Appearances Are Deceptive in Grandfather’s Room

A. Mark Clarfield, MD, Chief of Geriatrics, Soroka Hospital, Beer-sheva, Israel; Sidonie Hecht Professor of Geriatrics, Ben-Gurion University of the Negev, Beer-sheva, Israel; Staff geriatrician of the Division of Geriatric Medicine, Sir Mortimer B. Davis-Jewish General Hospital, McGill University, Montreal, QC.

My maternal grandfather lived until the age of 111. He was lucid to the end, but a few years before he died, the family assigned me the task of talking to him about his problem with alcohol. My aunt, with whom he had lived for the last 20 years of his life, had been a health food fanatic for as long as I could remember. She was considered somewhat of a crank when I was a child, but as the 1960s approached and we all started joining her in eating bean sprouts, Auntie Minnie gained respectability. Being a teetotaller, she was worried about my grandfather’s desire to indulge, three to four times a day, in a drink of his favourite whisky, Canadian Club, fretting that he would inevitably become an alcoholic.

He could not understand her fears and whenever possible would slip himself a few drinks above and beyond the watered-down ration she would dole out each evening before supper. I was a medical student at the time and not yet conscious of my future role as a geriatrician. However, because I represented the closest thing to my parent’s medical authority, I was delegated by the extended family (i.e., my parents, three siblings, eight uncles and aunts, 11 cousins, various dogs, cats, and birds) to “speak to Zayde” about his problem.

Not exactly brimming with enthusiasm for the task, I walked the few blocks to my aunt’s house and climbed the 20 steep stairs to his room. My family should have been less concerned about his tippling and more worried about his tripping down the stairs. My heart pounding from the steepness of the ascent, I pondered how I should broach the delicate subject. After all, I had great respect for my Zayde. If nothing else, he had outlived almost everyone in the world who was born in 1871. The fact that he had come to Canada penniless, devoid of all but three English words (“I vant vork”), raised a family, and started a hardware shop (which was to become a Queen Street landmark in Toronto) was impressive enough to me—that and the fact he was still alive more than a century after his mother gave birth to him in a cold, crowded hut near Kiev. In fact, my admiration for him may well have influenced my choice of geriatrics as my area of specialization in medicine.

As usual, Zayde and I chatted over hot tea. He asked me, as he always did, about my life—school, girlfriends, my parents, brother, sister. These apparently ritualistic questions and answers served as a kind of prologue to the real discussion that would always follow. I would ask him questions about his life in Russia and his role in the Russo-Japanese War of 1904–5. Officially, he had been a drummer in the tsarist army; unofficially, he taught fellow soldiers how to evade service by feigning all kinds of illnesses.

Zayde would tell me how he escaped Russia and crossed the border by a combination of bribery and good luck, and how he came to Canada shortly afterward. “Russia no goot, Canada vonderful,” he said. He had theories about why he lived so long—”Never get excited, go for a walk.” He told how it felt to be blind, as he had become in the last few years of his life. “What can I do? I have lived a long life.” He paused. “But I would like to see the flowers and the birds. I want to see the trees.”

This time, however, I did not feel nearly as comfortable as I usually did in his presence. On this occasion, my mission was not simply to be a grandson but to act as his doctor and speak to him about his “problem.” After what seemed an interminable period, I finally broached the subject, using techniques I had recently learned in medical school.

“Zayde,” I began, apprehensively, “you know, some old people sometimes get into trouble if they drink too much.”

“Oh yes,” he agreed, “That’s a real problem, you’re right!” Strike one.

I tried again. “An occasional drink doesn’t hurt, but more than one a day is probably too much, don’t you think?” He smiled. “Yes, absolutely!” Strike two.

“But Zayde,” I blurted out, “we’re afraid that you’re going to hurt yourself, fall down, break a leg, fracture your skull, have a heart attack!”

“Hey, wait a minute, don’t get excited, don’t worry. Are you afraid that maybe I drink too much?” he asked.

“Well, yes, sort of,” I replied uneasily. I wondered how I had allowed my family to get me into such a position.

“Now, now, don’t worry about me,” he said. “I am ok. I’m fine. You are the one that has to take care of yourself.” Zayde reached out for me, solicitously, his hands groping. I felt like Jacob falsely seeking blessing from the dim-sighted Isaac. “Watch your own health,” my grandfather continued. “Be very careful!”

“Why?” I asked, perplexed and a bit worried by the sudden turning of the tables, by his obvious real concern for me. Looking out from his unseeing, yet far from expressionless eyes (can a blind man’s eyes twinkle?) his eyes fixed upon me in a riveting gaze. “Just remember,” he said in such a low voice that I could barely hear him, “there are a lot more old drunks than old doctors.”

Nearly 20 years after his death, I look back on my visits with my Zayde with profound gratitude. Most people do not get to know their grandparents that well. I reached adulthood while he still lived, and, in the years before he died, I talked with him as often as possible. I knew the privilege would not last. Each time I left his room I would look around, wondering if this was to be my last glimpse.

My grandfather, who continued to drink what he wanted without ever becoming an alcoholic, was no intellectual. Although he could read and write Yiddish and spoke five languages from childhood, he could barely spell an English word. Most probably, he had never heard of Francis Bacon; yet the great English philosopher was certainly acquainted with the likes of my grandfather. “The monuments of wit survive the monuments of power,” was how Bacon would have summed up Zayde.