Grandpa awoke with tears in his eyes. He knew something was wrong and it saddened him.
He sucked air through the nose mask. The CPAP machine hissed. The air that did not go into his lungs escaped through the tiny holes at the junction of the air tube and the mask.
"Shhhh." The forced air hissed at him to be silent. The positive air pressure breathed with Grandpa and prevented him from snoring but it could not prevent his heart from breaking.
His daughter's marriage was in distress. Grandpa knew it. He could read it in the thickness of the air surrounding his son-in-law and his daughter. Might as well be a smoke signal and Grandpa didn't need to be an Indian to read the signs. He knew them well enough from the times when he and Grandma were distressed in their marriage.
"Shhhh," spoke the machine again.
It warned him to be quiet so no one could hear him cry at three-thirty in the morning. He couldn't actually sob with the mask on and air being forced into his nose but he could choke, so he did. The crying caused his sinuses to fill up and the machine struggled to push air through his nose into his lungs.
Tears leaked out of his eyes and Grandpa couldn't wipe them away. They ran into his nose mask and puddled about the side of his nose before dripping off his cheek to the pillow.
"Shhhh," the machine said again as Grandpa inhaled deeply. He used the incoming air to push the mucus out of his sinuses and down into his throat. He swallowed so he could clear his airway and allow access to his lungs.
He wished he could say something to his daughter. He wanted to let her know she should not give up on her husband.
He wished he could speak openly to his son-in-law and tell him straight-up not to muck up the best thing that ever happened to him.
He wished he could do something other than lay in bed at three thirty in the morning and cry. But he couldn't.
No one listens to old men. No one wants to know their story.
He remembered what happened and how it was between Grandma and him when they were young. No one wants to know that Grandma threw her suitcases on the bed one day and said either the Chess Club goes or she goes.
"Shhhh." The machine continued to warn Grandpa to be quiet as he choked back tears.
It wasn't infidelity and it wasn't drinking, gambling, cussing, or physical abuse. It was Chess. She was unhappy because he played chess twice a week at the Community Recreation Center until ten o'clock. And he also played in tournaments several times a year. She was apprehensive when he brought home the hand-cranked and very loud mimeograph machine. He made a few hundred copies of the Club's bulletin twice a month and a few hundred copies of tournament flyers to be sent out to the club members.
She was apprehensive about noise waking the baby. She could, and did, put up with those concerns; however, she did not put up with the time he brought home a hitchhiker and played chess with him until one o'clock in the morning and then let him sleep on the sofa. That was the final straw. Her children may have been at risk and young Grandpa seemed unconcerned the hitchhiker could have stolen one of the three children or killed them in their beds. It was the kind of fear that all young mothers had. That's when the suitcase was on the bed and the ultimatum was delivered. Choose your wife or choose chess. Grandpa chose Grandma and resigned as vice-president of the Chess Club.
Grandpa let air escape through his mouth to help clear his sinuses. Grandma hated that sound. When she heard it, she would lay awake a long time with a pillow over her head. Sometimes she would get up and move to the sofa. She couldn't do that tonight because they slept in their daughter's guest room. Grandpa muffled the sound underneath the covers so Grandma could sleep peacefully beside him.
Grandpa tried to think his way through to a solution but it was difficult. The son-in-law was a good man but a controlling one. He obviously learned his controlling behavior from his father. He was, perhaps, continuing a family legacy of domination. This time the legacy ensnared Grandpa's daughter and two grandsons. The problem was not related to his son-in-law's intelligence. He was smart. Too damn smart.
He believed himself to be correct in all things. When others did things differently, it upset him. He became upset because he could not imagine someone else would see things differently or choose differently or act differently. He was safely ensconced in his logic that he was right and everyone else was wrong. And that included his Ph.D. wife. She has a Ph.D. for Christ's sake, thought Grandpa. A Myers-Briggs analysis said he was a Debater. Grandpa said he was a butt head with bull-headed tendencies. Grandpa's daughter said it was just his way.
Tears kept flowing. Grandpa's sniffling increased. It's harder to breathe when sinuses are impacted like this.
"Shhhh." The damn thing hissed at Grandpa.
