The Voorhes for Reader's Digest
I ask my grandpa what it feels like to grow old. He ponders this question while we sit in his office overlooking the yard, the same yard I pulled weeds in when I was a boy.
It is late in the afternoon, but Grandpa is wearing pajama bottoms, slippers, and a thick flannel shirt. His face is withered, his once taut flesh sagging loosely from his bones. A cup of black tea rests on the wooden desk in front of him. Grandpa drank coffee most of his life but switched to tea a few years back, when coffee became too hard on his stomach.
Grandpa’s mind brightens and dims like a beam of light underneath a magnifying glass on a cloudy day. But on good days, on days like this one, there’s a break in the clouds and the sun shines through again.
He gazes out the office window and looks at his yard, which has gone into a state of decline in recent years. Grandpa no longer possesses the energy to maintain its once magnificent splendor. Tree branches droop over the fishpond he built, the pond’s surface covered with a layer of green algae. Weeds sprout around the brick path weaving through the garden. An empty bird feeder dangles lifelessly from a tree limb.
Grandpa and I spent many hours during my summer vacations from elementary school working in the yard. We started in the afternoon when the sun was near its zenith. Grandpa would don an Oakland Fire Department baseball cap, faded blue jeans, and a white T-shirt. Back then, he was a tireless man with a burly body like a sailor.
My main job was weed patrol, because Grandpa performed the glamorous work, excavating the rich California soil for a new addition to his ever-expanding yard. He grew tomatoes on metal stakes and planted strawberries, lettuce, and radishes in the ground. And when they were ripe for picking, he’d bring them inside to Grandma’s kitchen so they could be prepared.
Grandpa was an artist. The yard and garden were his canvases, the flowers and plants his palette of paints. He was constantly bent over on all fours honing his art, the knees of his jeans stained brown.
At the end of the day, in the early evening, the air would become crisp and cool. Before calling it quits, Grandpa and I would wash up and get a drink of water at the hose on the side of the house. Grandpa would give the T-handle on the spigot a turn or two. The limp hose would stiffen, and then he’d cup his hand underneath the hose, the water pooling tranquilly in his palm. He’d lift his hand to his mouth and drink, quenching his thirst with each sup.
I tried imitating him but could never clench my fingers tight enough, and the water would slip through the slits of my fingers and dribble wastefully to the ground.
But before going inside, we’d fill up the bird feeder next to the pond. I’d go to the garage and find the seed bag, a blend of sunflowers, cracked corn, and millet. We’d walk into the garden, sauntering along the brick path to where the bird feeder hung from the tree. Grandpa would remove the top of the feeder—a wooden rooftop—and lift me by my armpits. Then I’d pour the seed into the feeder, my shoes dangling near his thighs.
Grandpa takes a sip of his black tea, still pondering my question on aging. And without ever taking his eyes from the window, he asks me a question. “Have you ever been in a hot shower when the water ran cold?”
I tell him I have.
“That’s what aging feels like,” he says. “In the beginning of your life, it’s like you’re taking a hot shower. At first the water is too warm, but you get used to the heat and begin enjoying it. When you’re young, you think it’s going to be this way forever. Life goes on like this for a while.”
Grandpa gives me a mischievous grin and leans toward me. “And if you’re lucky,” he whispers, just out of Grandma’s earshot, “a few good-looking women will join you in the shower until you decide to settle down.”
We both laugh. He leans back in his chair, looks out the window, and continues on.
“But you begin to feel it somewhere between your 40s and 50s. The water temperature drops just the slightest bit. It’s almost imperceptible, but you know it happened, and you know what it means. You try to pretend like you didn’t feel it, but you still turn the faucet up to stay warm. But the water keeps going lukewarm. One day you realize the faucet can’t go any farther, and from here on out the temperature begins to drop—you gradually feel the warmth leaving your body.”
Grandpa clears his throat and pulls a stained handkerchief from his flannel shirt pocket. He blows his nose, balls up the handkerchief, and puts it away.
“It’s a rather helpless feeling, truth told,” he continues. “The water is still pleasant, but you know it’ll soon become cold and there’s nothing you can do. I knew a few people who decided to leave the shower on their own terms. They knew it was never going to get warmer, so why prolong the inevitable? I was able to stay in because I contented myself recalling the showers of my youth. I lived a good life but still wish I hadn’t taken my younger years for granted. It’s too late now, and no matter how hard I try, I’ll never get the hot water on again.”
Grandpa keeps looking out the window with those eyes that have seen 91 years on this earth. Those eyes that endured the Great Depression in the ’30s, those eyes that survived the Pacific Ocean in the ’40s, those eyes that witnessed the birth of his three children, five grandchildren, and seven great-grandchildren.
He has indeed lived a good life, I say to myself. Later on that day, after dinner, I drive down to Home Depot and buy a bag of birdseed. I come back to the house, park in the driveway, and take the bag of seed out of the car. I open the garage door and find a plastic bucket. I empty the bucket and take it out to the yard, walking alone now. The sun is setting, the twilight changing into night, but I follow the well-worn brick path leading out to the pond, pulling any weeds I spot along the way. When I come to the end of the path, I set the bucket and seed bag down and lift the bird feeder from the tree limb. I tear a tiny hole in the bag and pour the seed into the feeder. After it’s full, I replace the rooftop and hang the feeder back on the tree limb.
I leave the yard. I dump the bucket of weeds in the trash and set the bag of seed inside the garage. I go inside, excited to tell Grandpa about what I’ve done. But the living room is already dark. I then notice the glow of the television bouncing off the walls and see Grandpa reclined all the way back in his easy chair. A blanket is draped across his legs; his eyelids are closed.
I sit down in the chair next to him. His hands are interlaced across his stomach like a Buddhist statue, his chest rising and falling ever so faintly. I think about waking him up but decide not to disturb his sleep, a sleep which will soon last forever.
I hope he is dreaming the dreams of his youth, remembering the warmth of days gone by, the days before the water ran cold.