I was almost all the way to Carrollton to pick him up when my mother sent me a text. He doesn’t know me anymore. I’m on my way to discuss changes in his care.
My granddaddy, Doyle Agan, battled dementia for years. Medication slowed the advance, but in the span of a week or so, he’d forgotten his daughter’s name. I’m too late, I thought. I called mom quickly, and she endorsed the idea of me springing him for a few hours while she met with his caretakers.
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As I stepped into the doorway of his room, I was met with a blank smile and the unsure wave of a friendly man greeting a stranger.
“Doyle, how’s it going?”
“Fine enough, I suppose.”
After a few moments, I pushed off the doorframe and into his room, advancing with an outstretched hand. “My name is Jeremy. You likely don’t remember me, but I’m your grandson.”
I don’t know whether you’d call it pride, dignity or vanity that was always a key part of his personality, but whatever it was still persisted. You could see the wince of anguish as he dug into a fading bank of memories in search of a name, a face, anything. “No, I don’t rightly recall. I’ve taken a hit right up here, you see,” as he wiped across his brow, “and the memories are just gone.”
It was then I noticed a very quiet lady sitting on his couch, knitting or crocheting a project. I sat in the recliner next to her and introduced myself, and she introduced herself. I tried to make conversation, but it was mostly silence as she worked the yarn.
“Let’s go take a walk,” Doyle said. As we passed out of earshot of his room, he said, “She thinks she’s in her own room. Her room is actually the next door down, but she just walks in and sits on my couch like she owns the place.”
The last remnants of a failed tropical system were blowing past, and it had rained for the last several days. Trying to find a dry seat was a struggle, but we finally found an iron bench that was dry enough. There we sat for a while, talking.
“The doctor said I took a blow right here,” he said while wiping across his brow again. “And I’m just not remembering things like I used to.”
“I know, buddy, but we’re just doing the best we can with that. Tell you what, I have a plan. Let’s go to the airport, and you can see the Piper Cub I’m rebuilding. We’ll hang out there, and then we can go eat lunch at Cracker Barrel with my wife and her co-worker. Lunch with a couple of good-looking young ladies…How does that sound?”
He stared at the bare flagpole for a moment in contemplation. “I can’t think of a better way to spend the day.”
As we drove, I could hear the tick, tick, tick of his Timex easy-reader over the muted road noise of Amy’s Prius. Any other car, and it would be drowned out, but on this day, it ticked loudly, a reminder of the time dwindling away from us.
I pulled up to my little workshop at the Carrollton airport and unlocked the door. Tools, equipment and parts crowded the place, but as he stepped into the space, he flourished ever so slightly. The smells and sights were just familiar enough that his wavering cautiousness of not knowing anyone melted and the warm smile crept back in.
If you could get Doyle to talk about his decades of working at Delta Air Lines, he would go for days. He was a sheet metal and engine mechanic and inspector as air transportation entered the jet age. I showed him the pieces of the Cub that I was working on, and at least a half-dozen times he repeated how he’d love to get to work on airplanes again. “Do you think anyone could use some help?”
Each time, I’d deflect having to tell him that he’d forget which plane to work on by drawing his attention to some part I was going to repair or replace.
“This is a nice setup here,” he said. “Some folks don’t keep such a clean shop.”
It was, in fact, a jumbled mess, nothing like the way he kept this place when his name was on the lease. In this little workshop, he taught me how to drive rivets before I could drive a car. We walked out to the ramp and looked over some parked airplanes. Some were clean, ready to take a hop around the patch, while nearly as many sat abandoned on flat, cracked tires with hazy windshields. A Piper Super Cub clawed its way into the pattern, and we watched for a long, quiet minute.
“This is just great,” he said. “Thank you so much for… all…of…this.”
After lunch, I took him back to the assisted living facility. We walked to his room, and I said my goodbye as we hugged. I’m sure that moments after I rounded the corner, his memory of the day’s events faded quickly.
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He held on for a few years, and each time we met, it was like a time traveler’s conundrum. He kept thinking he was younger and younger as his newer memories faded and left him with nothing beyond his early adulthood.
And then, on Thanksgiving Day, I sat next to him for a long while, both of us unable to speak. His body was shutting down, and his main movements were occasional spasmodic jerks, while my speechlessness was purely driven by emotion. I got him to hold still enough to trim his long fingernails, a feat nobody’d been able to pull off, as I told him stories. At a moment when it was just me and him in the room, I leaned close and whispered, “It’s okay to let go. You’ve fought long enough.”
It was arguably the most difficult string of words that ever left my mouth. I was granting release to the man who’d enabled my own release.
As a kid, I dreamed of being a railroad engineer, my career dreams mainly inspired by a desire to get out and see the world. My granddaddy recognized my wanderlust as a child and sat me on the captain’s seat of a Delta Air Lines Boeing 727 at the Atlanta Technical Operations Center when I was 10. Seeing the spark as he pointed to an airspeed indicator that stretched to speeds well beyond the trains I dreamed of, he said one sentence that completely changed my life.
“You could do this, but you’ll have to work for it.”
It became a central theme for my life. He found Cecil Wilson, a mechanic at the airport near my home, who took me on as an apprentice. I started with a broom and graduated quickly to wrenches and screwdrivers. I fell in cahoots with an airshow team, worked at a number of maintenance shops, and took a few detours along the way. It took 17 years from that fateful day with my granddaddy until I pushed up the thrust levers of a passenger jet, well within sight of the hangar where the inspiration for this career’s journey began.
All the while, Doyle was my number one fan. “Oh, you’re Jeremy’s granddaddy,” he’d say of the way folks came to know him. I’d often counter with, “Everyone greets me as your grandkid, so I’d say it all evens out in the end.” I took him up with me a few times, and although he knew the basic mechanics of flying a plane, he declined most of my requests for him to take the controls. He just sat back and basked in the success of his project.
And then, on the 10-year anniversary of my hire date as an airline pilot, his last breath swept away on a cool December breeze. I was in Charleston with Amy, and hours later I was on a jump seat headed home, flying the airline he’d spent 40 years with. With a rose on my jacket and a weight on my heart, I took the pulpit for a few rambling minutes of stories, scriptures and several long moments of silence as words failed me. The pews were mostly empty, a downside of having outlived most of his friends.
This business of flying airplanes creates a strange sort of friendship with those we meet. For a couple days, we’re together night and day, then we part for indefinite stretches. We say goodbye as if we’ll meet again next week, when we know our paths may or may not cross again. Those goodbyes are easy, light, noncommittal. Having to make a definitive, final goodbye to the man who turned on the fuel and pointed to the start switch for the career of my dreams was absolutely terrifying.
As I lowered his casket onto the rack that’d lower him into the red clay of the church grounds where he grew up, I finally formed into words the best goodbye I could manage. “It’ll be one heck of a layover when our paths cross again.”