It seems odd to think that your eyes don’t really change from the time you are born until the time you die. But it makes perfect sense, because we may change versions of ourselves, but deep down we are the same person all along.
“Checkmate” I said as I look up at my opponent. He hung his head low, but then corrected himself and shook my hand. I turn around to see my grandfather, Pop as I call him, smiling from ear to ear. I run over to hug him, inhaling the familiar scent of cigar and black licorice. Pop lets me go to face the fame awaiting me.
With my trophy tucked safely under my arm, Pop and I leave the auditorium. The April wind curls around the building and cuts through my thin sweater. I zip up my coat, grab my hat and gloves from my pocket, and lean into my grandfather.
When my grandfather’s 1970 Cadillac DeVille pulls up in my driveway, I slide out of the tan leather seat. I grab my trophy from the back seat and wave goodbye. I sprint up the stone steps and burst through the front door. I hurry to the kitchen and sit on my favorite black stool at the island. My older brother, Brice, and Dad are making triple decker sandwiches – ham, bacon, and cheese.
“Hey Kat, how did your thing go?” my Dad asks.
“Great, I won!” I respond, motioning to the trophy sitting on the counter.
“Nice job!” he says on his way to the family room, balancing the big lunch tray. He and my brother settle in to watch monster car races on TV.
My little sister, Mina, comes in the front door, followed by my mom. Mina runs upstairs to change out of her leotard from gymnastics. My Mom walks towards me, her high heels clicking on the stone floor. She kisses me on the back of the neck, with her ice cold lips.
“Good job on the win” she whispers, then she went clickety clack up the stairs. I sit alone, wanting just one thing– to be with my grandfather again.
Today is Sunday, Pop and I always play chess together on Sunday afternoons. We spread out in the library and play game after game. When we are done for the day, we each have one or our favorite coconut donuts that he always brings from the bakery near his house. We’ve been doing this same thing every weekend since I was seven years old. I watching at the front window for his car to pull up. Five minutes pass, and then ten, and then twenty more. As time ticks on, panic overcomes me as I imagine a world without Pop. I run to the door but just as I do, my dad pulls me back.
“What’s the hurry?” he asks.
“Pop is so late - he always comes on Sunday” I tell him.
“Calm down” my Dad interrupts. “I’m sure he’s just fine, he probably just forgot what day it was”
“You’re wrong -- he never forgets!” I say, frustrated at my Dad for not understanding. Pop never forgets because he knows how much this means to me and I think it means even more to him.
“Please don’t worry, I’ll give him a call right away” says my Dad softly.
I open the front door and sit down on a step. I feel like crying, but instead I pick up a stone next to the steps and chuck it at the tree. My emotions are ready to spill out, but I lock them in instead.
“I called Pop” my Dad yells from the living room. “He just forgot to come today, he says he is sorry.”
My mom, who doesn’t like commotion, chimed in from the kitchen. “You need to stop getting so upset over nothing” she says.
“It wasn't nothing. I thought he might be hurt!” I say defending myself. My mother and father glance at each other, a silent message passing between them.
The week dragged on like a never ending maze, my thoughts getting nowhere. Today was Saturday, which meant we would pile in the car, and watch Brice’s soccer game. I run upstairs to grab a pair of socks, but as soon as I get to my room, I hear the door bell ring.
“I got it!” Mina yells.
I scamper down the stairs, one and a half socks on, and see Pop
standing in the doorway. He doesn't come on Saturdays, which he knows, or at least he used to.
“Hi Kat, I would like to apologize for missing our afternoon of chess
on Sunday, it completely slipped my mind” Pop said.
“So, I’m here this week right on time” he says as he checks his watch.
“Pop, today is Saturday – we always play on Sundays” I remind him, worried now even more than before about his confusion.
“Oh, dear” he replies. “I could have sworn today was Sunday. Looks like I’m mixed up again.”
My mother hurries into the entryway, looking for a missing shin guard. “Ed, what are you doing here? We need to leave in a few minutes for
Brice’s soccer game.”
Pop looks down at the floor, looking embarrassed and sad.
“I’ll get going” he says. “See you tomorrow” he turns to leave and catches my eye on the way out. I fake a smile at him, and he does the same back. Sometimes I think we pretend we are OK to protect the ones we love the most.
Brice’s team lost their soccer game against the Eagles, which isn’t a surprise because they are one of the best teams in the state. My worries about Pop were a total distraction, I simply couldn't watch the game. Driving home, I read the Expert’s Guide to Chess, even though I’ve read it probably a hundred times.
I wake up extra early on Sunday morning. I am relieved when Pop’s Cadillac pulls up right on time – a few minutes before 2 o’clock. Pop walks slowly and deliberately across the driveway and up to the walk. I greet him at the door and compliment him on his plaid sweater. We head to the study together.
We started our game as usual, with me setting up the white marble pieces and Pop taking the black ones. In a few moves, I had him. I hid my concern.
“Checkmate” I said.
He smiles back at me and we set up for the next game. Unlike previous Sundays when Pop and I were evenly matched, I kept winning and winning. He taught me to be a good sport, win or lose. He also taught me not to go easy on an opponent, but to keep playing your best. So, I kept winning, not to hurt him but not to pity him either.
“Hmm” Pop says, “I think I’ll move that little piece, the one that looks like a little person.”
“You mean your pawn?” I ask him, thinking he was kidding.
He looked confused and dropped his head. Pop had been playing chess
since he was my age. He knows the moves and pieces like the back of
his hand, or at least he used to.
We played one more game, which I won. He congratulates me. Then we walk back to the entry way to grab the brown paper bag with the coconut donuts he always brings. My stomach growled out loud, because I had such an early breakfast. Pop looked on the table, but the bag wasn’t anywhere to be seen.
