Prelude to a Canyon

A few months ago, not long after I told my family about my trip, I got an email from my big sister, Nikki. She asked when I expected to be at the Grand Canyon, and if I was totally committed to it being a 100% solo road trip. We lucked into a camping permit for the base, and started making plans for the big hike together.

We have family outside L.A., so it made sense for her to meet me there and drive through Las Vegas to the Canyon. Nikki stayed a night at an AirBnB just south of Griffith Park, and suggested we hike up through the park in the morning before heading down to our aunt and uncle’s house in Huntington Beach. We parked at the famous Griffith Observatory (see: Rebel Without a Cause), and began our walk up. We talked about the various warnings we’d seen on the Grand Canyon website, and discussed our respective packing lists. We were both nervous about the big climb, and talking about scorpions and tourniquets and water purification tablets didn’t help. I keep reminding both of us of what the website said: every year people of all ages and abilities hike to the bottom of the canyon and back up. There’s no reason we can’t do it.

Us and the Hollywood SignThe smog over L.A. was thick, and we could just barely make out the Hollywood sign. We snap some photos and get on the road to our aunt and uncle’s house just south of the city. Nikki is in the middle of doing 100 Bikram Yoga classes in 100 days, and she’s invited our aunt to join her for a class in Huntington Beach. Aunt Karen is very nervous, and we keep trying to tell her she’ll be fine. I opt out of going, as I’ve done plenty of hot yoga in my life as it is, and the two take off for the nearby studio. I stay at the house doing some much needed laundry, and my Uncle John comes home. He went shopping after his golf game, and has seven or eight cigars to put away, After much Tetrising to try to make them fit in an already full cigar box, we conclude that he’ll just have to smoke one right now. When the ladies get back Nikki insists that Aunt Karen did great, while Karen is thinks she was terrible. Either way, it seems like she’ll give it another shot tomorrow after we’ve left.

We have a nice dinner at their house, joined by a neighbor as well as one of our cousins who swung by after hearing we’re in town. It’s nice to be among family, if only for a little while. We spend a good part of the day trying to reach my grandmother on the phone. My grandparents recently moved into assisted living, and they haven’t set up the new voicemail yet. For some reason, it seem like they never answer their phone. This is baffling to most of us, who know that they’re at home most of the time. Eventually we get through and make arrangements to go out to breakfast the next day, inviting some good family friends to join us.

The next morning Nikki and I head over to the retirement home, where Nonnie and Papa are sitting outside waiting for us. In the last three years, Papa has been suffering from dementia. He’s good at playing along and still greets people with a smile, but it’s clear he doesn’t know who you are. They came up for Easter and I spent some time sitting next to him, whispering people’s names when they would come over to greet him like a scene out of The Devil Wears Prada. My mom says that he still knows that her and Karen are his daughters, but he can never remember which is which. The only person he’s never forgotten is Nonnie, and in recent months he’s been stuck to her like glue, asking where she’s gone if she so much as leaves for the ladies’ room.

I get out of the car and hug Nonnie. I go over to hug Papa, but introduce myself first, “I’m Katrina, I’m your granddaughter.” While I wish he didn’t have to go through this, it doesn’t bother me that he doesn’t know who I am, at least not as much as it seems to bother everyone else. I know it’s not about me, and I know he can’t help it.

We go to breakfast, joined by my “Aunt” Betty (a lifelong friend of my grandparents), as well as her beau and her daughter Cindy. I’ll be staying with Cindy when I get to Kansas City, so it’s nice to see her while she happens to be in California. Nonnie orders for Papa, and we all chitchat through breakfast. Afterwards we go back to see their new place, which is much bigger and nicer than retirement living that I’d seen before. Nikki and I go through the room, looking at old photos of the family, some of which we’d never seen before. We talk more, take pictures, and nag Nonnie about calling the phone company to get her voicemail set up. Papa sits in his chair, clearly unaware of who all these people are. Nonnie says sometimes he asks her when they’re going home, because he doesn’t remember that they’ve moved. He doesn’t seem to let it bother him so much, which is good.

Whenever I’m around Papa these days, I remember a conversation from three years ago. I was in Ohio with him for his 69th high school reunion. At the time he was losing his sight, and Nonnie had recently broken her pelvis and wasn’t able to accompany him on the trip. My Aunt Jean took Papa and I to meet some old high school friends of theirs, Mary and Betty. I was blogging about the trip at the time, and I recently looked up what I wrote about that day:

          Eventually the conversation turns to Jim Kesler, as it has so many times this week. Jim was a schoolmate of Papa’s, and I’m beginning to think a very good friend. They graduated the same year and Papa says he calls Jim about once a week. But last year Jim had to be moved into a place called Seneca House because he could no longer take care of himself. While I was bored in the flower shop last Tuesday, Uncle Bob and Papa went to visit him. He was sitting alone at a table, staring into nothing. They asked him where his room was a he said he didn’t have a room, he lived there at the table. He said he never moves and they just bring him his food and he doesn’t even need to work for it. He didn’t know who Uncle Bob was at all, and though he remembered a friend named Warren Rainey, he kept talking about how Warren was out in California. He couldn’t see it was Papa standing in front of him. Bob and Papa didn’t stay long.
          Betty says she is hoping to get out to see him soon, she hasn’t been able to in some time. Papa tells her she really should. “He’s just sitting there, happy as a clam,” Papa says. They started to talk about Jim and others they’d known with near jealousy. After all, it’s not the man with dementia who suffers, it’s all the people who have to take care of him. I know none of them are seriously envious of Jim, but I’m starting to understand how they could be. Papa knows full well that he’s losing his sight. He knows he can’t walk as good as he used to, he knows his wife is at home in a hospital bed once again. He knows his body won’t let him travel around for too much longer. Papa, Jean, Mary, and Betty all know full well all the things they can’t do anymore, and will never do again. But Jim is sitting happily in Seneca House, in seventh heaven and pleased to have all his meals for free. He doesn’t remember the things he’s forgotten, and he has no idea what he’s lost.
          “That’s the way to go if you’re gonna go,” Papa says.

That trip was the last time I got to spend with Papa before he started to deteriorate. I read what I wrote and it’s like foreshadowing out of a movie. But it’s that same conversation that I credit with making me want to go on this trip. Mary was the woman who told me that you have to “go while you can.” So here I am, going. I may be fooling myself to think that forgetting your life gives a kind of freedom before death, like Papa suggested. But at this point, it’s better than the alternative.