Thursday, October 24, 2002

A friend of mine once asked me, "Who am I, if I'm not my thoughts?"

It's a nice, tough question, but I still maintain that I am not my thoughts, because I have no control over them. They just come up, unbidden. If I've got to locate the self somewhere, I'd rather locate it in my choices.

Why the philosophy? Well, my grandfather died last night, and if I had to judge myself by the thoughts that went through my head as I digested the news, I wouldn't come out looking too good. Of course, that's assuming I could pick out any one stream of thought from thousand contradictory impressions flying through my mind.

I'll be honest: I don't have any positive memories of my grandfather from when I was a kid, just one or two negative ones and a whole lot of neutral ones. But I don't really feel entitled to have any opinion of him, because I never really tried to get to know him. On Thanksgiving, he'd sit in his chair, watching the game, while I sat in the recliner, reading my book, neither of us seeming much interested in the mass of family around us. But again, I never asked, so I don't really know. Maybe he was glowing silently with pride and joy and having us all there.

The dam started to break five or six years ago. It was Christmas, and we were all gathered down in La Cygne for the holiday. As usual, Grandma was at the piano, and she was telling us all about the shows she and Grandpa were putting on for church and at the local nursing home. Then Grandpa's on his feet, playing his harmonica along with the piano. The words Grandma was singing were a hymn, but I knew the tunes from old Woody Guthrie songs. I had a shocked smile on my face, watching my stern, silent grandfather playing Woody Guthrie tunes on his harmonica and dancing a jig.

Over the last several years, I saw more and more of that side of him. I rarely made it over to see him, but when I did, he'd talk for hours, laugh, joke, and play the harmonica, quite literally, backwards and forwards. At the same time, his mind seemed to be disappearing. When he recognized me at all, he thought I was my father. Paradoxically, our relationship improved dramatically when he had no idea who I was.

The last coherent sentence I remember hearing from him was probably a year ago, when he reacted to a birthday card my father read to him with, "Who says I'm 90?" But still, even in his last few months when everyone was a stranger to him, he was friendly, happy, and just a bit mischievous. Was that the real him? Was there a twinkling elf at his heart, unrecognizable and unseen until dementia stripped away the mental and emotional patina of a lifetime? If I had taken the time to look, could I have found it there?

No idea. Luckily, I find the questions more interesting than the answers, if there are answers to questions like these.

I don't know how (or even if) it fits with everything else that's bouncing around in my head right now, but a few years ago I inherited some of my grandfather's tools when they sold their house. Even though they've been in my workbench and up on my pegboard for a while now, they still feel like his tools, and I suspect they will for some time, if not always. But when I'm marking a crosscut with his try square, or soldering something that's being held in his vise, I can put my hand where his hand was and feel like, somehow, we understand one another.

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