06-05-12

I’m sitting in a recliner. Two tubes are running from my chest to what’s basically a big water softener for blood and back to my chest. Instead of rock salt, there’s a fancy-pants filter that takes the nasty stuff out of my blood and then sends the clean blood back in my body. They call it dialysis. From now until I find a new kidney, it’s my life three days a week for at least three hours each day.

But I’m not thinking about the tubes, or the blood, or my kidneys that have turned into Melba toast…I’m thinking about WWI and poisonous gas and how little kids can so easily misunderstand family history.

My mother was the youngest of three kids. Her dad died either before the depression, or just after it started. I never really got the whole story (and it turns out, I was wrong on significant details, but we’ll get to that later). The take-away was always, “We made it thru the Great Depression and it was tough.” Grandma was an RN, and worked…a lot. I can’t imagine the sacrifices everyone in the house had to make to get by, but they scrimped and saved and made it.

My mother’s mom was the only grandparent I knew.  She lived in the Detroit area with my mom’s sister,  Aunt Jane.  Each summer she took a break from Detroit and lived with us.  The summers she spent in our house fill my head with memories.  Her funny idea that when the RX said, “Take with food,” she had to have a mouth full of food to take the pill.   Her commode (which, when cleaned, sat on the back porch to air dry until we’d put the lid on our head and play Lost in Space Robot).   Her never ending patience while trying to teach me to play cards (I HATE playing cards).  Her clothes. Lord her clothes.  She had many suits (think Barbara Bush) and each one weighed 8,000 lbs.  Carrying them in from the car was a major task for a little boy, but I loved doing it.   There was something incredibly sturdy about her clothes, thick wool and big solid buttons.  Such strong clothes for such a frail woman.

Like most grandmothers, she seemed impervious to heat, handling hot pans without oven mitts or thrusting her hands into scalding hot water  Once she was cutting up some vegetables and she sliced her hand. A pretty big gash.  No wince, no tears…Grandma just kept on telling me about scrimping and saving during The Depression, washed and bandaged the cut, and went back to slicing the veggies.

Her strength, I assumed, came from her life.  She had to raise three kids alone, on a meager RN’s wages during the depression.

What about my dad’s parents?  I never knew them.  They passed long before I was around.  But I never wondered about them.  I wondered about my mom’s dad. “How did he die?” I’d ask.

“He was gassed during World War I. Mustard gas. And then, when years later when he was home from the war he died.”

To a young boy it almost seemed heroic. Every time I’d see anything about WWI, I’d think, “My mom’s dad died because of getting gassed during that war.”  In comparison, my father’s parents were dull. They ran a flower shop and some green houses. No romance of war, no family left struggling to survive.

Now, I wasn’t obsessed with my mom’s dad.  You’ll notice I don’t even call him “Grampa.” He’s, “my mom’s dad.” But there, lingering in the back of my mind, was always, “Hero.”

This past weekend I learned I have the story completely wrong. I was talking with my sisters and learned that he died of kidney failure. Plain ol’ kidney failure. Well…that’s not exciting. I know, because I’m going through it right now (though with one big difference…it won’t kill me).

There’s no great lesson here. No big grand moment. Just a little poof and I’ve become closer to a grandparent I never knew and, at the same time, a little more distant.

As I sit here in the dialysis center, I look around. People of all ages and races cleaning their blood, living a little longer, and, if they’re like me, a lot better. Waving to friends, family and faces I suppose they see every week. It’s all foreign to me right now, but I know it’ll become routine.

Maybe, then, it’s fitting that as I adjust to this new life, I have to get used to a new image of a man I never knew.

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