Grandpa was 97 years old when he passed away.
He lived far from where his three children had settled. Grandma died when I was a small child, and he ended up remarrying another woman a few years later who demanded that he move out west so that she could be nearer to her sons. She was a piece of work, was Grandma Hester. We all wondered how Grandpa could stand her. It turns out that perhaps he could not.
We’re not precisely sure when he developed dementia, but it was probably years before we noticed it. He’d tell us about people he was speaking to, or visiting with, or a trip he took. Years later, after we learned he was suffering from dementia, we’d learn that conversation, that visit or that trip never actually happened. For all we really know, any story he told us from the last decade and a half leading up to his coming back east could be a false memory. We would have no way of knowing. Hester rarely communicated with us herself.
Probably our first clue that Grandpa wasn’t himself anymore happened a few weeks after he came back east to live with my parents. Most of the family had settled in one area; my wife and I lived in the south end of our city, as did one set of cousins, but my father and his two sisters all lived in the north, within driving distance of each other. A few of my aunts’ children had moved out of town, and my brother had as well, but there were still enough of us around that Grandpa could visit with. We would often have gatherings at my parents’ house where Grandpa would either hold court with some story or would go to sleep.
One afternoon, my daughter Breanne, who was in her late teens at the time, came in from playing with my cousin’s kids and sat down at the table, where Grandpa had been napping. He suddenly woke and smiled at her.
“Well, hello, Claudia!” he said, brightly. Claudia was my aunt; Dad’s youngest sister.
“I’m Breanne, Grandpa,” said my daughter.
“No,” said Grandpa, almost sounding offended. “You’re my daughter, Claudia.”
Later that same month, he told my aunts and uncles the story of how he came out east after living with Hester got to be too much. “I prayed to the Lord,” said Grandpa. “And the next thing I knew, Martin was there.” Martin was my father. I remembered him driving out to the tiny, cold house on a hill in Colorado to get Grandpa. He had not come due to any divine intervention. He had come because Grandpa called him in the night and pleaded with him to come get him.
We all loved Grandpa, but caring for him was not easy. For one thing, Grandpa had gotten it into his head that he was a young, single man with many years ahead of him, and the only thing missing was a young woman at his side. If he spoke for any length of time with a younger woman, he became convinced that she was in love with him, and that perhaps she should be his new bride. Hester was even still alive at this point. He had forgotten her utterly.
The women he made advances on included my mother, two of my cousins and my own wife. Thankfully, he couldn’t do much more than talk, so it was just a matter of politely changing the subject whenever he would start with that, but it got worse when he decided he could do things like take walks on his own or try to drive my father’s car.
Dad and Mom didn’t let him go on walks by himself, but that didn’t mean he didn’t sneak away sometimes when Dad was away and Mom was in the basement. He had to use a walker to get around, and simply couldn’t do stairs, but refused to admit this to anyone, including himself, leading to a lot of falls. He would also get confused as to where he was, or where he lived. At times, during his walks, he would attempt to find the old family home that he raised my father and aunts in, despite it having been long gone since before I was born. Dad picked him up from a police station, where he had been taken after some patrol officers saw him wandering around, clearly lost.
The time he tried to drive Dad’s car was after that. He decided that the reason he got lost is because he had to walk. He managed to get the E-break off and rolled right down the fairly steep incline outside my parents’ house, crashing into a fence. The damage was minimal, but after that incident, my parents realized he needed to be in a full time care facility.
He got worse after that.
My father visited him three times a week. I have no idea how often my aunts went, or if they even did. I tended to only go when there was a family gathering, and increasingly I began to realize that he had no clue who I was. He’d smile and greet me as though I was someone he had just met. He’d tell me about his children, describing them as “little kids”, and even going as far as to invent a friend who was looking after them while he was in this home with “all these old people.” Grandpa was 93 at the time. He was much older than many of the others who lived there. But somehow, they were the “old people”, while he was not.
