See Ya later, Crocodile
I've sat and thought about this question I've posed to myself. If I
were to write about a significant member of my family, who would it be?
I've pondered my mom and dad, and it goes without saying that these two
people are quite significant to me. They are the obvious choices, and
for me, the easier ones. I could talk about how they shaped me, molding
me with their ideas and beliefs. I catch myself sometimes, seeing a particular
trait etched by my dad, or a habit carved by my mom. Yes, my mom and
dad are understandably important to me. And that's why I'm not going
to talk about them. Instead, I'm going to talk about my grandfather,
Dr. William L. Fleming.
I believe I have a good understanding of how my parents have shaped
and touched me. As for my grandfather, I'm not so sure how, but I know
he has. He has been ever-present and enigmatic throughout my life. I
have written one short story in which I have a character based on him.
I was trying to understand him, his personality. Working through the
story, I felt closer to him. There is so much distance between us though.
My grandfather was born in 1905. He is quickly approaching nine decades;
seven more than I've seen. In those seven decades he lived a full life
of which I know little. But I have been given a wonderful gift to glimpse
some of it. This past Christmas, he and my grandmother gave the family
copies of their Christmas letters from the past fifty years. Their words
show me a lot about his experiences. With them, and my own experiences,
I believe I can discern the impression my grandfather has made on me.
I flip through the past, letter by letter. He and my grandmother, Beatrice
H. Fleming, had four daughters; Beth, Anne, Mary (my mom), and Jane. I can
see the joy he gets from his family, watching his daughters grow and learn.
Outside of the family, he did extensive government research and taught preventive
medicine. Through his research, he helped find the cure for syphilis and aided
in circulating the findings all over the world. His family went with him as
he held positions in universities at such locales as Boston, Brazil, Chapel
Hill, Europe, and Egypt. But his daughters started forming families of their
own, leaving their home and getting married. Underneath the words I sense him
longing for them to stay, but letting them go. He also had to let go of his
parents as they succumbed to old age. All these changes in his life as he,
himself, aged. But he pushed on with his work, my grandmother still accompanying
him. He served several rotations on the S. S. Hope, a international medical
ship that traveled to needy areas throughout the world. And back in the states,
his daughters had children. I can feel the pride he took in announcing he had
grandchildren. Eventually, he retired to Chapel Hill, where he served on several
boards to keep himself busy. Still sharing his experiences through the Christmas
I look at the letter in which he writes of the "memorable date" of my birth.
I search my mind for imprints of him from my youth. I remember that I liked
him, finding him fun and comforting. I recall the long drives to Chapel Hill
to visit him, the excitement of just being on the road, doing something different.
He writes of our visits in the letters. I've been told that when I was frightened
by things, such as a large forest of giant people, his leg was the tree I held
onto for protection. There was the TV room, where we would sit and watch UNC
basketball games. And he would cuss up a storm if the Heels weren't playing
well (he still does). My sister and I would giggle, hearing these forbidden
words from our grandfather. And his sayings. He has these sayings he has used
for as long as I have been alive. He has always greeted me with a sing-song, "One,
two, here comes Drew," and my sister was received with, "Eenie, Meenie, here
comes Jeannie." When we left it was, "See you in the funny papers," or, "See
ya later, alligators," to which us alligators piped, "After a while, crocodile."
But most of memories are of my grandfather getting old. The years have caught
up with him, his mental activity is slower and he has almost no short term
memory. He constantly repeats himself, and attempts to set up a daily schedule,
stubbornly trying to keep with it. He checks the mail and pulls the curtains
every day. The mail usually comes around two and the curtains only need to
be pulled when the sunsets. Trying to keep with his schedule, my grandfather
starts checking for the mail around noon, and keeps looking every fifteen minutes
or so until it arrives. He pulls the curtains when he thinks to, no matter
what time of day. But he doesn't forget his sayings; the crocodile still sing-songs
to his alligators. One day in between the hello and the goodbye, I had a very
painful talk with him. He discussed his fading mind, telling me he was losing
his mental capabilities. He had been giving himself tests and little by little,
he was failing them worse and worse. One test he spoke of in particular was
that he tried to balance his checkbook each day, and lately he hadn't been
able to do it. It gave him a headache. He also tried to do the New York Times
crossword puzzle. He used to complete it in pen in one sitting. Now, it just
gave him a headache as well. But I see humor in the letters, consistent from
the first one to the present one. He writes of how his, "senile memory loss
makes him more dependent on his household associate." Even though he was going
senile, he was optimistic that he could adjust and manage quite well. I think
he has done that. It was tough for him, he fought it, becoming impatient and
frustrated. But he soon accepted that he wasn't as sharp as he used to be,
and he has adapted, limiting himself. He no longer drives, and he keeps a notebook
in his pocket on which he writes down everything; from birthdays to remember
to things to do that day.
He can still be stubborn though. One day my grandmother called me and asked
if I could come mow their steep ditch since, my grandfather was too old to
safely control the lawnmower. I went over and started mowing, with my grandfather
watching like a hawk. I wasn't doing the job the way he wanted it done. So,
he came over and told me he would do it. I told I could, but he insisted. I
yielded and let him take the mower. I found it strange arguing with my grandfather
over such a silly topic. It reminded me of the fights my sister and I would
have when we were little. But it wasn't quite the same; this was my grandfather,
not my younger sibling. So, he mowed the ditch with me following behind, a
safety net to catch him when he started to fall.
Once, I needed a briefcase. I borrowed his. When I was done with it, I tried
to return it. My grandmother told me to keep it. She said he didn't need it,
and that it made him happy to know it was being put to good use. Presently,
the briefcase sits beside my desk, collecting dust. As a student I don't have
much need of a briefcase. Maybe one day I will, dusting it off and filling
it up with books and papers. It will be satisfying; knowing it will make him
happy for me to do so. He has had a good life, and a bittersweet denouement.
Even so, I still see humor in his fond sayings and in the Christmas letters.
I've been told that he gets great joy out of my visits. My visits are so few
and far between. But every time I see him, he greets me with, "One, two, here
comes Drew." I want him to know that I'm thinking about him, about how he has
touched me. When we part, I want him to know this alligator wishes the crocodile