Walking to dinner from the Rec the other night, I pulled out my phone to check the temperature: -3 degrees. Wearing no gloves, no hat, you could say this city boy had slightly underestimated the power of winter in this abnormally flat town of Bowling Green. Therefore, I decided to take an alternative route in hopes of reducing the amount of time spent under the blanket of freezing air that had engrossed the campus. Wind blowing in my face as if we were the subject of an arctic wind tunnel experiment, I turned to the side for a brief escape of the invisible knife jutting into my face. There, to my left, I saw the grounds in which the campus ROTC would train and work out once the weather was not unbearably cold.
Stopping for a minute to observe my unknown surroundings, I noticed a simple set of monkey bars a few feet to my left. I walked over to them, my face buried in my jacket, yet somehow still exposed to the bitter bite of the wind. Pulling my hand out of my jacket, I reached up and touched the first metal bar. The difference in temperature between my hand and the bar was so significant I felt as if the metal might melt if I could bear to hold on any longer. Just before I placed my hand back into my coat pocket, I paused for a minute as a faded memory protruded into my head. I slowly moved my hand back toward to the metal bar and grasped it. Immediately the sting of the freezing, unforgiving metal disappeared, as the flame of a memory grew warmer and warmer.
As was usual after my grandma passed away, my grandpa was over at my house every Sunday for Sunday dinner. He would sit in the kitchen, usually facing the television, watching golf with my dad, or more often than not, sleeping while my dad watched golf. I do not know why, but the fondest memories I have are of the Sundays during spring, when the double doors next to the kitchen were open, letting the warm breeze in from the screened-in porch. The sun would be shining, and the grass green; the smell of seasoned steak slowly traveling from the grill on the porch into the house, becoming more distinct every second.
As if he could smell when the steak was done, my grandpa would wake up, his head popping up like a jack-in-the-box, right before dinner was served- a skill that must mature with age. He was always so excited to eat a meal made by my Mom, probably for good reason, as the food she cooked could not compare to the “gourmet” meals provided at his Assisted Living Facility. Trust me, as a regular at Mom’s Kitchen, no cafeteria food on the planet could scratch the surface of her grilled steak, diced potatoes and steamed vegetables. At times, it almost appeared the meal was the only thing on my grandpa’s mind; but deep down I knew the company of my family was what he truly came for. In fact, the difference may well be similar to the difference of Mom’s food and the food at the Assisted Living Facility.
Similar to most elderly people, grandpa loved to share memories, perhaps because they were the only intangible thing he had to hold onto. Understandably, feelings of the future only become more irrelevant as the end draws near. Yet even though my grandpa was in his late 80’s, his memory seemed to strengthen with age. Perhaps his strongest memories were rooted in his participation in World War II. He was drafted as a young man, only a few years older than me, when my grandma was pregnant with my aunt. He always used to tell us stories about his escapades, what it was like fighting in the biggest war the world has ever seen.
I could always picture my grandpa in his navy gear, standing at the edge of a massive ship overlooking the loneliness of the ocean, holding his rifle, the metal fresh with condensation from the sweat of a nervous pair of hands. My grandpa was a tough man, but for some reason he seemed most vulnerable when my brothers and I would ask him about his gun. He never had to shoot at anyone. But I think the thought of being forced to fire at someone, as a matter of life or death, as a matter of necessity, made him uneasy.
Just then, the bitter cold rushed into my paralyzed hand, biting my skin and causing me to quickly withdraw my hand back into the safety of my pocket. Suddenly aware of my surroundings, I casually glanced around to see if anybody had took notice of the strange man hanging out by the deserted monkey bars in the cold of the night. Luckily, I was still in solitude, and decided to take a seat on a block of wood adjacent to the monkey bars. I looked around, further taking in my unknown surroundings. It was so dark though I could barely see anything, and my focus again shifted back to the metal bars directly to the right of me.
I stood up and placed my hand back on the first metal bar. Ice cold. What a surprise. Again, my thoughts immediately shifted back to my grandpa.
Being in the Navy, my grandpa traveled to many different countries on ship. His fleet had just departed North Africa. Not being able to sleep in his close quarter bunk, he walked up to the top of the ship to clear his mind. He stared into the black of the ocean, gripping the railing at the edge of the ship, only aware he was even on water by the faint clash of the waves against the bottom of the ship. Suddenly, he heard an explosion and was tossed across the ship like a ragdoll. He didn’t remember much after that. He woke up with a broken leg and a Purple Heart. He didn’t mind the pain though. The soldiers still asleep in his bunker didn’t make it out alive. Whatever it was weighing on his mind that caused him to leave his bed, leave his friends, leave the sense of protection, saved his life that night. And for that reason, he could endure the pain, because he knew he was alive.
One time he brought over his Purple Heart. He let my brothers and I hold it. It was strange that such a small piece of metal should be so significant, should spark so many memories.
My hand again became aware of the ice-cold metal bar I had unknowingly attached a firm grip to. I glanced around in a nonchalant manner for the second time; still no one there. Where the hell is everyone? It’s not like its dangerously cold out. Conversing with myself silently, I became aware of the bitter cold, yet again. I sat back down on the wooden block and crunched my body together as close as possible. As I went to place my right hand in my pocket, I grazed the block of wood I was so kindly protecting from the coughs of Mother Nature.
As my grandpa was living out his final days, he seemed at peace. He was very sick, but the medicine and painkillers put him at ease. My family and I would bring him dinner to the Nursing Home in which he was now staying. We would spread out around him and eat our meal, elbows continuously jarring into one another, but we didn’t mind. It was obvious my grandpa wasn’t too sure what exactly was going on: pain meds will do that to you. However, there would be times he would look around at me, my brothers, my dad, and my mom -oh, how he loved my mom- and would smile. He didn’t need to understand what was going on in the present, to understand what had already happened in the past.
My grandpa passed away a few weeks before Christmas. He died rather peacefully, in his bed, with his son and daughters around him. When it was time for his funeral a few days later, my dad asked if I would be a pallbearer. I said of course, as I had done the same for my grandma at her funeral. The funeral was sad, but there was something spiritually satisfying about it. The service was held at my family’s parish, one that my grandpa had grown to love when he moved to his Assisted Living Facility right down the road. I don’t know what it was that he loved about that church, to me it was just a church, but attending with my family every Sunday, he was happy.
When the service was over, I made my way to the front of the Church, and placed my hand on the soft, warm piece of wood perpetually separating my grandpa from the cold of the world. Staring at the coffin- forgetting everything, while my memory never seemed so vivid- seeing my hand separate the wood from the rest of the world, chills rushed through my body. Saying my final words to my grandpa, I ever so-slowly lowered my hand to the spotless metal handle to assume my position, and clenched-
Snapping back to reality for the third time, I found myself standing, my fingers unconsciously gripping a bar of metal like the handle of a gun. I shook my head. The temperature was negative degrees, and instead of taking time off my painful walk, I was taking time to squeeze a freezing, grimy bar of metal and feel the texture of a random, rugged block of wood.
I got up and began cutting through the rest of the park so I could finally eat. I was starving. As I walked, face buried in jacket, I didn’t really take the time to notice anything else in the park. I had become too concerned with other matters—the small splinter of wood lodged in my index finger, and the cold sting still lingering in my palm.