After work my first day as a stock boy for a small grocery store I rode my orange Stingray bicycle to my grandparents house. It was a warm September day, and the banana-shaped seat held the heat from the sun. It was 1972, and in a few days I would begin my first year of high school.
My grandparents house was a short ride from the grocery store. Grandpa was standing in the driveway when I rode up. He had a cardboard container of pansies in his arms. He looked at me and smiled. I noticed a bead of sweat on his brow.
Your grandmother and I are going to see your father in the hospital, my grandfather said. Do you want to come?
Yes, I said.
I sat in the backseat of my grandfathers candy-red Oldsmobile Cutlass. My grandmother sat in the front bench seat, beside my grandfather, who would occasionally hunch his shoulders as he maneuvered the steering wheel.
Do you know what cancer is, Bobby? my grandmother asked.
I think so, I said. I dont know.
Well, your father has it, she said. He just found out.
Oh, I said, trying to envision what it really was.
Your father will tell you all about it when we get there, my grandfather said.
The hospital was next to the Watervliet Paper Mill, the factory where my father worked. Smoke rose up from the stacks as if in a wave, billowing up into the sky. The smell of sulfur permeated the air.
Inside the hospital, the front desk person, a matronly-looking woman in thick black-framed glasses gave us passes, and we took the stairs to my fathers room. My father was in street clothes, sitting on the edge of the bed when we entered his room. He stood, all 6-foot 3-inches of him, and gave me a pat on the head.
How was your first day of work? he asked. Do you think youre going to like it?
He reached in his back pocket and pulled out his wallet, removed a hundred dollar bill, and handed it to me. This is for the money your mother took out of your account.
Thank you, I said.
Sit down, my father said.
I sat on the edge of the bed next to him.
Did your grandmother and grandfather tell you what I have?
Yes, I said.
Im sick, he said. But Ill get better.
He turned away when he said this, and I suddenly felt, though I was perhaps too young to understand why, like tragedy was in the air, as if day after day the sky was gray and rain spattered against the windows.
We were quiet in the car as my grandfather drove back to the house. My grandmother was staying with my father. Grandpa would go back and get her later.
The phone was ringing when we entered the house.
Hello, my grandfather said.
I could tell it was my stepmother.
Im sorry, Lawanda, my grandfather said. But
My grandfather hung up the phone.
That was your mother. Shes mad because we didnt let her know where you were at.
I better hurry and ride my bike home, I said.
She said you cant come back home, my grandfather said.
The next day, early in the morning, my stepmother pulled around my grandparents circle driveway. My grandparents and I stood on the sidewalk in front of the house. I could see my brother and sister through the cars windows. They looked frightened.
My stepmother got out of the car, came around the rear end, opened the backseat door that faced the sidewalk, and started tossing out my clothes: shirts, pants, socks, underwear. She was yelling, but I couldnt understand a word she was saying.
I stood there, watching my clothing pile up on the sidewalk, driveway, and lawn. She threw out my old high-top Red Ball Jets tennis shoes that hadnt fit me for years. My church loafers were flipped in the air; my winter coat and gloves, and stocking cap. Lastly, she threw my baseball mitt hard onto the pile. She got in the car and left.
That is how I came to live with my grandparents.
They took me in, and, later, eventually all of my siblings. It is because of them I became a social worker. I have spent the last 23 years working with older adults.
Reach out to an older person in your family and get to know their lives. Listen to their stories. Volunteer in a nursing home. Volunteer to deliver Meals on Wheels to shut-in seniors. Give to them as surely they have given to you.