“When I get old, I want you to shoot me.”
I’ve heard it a thousand times. Both of my grandmothers suffered from severe dementia, and quite clearly, my parents never wanted to meet this disease themselves. I never wanted them to meet it either, but shooting them never seemed like the best option.
To me, that seemed crazy.
We were the Deacons. I knew I was a Deacon long before I ever knew I was Dree. Dad’s side of the family speckled the west coast, and Mom’s side lived somewhere in Georgia, but we never saw them. There’s some blood that’s not thicker than the Chattanooga River, and, as far as I could tell, it was some pretty bad blood.
We were never your typical Southern family, but we sure as hell tried. However, the closeness came naturally. In part, because we were so isolated from any family we could’ve tried to dig up and call when times got rough. But mostly because we had no other option. we didn’t grow up together; we grew together.
And we heard this all the time:
“Beth, you had four kids in three YEARS?”
“It was a blur,” Mom would say.
“How did you do it…?”
People thought she was crazy.
Our family came in three pairs, never one without the other. There was Mom and Dad, Lukey and Daniel, and Dree and Laney. Mom even bought our clothes in pairs so that, even though Laney and I aren’t twins, we may as well have been. Heck, we may as well have been a full-on six string quartet the way Mom always dressed us all alike when we were younger.
When I was six and Laney was five, we made the first of many trips to the west coast to visit Dad’s family. Grandpa Bud’s health was failing, which, in hindsight, sounds absolutely ludicrous considering he ran ten miles a day and competed in the U.S.A. Senior Olympics. But I suppose cancer doesn’t care how fast you run or how high you jump.
Two curly-headed little girls bounced all the way to Oregon. One of them was short and chubby; the other a little shorter and a little chubbier. We fought like crazy too. On the plane we fought over a carton of skim milk which ended up all over a nice lady in a sari. I actually couldn’t tell you if she was nice or not because, even as the milk projected all over her black sari like it was coming out of a hungover college student, she stared straight ahead at the back of the seat in front of her. Never saying a word. But in comparison with how Dad reacted to the whole thing, I’d say that she was pretty nice.
Stuff like that used to embarrass me all the time. We were so close that we’d collide, and we were too young to do anything about it.
It drove me crazy.
My family raised llamas. That is not a joke. Dad’s side of the family used to have llama farms up and down the west coast and even one in Hawaii. To this day, I still have no idea what the financial benefits are of owning a llama farm, but they actually did pretty well, so kudos to the llama merchants of the nineties.
Grandpa Bud lived on an enormous tract of land dubbed “Llamaland” by Dad’s family. Still not joking. He was getting a bit too old to be running the farm, so when we arrived he was in the middle of moving to a smaller assisted living community. Literally, when we got there he was moving his things out of the house and onto a truck.
Picture a tall thin man with skin like wet tissue paper and legs like noodles before you cook them. And if there’s one person I knew for sure was crazy, it was him.
A former naval commander, Grandpa Bud put us to work immediately. Warm bodies were useful bodies, no matter how small. We were assigned the upstairs. We had no idea what we were actually supposed to do upstairs, but we knew for sure that, whatever it was, it was probably upstairs. So we went. And almost as if it was triggered by our little feet on the top step…
“Je-SUS CHRIST on a BICYCLE get this GOD DAMNED THING OFF ME.”
Probably the first time I’d heard the D-word. And it was shouted by my grandfather as he was lying beneath an armoire, i.e., a really, really, ridiculously, absurdly heavy wooden cabinet of shelves. That he chose to pick up and carry by himself. But if you’ve ever known a former naval commander, you’d know not only that you can’t stop them, but neither can wet tissue paper skin or raw spaghetti noodle legs.
Dad got to him before we did, but he was struggling to lift the thing off of Grandpa Bud, who was now bloody.
“WAKE UP, SLEEPIN’ JESUS! This fuckin’ thing is on my legs!”
Two new curse words to take back to North Carolina; pretty decent for a six year old.
He was bleeding everywhere. Turns out, wet tissue paper isn’t too hardy.
After several long minutes of two little girls watching their father struggle to get a giant piece of furniture off of their grandfather, Grandpa Bud was free. Use a relative interpretation of the word “free,” because I’m pretty sure he considered himself a lot freer under the armoire than in the Portland Hospital.
On our way into Portland, Dad blithely scolded Grandpa Bud for attempting to lift such heavy things by himself. But, as expected, Dad’s concern was overlooked.
“Well, PARDON ME for LIVIN’, Danny!”
Several hours later, the doctors determined that his injuries from the accident were fairly minor. However, they also discovered elevated blood sugar levels, an early symptom of an ugly disease called pancreatic cancer.
Dad decided to stay in the hospital with Grandpa Bud for the week.
Aunt Mary, Dad’s older sister, came to get Laney and me. She picked us up from the hospital and took us straight to our favorite place in Oregon: Enchanted Forest, a storybook-themed amusement park.
While the doctors broke the news about the cancer, we were climbing down Alice’s rabbit hole. While Dad and Grandpa Bud argued over treatment options, we were trying to find the Gingerbread House.
It was only as we were leaving the park that Laney and I began to wonder about Dad and Grandpa. We asked all sorts of questions that Aunt Mary answered with as little detail as she could.
I remember thinking “I wonder if Grandpa Bud still wants to go to the carousel,” when Laney said…
“Aunt Mary, when I get old—I’m just gonna stay in my room—and play with my toys.”
And I thought, “Laney, that’s crazy…”
Laney and I are both in college now, and the boys will graduate high school next year. It’s weird, us not being all together. Can’t say I’m used to it yet, and I’m halfway through college.
I can’t help but think about how crazy Dad is gonna drive Mom when they’re empty-nesters. Sometimes I picture them getting super old and making a promise to each other that they’ll shoot the first one who goes crazy.
But then I think, so far, all the craziness has been a blessing. So maybe they’ll reconsider.