. Grandpa never failed to hum, “If I only had a brain…”, whenever we saw Benny’s Scarecrow. Benny was Grandpa’s childhood friend and they had crafted it together as little boys.

Deeper in the woods we would wait for the red-breasted bullfinch or the loons on the lake. His notebook always at hand, recording the stunning descriptions of flora and fauna he’d observed around us. I still remember him telling me the zoological name of the bullfinch – Pyrrhula Pyrrhula – and my inquiring if they called it that for its sound, its quiet warble. He laughed at that and told me it probably referred to the male bullfinch’s fiery red breast. I was in awe of Gramps and never left his side throughout my summer vacations.

I watched him now in his room at the Sunset Home for Seniors. The sunken eyes staring out into nothingness. I held his hand in mine watching the translucent skin stretched tight across his frail hands, crisscrossed by underlying blue veins; they had lost the warmth I had sought as a child.

He wasn’t sitting up today or pacing or throwing things in anger and frustration. This lack of energy seemed so uncharacteristic of him. His condition rarely stopped him from pacing around the room or sitting up in bed, scribbling in that notebook of his, its pages yellowed with age.

I’d tucked him in on many a night, before leaving his side; smoothing his brow, positioning his head on the pillow, unclasping his fingers from that notebook. It’s pages were immortalized in my brain, each notation firmly etched, each sketch as fresh as the day it was first rendered, at least in the earlier pages. The latter ones gradually devolving into a spidery scrawl, increasingly unintelligible, just dark squiggles now, meaningless to anyone but me. Yet his arthritic fingers clung to it with ferocity. The nurses weren’t able to pry it away.

He didn’t recognize me anymore, didn’t know my name. He even threw things at me or pushed me aside when I tried to get him to change his clothes or to go out on the lawns or to eat or drink. In his more lucid moments he recalled Benny from seventy-five years ago. He talked about the games they played, their bird watching, their tree house, his mom’s apple pie. But he never remembered his siblings or my parents. It was as if they had never existed for him.

I sat down beside him, tears rolling down my cheeks, on to the notebook, smudging the blue ink. I found the entry from fifteen years ago where he wrote about the morning he’d taken me out for breakfast and had shared the shattering news with me. We’d found our favorite spot at Papa Gallo’s Diner. He had calmly shrugged off the coat as he settled into the booth and ordered the stack of hot pancakes that we both loved. He told me his sudden bouts of forgetfulness had taken him to his doctor and that they had diagnosed the onset of Alzheimer’s Disease. He’d warned me about the progressive degeneration, reassuring me, telling me not to get disheartened. He knew things would only get worse from here on end.

They finally were. I stared at the thick blankets covering his frail form. Was my beloved Grandpa really in there? Where was the person I knew and loved?

He had handed me his favorite coat that day at the diner. He had wanted me to replace the frayed one on Benny’s Scarecrow.

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