But when I say he got worse, I mean he changed. The false memories, the refusal to acknowledge that he was elderly, the attempts to chat up ladies and inability to remember that his children were grown and that he had grandchildren and great-grandchildren had been a part of who he was for years, ever since his early 80’s.
But he had never been violent before. That changed one night when Dad was called to come to the facility quickly. Grandpa had wandered into the wrong room, and had come out screaming, raising his walker up in the air and slamming it into the ground, taking a few swings at people who tried to calm him down. He began accusing the staff of stealing his things. He was bellowing as loud as he could: “Give them back! Give them back!”
I wasn’t there for it, and I still have a hard time picturing it. Grandpa barely raised his voice above normal volume during the last decade of his life, except to laugh.
When Dad got there, they had gotten him into his room, and he was somewhat appeased. Somewhat. He had a can of Ensure in a tube sock, and almost hit my father in the head with it when he came in. He apologized (Dad was one of the few people he always recognized), and said he had been waiting for “the thief” to come back. “A man who’d steal from me’d just as soon kill me,” he explained. The Ensure-in-a-sock was his weapon to fend off the thief. He told Dad about the men who had come to give him all his things back. “They put it all back, just like it was,” he said. “Didn’t take ’em long.”
Later that night, he told Dad about how much it had scared Florence. He hated that she’d had to go through that. Florence was my grandmother; the one who died when I was six.
He finished by saying that Florence had gone somewhere, and when he went looking for her: “They told me she was dead. One day, they’re gonna come looking for me, and they’re gonna find me dead.” That was a jolt to my father. Grandpa had never, at any point before that, acknowledged his mortality, his advanced age, or the fact that he had probably no more than a handful of years left at best. Aging, and death, was something that happened to other people. But here he was, accepting that death was near.
That wasn’t the last night he mentioned the thief. He even gave the thief a name; Charlie Rosen. It was strange that he would invent a whole person, name included. He didn’t even name the friend who was looking after his kids. In fact, that person ceased to exist; Charlie Rosen had stolen his kids. Had killed Florence. Had come to his home in Colorado and routinely taunted him, beat him, and he even declared that Hester had been sleeping with him. He remembered her now, and was certain that she and Charlie were ganging up on him to make his life a living hell.
In the last six months of his life, he would become increasingly agitated. Dad could not have a single visit wherein Grandpa would not mention Charlie. And then the violence started up again.
In one visit, Grandpa accused Dad of being Charlie, and attacked him. After that, Dad’s visits dropped to once a week, and he didn’t stay long. Once, I went with him. It was the last time I saw my grandfather alive, and I will never forget it.
“Charlie was here again today,” Grandpa told us as soon as we arrived. “He told me I couldn’t leave this room anymore. He’s trapped me here.”
“Dad, this is where you live,” my father tried to explain. “See, here’s a picture of Mother. Why would Charlie let you keep that?”
“He killed your mother, you know,” said Grandpa. “Murdered her in her sleep.”
“Mother had an aneurysm,” said Dad. “You and I decided together to unplug the machine. She died in her sleep, but no one killed her.”
“No, no, it was Charlie.” Grandpa’s voice was not agitated. It was solid, like he knew for a fact what he was saying. “He poisoned her. Made something go wrong in her head. I didn’t know it then, but I realized it later, after he introduced me to Hester. Conned me into marrying her. He’s my personal demon, that Charlie.”
Dad finally had had enough. “There is no Charlie!” he said, nearly shouting. You aren’t supposed to correct people who have dementia; it just confuses them more and makes them upset. But my father forgot this in that moment. “Charlie is someone you made up! Mother died naturally, you met Hester at a coffee shop years after Mother died, and while she was not a nice woman, she was not unfaithful to you! Please, stop talking about Charlie!”
“Dear Lord in Heaven,” said Grandpa. “He got to you. He told you to say these things. You’re part of it too!”
