Five months ago today…
We had all spent the last few days together, and I mean all of us. Family had flown in from California, cousins rode trains down from Manhattan, and those of us who lived close made the daily drive to the Kentlands neighborhood in Gaithersburg, Maryland. We crammed into the apartment, three of us on the couch, two in the chairs, and the rest of us on the floor. Occasionally, someone would go to the other bedroom and pull out photo books and reminisce of happier times.
Our grandmother, the matriarch of our family, was dying. Cancer had riddled her body, and after an eight-year battle, in November 2017, she decided she had enough. No more chemotherapy. No more doctors. She decided she would live the rest of her life as best she could.
At around 10 a.m. on Monday, 16 April, I received a phone call. It was my mom.
“It happened. She’s gone.”
I got in my car and drove back to the apartment, as I had done everyday for the last four days. It was a somber mood, as everybody knew it was coming. We all took turns, saying our last goodbyes to the woman who was so influential to all of us, especially her husband of 61 years, my grandfather, Art.
Two days later, on Wednesday, we held a memorial service, a “celebration of life,” as my grandfather called it. “I don’t want it to be sad,” he said. And that’s what we did. We celebrated her life in front of family and friends who had known and loved her. My grandmother, Harriet, was cremated, and her remains were placed on top of a small desk in the apartment.
After the service, the family from California flew back, and the cousins from Manhattan returned to New York. I checked in with my grandfather everyday, as most others did. He was sad, of course; we all were.
“I think I’d like to go back to bowling this Friday,” he told me.
“You got it, Grandpa,” I responded. “I’d be happy to take you.” I was in a fortunate position. I worked only three days per week and used Mondays and Fridays to work on other projects like finishing my book and writing music.
“I like to go to McDonald’s for breakfast,” he said.
“You got it, Grandpa.”
Nine days after my grandmother died, I drove to the apartment where she had passed to pick up the widower who was now living by himself for the first time in 61 years. I walked up the squares of artificial turf to the patio door of the apartment; as no one ever used the front door.
I looked through the window and saw him sitting on the couch with Max, his 10-pound Maltese, on his lap, watching television. Normally, she would have been sitting next to him. But now, he was alone.
I opened the door and Max immediately started barking.
“Yes, yes, hello Max. Come here.” I walked into the kitchen, grabbed a small biscuit, and gave it to him. He ran into a corner of the room, broke it into pieces, and started nibbling on it.
“I have a question for you,” he told me. “Now that Grandma has passed away, we’ll need somebody to fill her spot on our team. Would you like to bowl for her?”
“Grandpa, I’d be honored.” He smiled. My bowling ball and bowling shoes were in the trunk of my car. They were the same ball and shoes my grandparents bought me when I was 14, the first time I bowled in a league with them, along with my high school friend Sandy.
“Okay, ready to go?” my grandfather asked me. He was not one to waste time. If he had something to do, he did it.
“Yes, sir,” I said as I grabbed the keys to his Honda SUV. I had a Honda Civic, but it was difficult for him to get in and out of, considering how low the car sat to the ground. Taking his was much easier.
He took his cane and shuffled his feet to the door and out to the passenger side of the vehicle, getting in on his own. A right turn out of his apartment complex, a quick drive through the shopping center, a left on Great Seneca Highway, and a right on Quince Orchard Road brought us to breakfast.
I couldn’t tell you the last time I had been to a McDonald’s, as I didn’t care much for fast food. Obviously, that didn’t matter. He wanted McDonald’s. If he had wanted to go to the moon, I would have taken him there, too.
I parked the car in the handicapped spot adjacent to the walkway up to the doors. I held the door for him as he smiled. “McDonald’s is simple, the food is hot, and you always know what you’re going to get,” he told me. He liked being at McDonald’s, and I was happy to be there with him.
“I’d like an Egg McMuffin and an orange juice,” he said to the host. “And whatever my grandson would like.”
I didn’t know, so I ordered the same thing as him.
“I’ll grab some napkins and you wait for the food.” He moved slowly toward the soda fountain, tapping his cane on the ground with each step. He grabbed a few napkins and sat at a table in the back of the restaurant. He put his cane next to him and looked out the window. For years, he had gone to McDonald’s for breakfast with my grandmother and what he called the “McDonald’s group,” a gaggle of anywhere between five and 10 people who would gather for breakfast every morning from Monday through Friday.
He missed her. He missed going to McDonald’s with her. He missed her laugh, her smile, her voice. We all did. Now, he was at McDonald’s with me. All I could think in that moment was how I just wanted him to be happy.