Grandpa's mind was churning because he needed a solution. It was a problem that needed fixing and Grandpa was just the person to think of a fix. He'd been fixing other people's problems for decades as a senior manager in multiple companies.
Suddenly, Grandpa came up with the idea of a mantra. Maybe not just a mantra but an incantation, maybe something like a witch's binding spell. There are no witches in real life, of course, Grandpa knew that. But the idea had merit. Grandpa had no clue how or why the idea of a binding spell popped into his head but it did. If it worked there would be no divorce. If it did not work then it would help his grandsons understand they were still loved in a complex adult relationship. Unfortunately, no one believes in witches or incantations anymore. No one believes in the power of the spoken word, just like so few believe in prayer.
Grandpa imagined his daughter and her family gathering in a circle, holding hands. He imagined them chanting aloud to each other.
Let us look to the sky and then look each other in the eye. This is our binding spell song. We say these words so we know we belong. No matter who is right or who is wrong, when we say these words we bind our self-strong. When I am right and you are wrong, we will remember this binding spell song. When you are right and I am wrong, I will know that I still belong because this is our binding spell song.
Tears flowed from Grandpa's eyes. He choked again. The machine sputtered. Thank God the mask and the covers muffled the noises he was making. If Grandma woke up and heard him, she would ask why he was crying and he didn't want to tell her. He was grieving at the possibility there might be another broken family in the world.
He wished he had a pen to write these words down. He wished he could share the power of these words with his daughter, his son-in-law, and his grandchildren. But he couldn't. They were young and they did not believe in the power of the spoken word. They didn't even believe in a Creator. They might think him a fool for believing that a chant, a mantra, a prayer, or whatever word you chose to describe it, could work to keep their family together while they struggled to find a path to a lifelong marriage.
"Shhhh," said the machine.
Shush yourself, thought Grandpa. He remembered another time when he and Grandma had almost had enough of each other.
Grandma always believed she was the center of the universe, especially the center of Grandpa's universe. Whenever Grandpa did not revolve around Grandma or whenever Grandpa did anything without consulting Grandma, the laws of astrophysics were applied and he was dragged into her orbit again. Some would say she was a controlling person. She was.
In the twenty-sixth year of their marriage, an argument blew up between them. Grandpa told her clearly how he loved everything about his life except arguing with her. He said he loved her and the house and his job and the kids. He said that if after twenty-six years of marriage, they were still arguing about the same damn things then one of them was stupid. He said that going forward she would always be right because he was done with the arguing. It wasn't important who was right. It was more important there was peace.
"Shhhh," the machine consoled Grandpa.
Grandpa saw the truth in the machine's message. It wasn't good to relive those days. Grandpa had known for decades he was not the kind of man Grandma admired. Maybe it's better to say that Grandpa was not the kind of man that Grandma had grown up with. Boisterous, athletic men had surrounded her childhood. Her family was loud and active and in each other's face constantly. The men were physically active and sports enthusiasts. Grandpa wasn't like that. He read books and was reflective. He wasn't like her brothers and extended family. He fell short of her expectations in some areas and he could tell when she was disappointed in him.
Grandpa had different skills than her father and brothers had. Grandpa was an achiever. Grandpa routinely rose through company hierarchy. He had been promoted at least one level in every job he held. He fixed other people's problems and that made him valuable to everyone except Grandma. He remembered when he made regional manager and came home excited to share the good news, Grandma said, "That's nice, dear. You still have to take out the garbage."
Grandma loved simple men. Men of the trades like carpenters, plumbers, electricians. Eat, drink, work, sweat, play sports. Physical men who did physical things. Not corporate men. Grandpa watched her light up whenever she was in the presence of simple men. She would become flirty and teasing and she had plenty of eye contact and smiles whenever she was in their presence. Not just when she was young. She was still like that today.
Complicated men were difficult for her to understand and Grandpa was complicated. Grandpa was also an opportunist while she was a planner. She had the ability to think ahead and plan ahead to make things come out right. Grandpa's planning only went so far and no farther. When an opportunity arose to do something different than planned, Grandpa did it. Grandma said she couldn't count on him to do like he said he would. Grandpa saw it as taking advantage of an opportunity. Opportunities were rare and one should not let them go by. Grandma liked consistency and dependability. You say it, you do it. That was Grandma's approach to life.