“Uh, Grandpa,” I said. “Why don’t we start a game of checkers?” Usually he loved checkers.
“I don’t want to play any fucking checkers!” screamed Grandpa. I couldn’t have been more surprised if he’d hit me. Grandpa had never used profanity in his life. “By-words”, as he called them, were only used by bad men, as far as he was concerned. “Not with you! Not with him! Charlie Rosen’s pet demons! He comes to me every day. He talks to me about Florence. He taunts me. He reads my mind and he takes thoughts away and puts in new ones, worse ones. He tells me about how he rapes my little ones. How he and Hester keep them half-starved and chained in their basement. I can’t stop him! He can go inside my mind! He’s controlling me!”
We left after that, without saying goodbye.
Driving home, I almost wanted to cry. This kind, loving man was ending his days as a raving, violent lunatic. It wasn’t right. It wasn’t fair. What kind of monster was this Charlie?
That thought stopped me cold. For an instant, I had accepted that Charlie was real. Giving my head a shake, I resolved to think about something else. But an image of Charlie had been forming in my mind, beginning a few months back, when Grandpa had first started talking about him. I only now realized that when Grandpa spoke of this demonic man, I was picturing him in my mind, and I could see him as clearly as I could memories of real people.
I thought of the last time I had visited Grandpa in that tiny house in the mountains of Colorado, when I was a teenager, sitting at that little round table while Hester served us some of her inedible glop, and I would see a man standing in the corner of the kitchen, watching us eat. A tall, gangly man with leathery skin stretched over sharp-looking bone and corded muscle. Shaggy grey hair hanging down, obscuring the upper part of his face, his smile stretching like a knife-slash across his jaw.
I thought of the wedding. I was twelve years old. I met Hester for the first time. And standing a ways behind her was that same man. I remember a family gathering at the facility Grandpa was concurrently staying at. Didn’t we pass that man in the hall once?
No, of course not. These were just images my mind had cooked up the more Grandpa talked about this shady character that never existed. The brain can do that; insert false people in your memory just because you decide, subconsciously, to remember them. It doesn’t mean you’re insane; it’s just another way for your brain to play tricks on you. Grandpa had invented a person who he talked about with such conviction, as though Charlie was real. So my mind had conjured up a Charlie Rosen. But there was no Charlie Rosen.
Grandpa died two months later. I remember the funeral like it was yesterday. I still wake up at night in a cold sweat, remembering.
Everything was normal at the start. My parents, my aunts and uncles, my wife and I, and our children, my brother and his wife, and their son, my cousins, their spouses and their children, we all gathered under the same roof for the first time in years. No one was missing. No one was out of town and couldn’t make it. Two of my cousins I hadn’t seen since they were children. It was nice to catch up with them.
The service was nice, as well. The pastor who served the spiritual needs at Grandpa’s facility was the officiator. Grandpa looked calm and peaceful, whole, so unlike what he had been in the last few months of life. I started to feel calm myself; Grandpa was where he belonged now, where the devils of his own fevered, decaying brain couldn’t get to him anymore.
And then we drove to the cemetery. The coffin was lowered. We all sprinkled a handful of dirt on the coffin and began our walk back to the cars. And then the gravedigger came out of the shadows to start shoveling the rest of the dirt. I could barely read the embroidered name tag on his coveralls. It looked like “C. Rose” or “C. Risen”. Or…no. It couldn’t be.
He was tall, gangly, with leathery skin, sharp-looking bones, corded muscle, long grey hair. And that smile. That smile that haunts my nightmares to this day.
I watched as this phantom dumped shovel-full after shovel-full of dirt on my grandfather’s coffin. He was laughing, softly, under his breath, but I have never heard such cruel laughter.
Today, I felt like I had to write all this down. To make sure I remember it all, before things get worse. Because today, my father called me to complain that Charlie was driving past his house and staring in his windows.