Gentle Conversation


What a grim way to spend an afternoon! Why should I take Grandpa to visit someone who was dying?

I trudged up the cement steps of my grandparents’ white frame home. What a way to spend a summer afternoon, I thought with dismay. Without knocking, I reluctantly entered through the screen door into the cool of the shaded living room.

“Karen,” boomed a voice from the kitchen, “is that you?”

“Yes,” I answered.

“I’m ready,” said my grandfather as he entered the room and smiled a greeting to me.

My Grandpa Larsen was a big man, at least six foot two. At five feet, seven inches, I was considered tall for a girl but still felt small beside this man. When I was little, I thought of Grandpa as a gentle giant, someone who bounced us on his knee, sang silly songs, and gave us whisker shaves as we squealed our delight.

At 16 I was too old for a whisker shave, but Grandpa’s eyes twinkled with mischief when he asked, “Aren’t I a lucky fellow today, going for a drive with a pretty young lady?”

I simply nodded to him in agreement and felt my first pangs of guilt wash over me. I had not wanted to drive to my grandfather’s. What I really wanted to do was spend the afternoon with my friend Margaret Ann. In a few weeks our junior year in high school would begin, and we always had lots to visit and dream about.

However, my mother had been determined in her decision to have me pick up my grandfather. Mother had other obligations to fill, and she didn’t consider my afternoon with Margaret Ann nearly so important as my taking Grandpa to visit his only surviving brother, Amos, who was dying.

The thoughts of visiting an old and dying man whom I hardly knew seemed to me grim and depressing at best. But I loved my grandpa and knew this afternoon’s excursion held real importance for him. He tried to mask his emotions with light conversation and a little teasing, but I still felt the reality of his concern as we climbed into our family car.

After the first few minutes of travel, Grandpa fell silent and stared out the car window at the passing landscape. Once or twice, I looked over at him, but he remained unchanged and his expression seemed fixed on other days and other doings.

Watching Grandpa, I couldn’t help but smile. He sat beside me dressed in a clean shirt, his best pair of bib overalls, and a sport coat that he added as if on impulse as we left his home. At 78, Grandpa still sat tall in the seat. His hair had thinned over the years and his shoulders rounded a little.

Grandpa’s hands were what I liked best, and I stole a glance at them now as they lay relaxed and unmoving in his lap. Usually, those big, bony hands were constantly busy; and their bent fingers and calloused palms showed years of hard labor. His were massive hands made for work and for doing. They were hands that still held strength, strength of endurance and love.

We were through the town now, nearing the turn that would take us by the temple and up to Sunshine Terrace. “Grandpa,” I said softly, “we’re almost there.” He nodded silently, and I knew he had heard me.

I hadn’t wanted to accompany Grandpa into the rest home. I was young and full of life and always felt that the old people occupying its rooms were in some way a personal affront to my youth and vitality, a sharp reminder of my own mortality.

After parking the car in front of the Terrace, I waited for Grandpa to open the door, get out of the car, and go inside. He didn’t. Instead, he turned and looked at me. In that momentary glance I easily read his unspoken request that I accompany him in to see his brother. I opened my door, and we walked together into the rest home.

Even though my grandpa was old, he was independent; and I knew that though he needed me with him, he would never have asked. But I felt his hand give my shoulder an extra squeeze of thanks as he said, “This is Amos’s room.”

We stopped, and I followed Grandpa inside. Amos seemed small and fragile and gray as he lay beneath his bed sheets. For just a moment panic seized my girlish heart, and I wondered if we were too late. But then my grandpa walked across the room, drew a chair close to his brother’s bed, and bent his head down to Amos’s ear. On the other side of the room, I couldn’t hear what it was my grandpa said, but I watched as Amos’s eyes opened and he smiled.

I stayed on my chair across the room, and I never really heard any of the words exchanged by these brothers, brothers who had grown old with life’s living, brothers whose bodies were bent and gray, but brothers who remembered earlier days and better times together.

We spent nearly an hour with Uncle Amos. During that short time, I witnessed a revelation unlike any I had experienced in my young life. I watched two elderly men transcend the years to become again the boys they once were as they reminisced together for the last time.

As we left, I felt privileged to have viewed a special reunion, a gentle communion, and a touching but temporary good-bye between the kindred spirits of two good men. As we walked down the hall, I reached across the space between us and grasped my grandpa’s hand.

[illustration] Illustrated by Brent Christison