"Shhhh." said the machine again and Grandpa agreed. It was better if their daughter never heard the truth of things about him and Grandma. The son-in-law was like Grandma in some ways and like Grandpa in other ways. He was complicated and he was controlling. But the mother-daughter bond between Grandma and her daughter was strong. Knowing the truth of things might weaken the bond between Grandma and her daughter and that did not serve anyone well. It was better to keep the truth hidden away. No one needs to know the Grandma that Grandpa knows. The truth about Grandma is best kept in the closet.
All skeletons are made of truths, Grandpa thought.
"Shhhh," said the machine.
Grandpa picked up his Timex watch to see the time. He had six watches at home but he loved this one best. The difference was indiglo. It wasn't about price or beauty. It was about functionality. Timex had a patent on indiglo. You pressed the button and the watch face softly lights up so you can tell time in the dark. It was useful in theaters and dark bedrooms. It disturbed no one and yet conveyed the truth of time when it was needed. The truth of time suited Grandpa.
Grandpa went over the words in his head once more.
Let us look to the sky and then look each other in the eye. This is our binding spell song. We say these words so we know we belong. No matter who is right or who is wrong, when we say these words we bind our self-strong. When I am right and you are wrong, we will remember this binding spell song. When you are right and I am wrong, I will know I still belong because this is our binding spell song.
He wished he had thought up those words forty-two years earlier and he wished he had taught it to his family from the beginning. Words have power. Especially when you believe in them.
But then again, maybe his path with Grandma was not the best path for his daughter to take. Maybe staying together would mean that his daughter would have the same difficulties he had. So many times in his life Grandpa had to adjust his vision of what he wanted in a wife in order to stay married to Grandma. She wasn't going to adjust, that was certain. Was this constant adjustment to a high-maintenance spouse something he wanted to inflict upon his daughter? For Grandpa, it had been a personal burden for him to stay in orbit around Grandma. He would not want his daughter to go through the unceasing alignment and re-alignment of her life to meet the demands of her spouse just as Grandpa had done with Grandma.
Shhhhit thought Grandpa. Life is complicated. The future is unpredictable. Each person has to choose the path they walk. If Grandpa becomes a signpost that points his daughter in the wrong direction, he would feel responsible for any misery she suffered thereafter.
For Grandma, advice would be easy. She had conviction even when she was dead wrong. That's what led to the fight during the twenty-sixth year of their marriage. She was dead wrong and Grandpa let her win that fight and many more after that. He let her win all the fights in which the consequences were bearable to him. When he refused to let her win consequential fights, she was angry for long periods of time.
Grandpa realized he had started out looking for a solution when he woke up and now that he had found the binding spell song, he wondered if his daughter's marriage should be saved. Should a marriage be saved at all costs? Grandpa thought not. He thought about how he weighed the goodness of Grandma regularly and compared it to the pain of staying in her orbit. Grandma was no monster. She was the kind of woman that difficult men needed. But Grandpa was not a difficult man. At least he didn't think so.
Grandma put her heart and soul into her life. She would buy Christmas gifts six months in advance because she knew what children really wanted. She worked her ass off with outdoor projects. She would move piles of rocks around to put them where she wanted them in the yard. She planted trees and cut grass and she only asked Grandpa for help when she could not do it herself. Everything Grandma did in life was for her children, her home, and her marriage. In that order. Grandpa knew he was in third place.
Grandpa had a secret name for her. Nester. Grandma was constantly and consistently building her nest to live in. They say you are who you really are when you are alone. When Grandma was alone, she worked on her nest.
You had to give the machine credit. It was diligent in its efforts to keep Grandpa quiet.
Grandpa's tears had stopped and his pragmatic face had come forward. Might as well get up. He had to pee anyway. The Timex said it was ten minutes to five.
He hit the switch and the CPAP machine said, "Pissssh."
Good idea, Grandpa thought as the machine stopped and as he removed his mask.
He didn't have a solution but he had half of one.
Grandpa coughed loudly to clear the phlegm from his throat.
"Shhhh," said Grandma.