14. My Wingman

14. My Wingman

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: Family Matters


My Wingman

The rate at which a person can mature is directly proportional to the embarrassment he can tolerate.

~Douglas Engelbart

I was sixteen when Grampa lost the use of his legs and moved in with my family right before Christmas. At age sixteen, it’s tough enough to maintain a civil relationship with your immediate family, let alone someone two generations away.

I did have fond memories of Grampa’s infinite gifts of footballs, though. Every Christmas, without fail, he’d bring me a football and blankets. Having raised my mother in a drafty cabin during tough times in northern New Hampshire, he was compelled to bring us blankets every year. We had blankets coming out the ying-yang in our house. They were packed into closets, and stashed in the basement and garage, mostly in unopened plastic packaging. Heck, I had a couch in my room I’d constructed from stacks of still-packaged blankets with a blanket draped over them. It was quite comfortable. But by the time Grampa moved in, his growing dementia combined with my adolescent angst shot our relationship all to heck. It started with the telephone.

Today’s kids ought to be grateful that nearly all of them have cell phones. Back when there was just one landline in the house, that phone was the subject of endless controversy. Even worse, although it was 1994 and cordless phones were common, I somehow ended up with a black rotary dial telephone in my room.

That phone must have weighed thirty pounds. The receiver alone could double as a weapon since it was so heavy. In my adolescent daydreams, whenever I imagined someone breaking into my room, that heavy receiver was the first thing I grabbed to pummel the intruder into submission. I nearly knocked myself out with the thing a few times just by bringing it up to my ear too quickly when answering it.

One day, I was awaiting a phone call from a girl—a rare enough occasion for me in those days, believe me—so I quickly answered the phone when it rang. I had just heard the girl’s voice on the line when the cordless telephone downstairs clicked on. Then I heard my Grampa’s scratchy voice, sounding like his throat was made from tree bark.

“Hello?” He was out of breath. He was always out of breath. I didn’t understand this too well, since he sat in a wheelchair and did not move much.

I said, “Grampa, I got it. It’s for me.”

He replied, “Huh?”

“I’ve got it, Grampa. You can hang up.”

“What?”

At that point, I covered the receiver with my hand and screamed, “Grampa, I’ve got it! Hang up the friggin’ phone!”

“Huh?”

I told the girl to hang on a second. I ran downstairs, plucked the phone from Grampa’s hand, and placed it on the charger. But I knew where it would end up. Every time I left the room, he’d scoot over to the charger, grab that cordless phone, and deposit it in his T-shirt pocket where he could answer it easily.

The thing was, no one called Grampa. Ever. In fact, it was quite possible that no one had ever called Grampa, period. He wasn’t exactly a social butterfly. But let me tell you, he was all over that phone when it rang, like he was waiting on a call from the president. I went through that nearly every time anyone called me. Once word got around, it became a custom at my school for students I didn’t even know to call my house, just to get Grampa on the line. It was not the kind of attention I was looking for.

Somehow, even with Grampa running interference on the phone lines, I managed to convince a girl to accompany me to the movies one Saturday night. Even better, my parents were at my aunt’s house for the night. All I had to do was somehow manage to get my date into the living room and cozy up on the couch—without seeing Grampa.

The house was dark when we pulled up. It was 9:30, and Grampa was always in bed by eight. I led my date up the steps, but she stopped me.

“Listen, it’s getting pretty late.”

“Really? You can’t just stay twenty minutes?”

She smiled. “Well, maybe twenty.”

I opened the front door wide and stepped aside, allowing her to pass me. Her hair smelled exhilaratingly like coconut shampoo.

When she reached the top of the stairs, she stopped. “Um…” is all she said.

“What?”

I couldn’t see around her, so I squeezed in next to her to see what she was concerned about. There, upon his throne in all his glory, sat Grampa. Our downstairs bathroom sat directly across from the front door, and Grampa had chosen to use the toilet with the bathroom door wide open. So when my date reached the top stair, she looked up and instantly made eye contact with Grampa, naked from the waist down on the toilet. Grampa, not a small man by any means, made no apologies, just held her gaze unwaveringly.

She looked at me and said, “Yeah, I should probably be going!”

I think that must have set a world record for the fastest killing of the mood, ever.

~Ron Kaiser, Jr.

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