“Yes, right here. Thank you.”
I grabbed the tray and sat down across from him, handing him his Egg McMuffin and orange juice. We talked about everything: politics, sports, international affairs, and of course, Grandma.
“What time is it?” he asked.
“Okay, ready to go?”
A right turn out of the parking lot, a right turn on the side street, and a left turn on to Clopper Road put us at the bowling alley about five minutes later. It was the same place I bowled with my grandparents in the league when I was in high school and the same place I bowled with them and my friend Joe after college. I’ll never forget being 23 years old and spending Monday nights with my grandparents and Joe. Other kids our age were at happy hours. We were bowling.
I held the door for my grandfather as he walked in, shuffling his feet and tapping his cane. Everybody in the league loved Art, and he loved them. But when he walked in with me and not Harriet, they knew.
“Hey Art, good morning,” said Bruce, another member of the league. He was standing next to his wife Darlene. Both knew my grandmother very well.
“Good morning, Bruce,” he responded. “Harriet passed away.”
Bruce’s and Darlene’s faces dropped. “I’m so sorry, Art. She was a fantastic woman.”
“She certainly was.” Bruce and Darlene both gave him a hug.
And so he continued down the line, greeting each team, telling them of Harriet’s passing, receiving their condolences, and moving on to the next. I looked up at each computer screen, scanning for our team name, C.A.S.H.
It was a fun and simple name, combining the first letters of each of the team members:
I shed a tear, knowing how much she loved bowling, even just two weeks before she died. If she couldn’t live on, at least the team name could.
I dropped my bag at the table and walked to the set of lockers to grab Grandpa’s ball and shoes.
I put the key in, unlocked it, and opened the door. Again, I shed another tear. It was my grandmother’s bowling ball and shoes. I put my hand on the lockers and leaned against it.
“You okay, Parker?” I heard from behind me. It was Jackie, the bowling alley manager, someone I had known for 20 years and a person whom my grandparents loved.
“Yeah, I’m okay. My grandmother died last week.”
“Yeah, I just heard. I’m so sorry.” One of the other league members must have said something to her.
I took out Grandma’s ball and shoes and then took out Grandpa’s before putting hers back in the locker. Back at our lane, we began to change our shoes and get ready for practice.
“Good morning, Leisure World bowlers,” Jackie said over the alley’s intercom. “As many of you know, we lost a member of our league last week, Harriet Sturm. She was an incredible woman, and I’d like to take a moment of silence in remembrance.”
Everyone got quiet. No one said a word. The pinsetters stopped churning. It was the only time I can ever recall a bowling alley being silent. But it was, and it was for my grandmother.
“Thank you and good luck.”
The pinsetters began to flicker on and the bowlers began their practice throws. Despite losing his wife of 61 years, Grandpa held his own, bowling his average over the course of three games. I bowled a 158 average, but couldn’t have cared less. I was there for him and would have been happy if I didn’t break 100.
After the three rounds, we said our goodbyes and I drove Grandpa home. I unlocked the door and Max came out running and barking.
“Okay, Max, go make,” he said, pointing Max to a patch of grass. Then, he looked at me.
“Would you like to take Grandma’s spot on the team for the rest of the season?” he asked.
As if there was any answer to this question other than “yes.”
“Grandpa, if you’d like me to, I’d be happy to.”
And that was it. I went home and spoke with my wife about the day. “He wants me to take him each Friday,” I told her. “Do you think I should?” I was worried about what she would think. Abby supported me switching from a full-time schedule to a part-time schedule so I could write my book. If I wasn’t being productive, I was nervous about how she would react.
“Honey, it’s not even a question. That man loves you. And he needs you.”
That afternoon, my grandfather sent an email to our family of the bowling scores from that day with a one line message:
“Parker bowled for Grandma and will continue to do so until the end of the season.”
And that was it. I bowled on C.A.S.H. throughout rest of the spring league.
And then I bowled in the summer league.
And then I bowled in the fall league.
Every Friday, picking up Grandpa at 8 a.m., giving Max a biscuit, taking him to McDonald’s for breakfast, bowling with him, taking him home, maybe getting lunch if he’s hungry, and getting any groceries or anything else that he needs.
And I’ll do it as long as he wants me to.
Those are Fridays with Grandpa.
(If you couldn’t already tell, be sure to check out the reasons why my grandfather is on the dedication page of my book, Get After It)