“Grandpa Augie, let me put the last card up!”
I pulled at my grandfather’s sleeve as his hand slowly, carefully, neared the pinnacle of the four level card house he and I were finishing. We had spent the afternoon playing games with the well-worn deck of cards he kept in his kitchen drawer. I was only four or five years old.
“Shhh.” His hush was barely a whisper as his hand neared the roof of the flimsy structure.
“Grandpa!” I tugged his sleeve harder. His hand brushed the outer wall and the card house collapsed. Grandpa Augie sighed. It was not an exasperated sigh but one which spoke volumes of sadness.
“Ah, Johann, you have yet to learn the art of patience,” he murmured as he settled back in his chair. “But you will.” Smiling, he caressed the top of my head. Then we started over again.
In the years that followed, we constructed four level, five level, and, once, a six level dream house. I learned the best houses were built from cards shuffled so many times they lost their new card shininess. We would break in a freshly opened deck of cards with a few games of Kings in the Corner and gin rummy before laying the foundation for our multi-level creation. Grandpa claimed the grease and sweat from our hands provided the right amount of friction so the cards would not slip.
Some time in my adolescent years, when dreams of cars and girls became quite important to me, I forgot the pleasure of visiting Grandpa Augie. Instead, my family invited him to our house for Thanksgiving and Christmas, Easter and the Fourth of July.
After the meal and before Grandpa Augie went home, the adults lounged in the living room and discussed politics and religion. Many times, I ducked out with the car keys clutched in my hand and thoughts of my latest girlfriend on my mind. In my impatience, I hardly noticed Grandpa’s wistful smile and his sad wave.
Not until the afternoon Grandpa Augie was admitted to the Pleasant Memories Nursing Unit in the local rest home did I consider how much older and feebler he had become.
In my eighteen year old wisdom, I did not think Grandpa Augie could be as needy as my parents believed. Could he?
I accompanied my parents and grandfather to the nursing home that day. Once there, Grandpa surveyed one of the residents staring vacantly out the window. Another sat in a wheelchair, mouth open and snoring softly.
His bewildered voice broke my heart. “Why am I here? When is Lorraine going to come by to pick me up?”
“Daddy.” My mother closed her eyes and a small irritated frown puckered her forehead. “Don’t you remember? Mom’s dead. You’ll be staying here for a while.”
Grandpa frowned, too. His lips trembled as if he were about to speak. He raised his hand to his unshaved chin and rubbed it, deep in thought. I gazed at his face and knew he did not understand.
Spotting the nurse’s desk near the entryway, I approached and cleared my throat.
“Do you have a deck of cards?” I stammered.
The nurse gestured to a storage closet and returned to her paperwork.
Fishing around among board games and picture puzzles, I found a deck of cards, grimy and dog-eared, perfectly broken in for building a card house.
“Here, Grandpa Augie.” I took my grandfather’s elbow and gently guided him to a cushioned chair. “What do you want to play first? Gin rummy or Kings in the Corner?”
That afternoon, we played our games as my parents completed the admission process. I won and he won, and then we built a four level house of cards.
As I was about to begin the fifth level, I paused.
“Grandpa, do you want to do this last level?”
His hand shook as he reached for the top of the construction. Then he shook his head no and let his hand fall into his lap. His milky blue eyes filled with tears.
I knelt beside him and hugged him, my own tears barely contained.
“Shhh, Grandpa. Shhh.”
As I cradled him in my arms, my tennis shoe nudged the table leg. The card walls quivered and crashed down, one upon another.
It was then I realized the truth. My grandfather, frail as that house of cards, needed my patience and attention more than ever.
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