“I’ll go check to see if I left the bag in my car” Pop said.
I watch him open his car door and sit down in the driver’s seat. He lowers his head to the steering wheel and covers his face with his hands. I run to comfort him, but he tried to pretend that nothing was wrong.
“I’m really sorry, Kat, I must have forgotten the bag on the bakery counter” Pop says to me out on the lawn.
“It’s OK Pop” I say looking right in his eyes. He seemed far away, even though he was standing right next to me.
After Pop went home, I go into the kitchen to find my parents making summer sausage and jelly sandwiches, a Minnesota thing, I guess.
“Sorry to interrupt, but I wanted to tell you about what’s been happening with Pop” I tell them in a soft voice.
“What is it honey? You know you can tell us anything” my mother says in her irritating way. The truth is, what she just said was a complete lie. Every time I tell them what I really thought or felt, they shut me down.
But they needed to understand me now. I worked through what I wanted to say, and then in a rushed voice said: “Pop hasn’t been himself lately and I don’t know what to do or how to help. He forgot to come over to play chess two weeks ago, then he came on the wrong day last week. Today he came without our donuts even though he remembered going to the bakery. Worst of all, he didn’t win a single game today and couldn’t remember what a pawn was called. I’m really scared that he is going to forget me, and forget how to play chess.”
“Kat, I know you care about him, but you are worrying for no reason. He is perfectly fine for someone in his 80’s – he’s just a little forgetful.”
I failed, they did not get it. I turned and walked away from them. They didn't know anything about Pop, or me.
Cars whizzed past us in the next lane, but it didn’t seem to bother Pop. He had his hands glued to the steering wheel with his eyes on the road. We were stopped at a red light at the intersection of Madison and Main, only a half a mile away from the tournament.
“Pop, turn right. Remember – Main is one way” I tell him.
“Alright” he says.
When the light turned green, Pop spun the wheel left, steering us right into oncoming traffic.
“Pop – you are going the wrong way!” I yell.
“I thought you said turn left” he says without emotion, clearly not
understanding the gravity of the situation.
The cars honked and swerved as Pop drives the Cadillac the wrong way.
“Pop -- pull over right now!” I scream.
A red Toyota starts towards us head on, blaring the horn and just barely missing us. I started to scream, begging him to pull over. Pop swerved off the road and stopped the car. Pop leaned forward and buried his face in his hands. We both knew this was the
last straw, the final scene that would lead us to a different place.
I tapped my foot on the tile floor. The clock on the wall ticked away the seconds. Pop agreed to go to the doctor as long as I came along. My parents insisted that they come too, which I knew they would.
“Owen’s family – we can see you now” says a nurse with a clipboard.
My mom hops up quickly, my Dad stands up slowly. The nurse leads us into a modern room with four chairs, three in a row, the fourth facing the other three. I sit in the middle of the row and continue to tap my foot. My mom bites her nails, something I never saw her do before. My dad fidgets in his seat. The nurse leaves the room. We don’t say anything, just continue our nervous habits.
A tall woman wearing a white coat and an ID badge opens the door and sits down across from us.
“After a series of tests and exams that we completed with Ed last week, we have come to a diagnosis” she says blandly.
“Like many people Ed’s age, he is in the early stages of Alzheimer’s Disease. I’ll schedule a follow up meeting with the clinical team in a few weeks so that we can plan next steps.”
My heart sinks because I know that this one statement will haunt me and Pop, for as long as we live. My father looks shocked; my mother stands up and grasps the back of her chair.
“I just can’t believe this. How could he have Alzheimer’s Disease? He lives alone without any problems and until recently, had a perfect driving record” says my Mom, who is very agitated.
“I tried to tell you for months that something was wrong, but you wouldn’t listen” I say.
“Has anyone told Ed the test results?” my father asks.
“No, he hasn't been told yet. We will arrange to have him come to the family meeting to share the news” the Doctor responds.
We ride home in complete silence. I hold the packet of information that the doctor gave me. I don’t dare look inside.
“Kat, you were right all along” my mother tells me at home.
“We’re sorry that we doubted you” my father adds.
“You might be sorry now” I say through pursed lips but, “you have made me feel left out of everything lately – you never come to my chess tournaments and don’t even seem to care about Pop.”
“Oh no, that’s not true” my mother rushes to comfort me, but I push her off.
“I need you to trust me more. If only you would have believed me about Pop – maybe things could have worked out differently” I say.
“I’m sorry, Kat” my father says. My mother mouths an ‘I’m sorry’ and I give her a half smile back.
I grab the packet of information from the doctor’s office that I left in the car. I see my reflection in the glossy finish of the folder — my brown hair is tied back loose, brushed straight. I flip through the packet – a car service, a memory care facility, a meal delivery
plan. I come back to the kitchen to find my parents telling Brice and Mina the bad news about Pop.
For the next hour, Mom and Dad work with me on a plan for helping Pop. We decide he should keep his house for now, but on some nights, I can sleep at his place. Pop will probably need to stop driving right away, so he can take a cab to come to our house after school. Most importantly, Pop will come on Sundays like he always has to play chess except now, my Dad can get the donuts from the bakery.
I sit down in our study, something I haven’t done in a while. The doctor says that although he may forget the names of the pieces, Pop can still play chess because he started so young, and his long-term memories will stay strong. Though there will come a day when he can’t play anymore, we’ll have dominoes and checkers ready for that day. I see in his eyes that he loves this tradition as much as I do, and we’ll enjoy this for as long as we can. To me, he will always be the same, my Pop.
This story is dedicated to my grandmother who is facing memory loss. Even though she gets confused and makes mistakes, she means just as much to me and my family as ever.