Meadville Tribune

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July 10, 2014

The last time — live like it’s now or lose it forever

Nearly two decades ago, I visited my grandfather in the hospital as he recovered from a stroke. He was a man of many words in the latter stages of his life, usually more than most people wanted to hear. He knew that the end was near, as did I, and he proceeded to give me the proverbial don’t-forget-to-stop-and-smell-the-roses speech. They were just the ramblings of an old man to a busy 20-something family man, but I respectfully listened just the same. He would go home again one last time but not for long.

My widowed grandmother would spend many years afterward in a villa at Wesbury. She continued to live her ever-busy social life well into her ’90s. This, of course, involved driving her purple Dodge Neon probably much longer than we should have allowed, but no one had the heart to deny her this freedom. After a period of declining health, she was moved into the full-care facility and she surrendered her car to me. It would make a good first car for my then 15-year-old son, I reasoned.

“It won’t go faster than 55,” she claimed, although my mother declared this to be patently false. As I drove it home, I found myself wondering, “When was the last time she drove it? Where had it taken her on that final excursion? Did she know it would be her last time behind the wheel forever?”

When my daughter was a little girl, her favorite story for me to read aloud was “The Poky Little Puppy.” We went through it enough times that she eventually knew the words by heart and would laughingly recite them before I could read them to her. When was the last time I read it to her? Would it have meant more if I’d known right then that we would never read it again? Probably so. When was that one last time that my son and I launched model rockets? Now, my daughter is out of college and my son is getting ready to begin. Childhood activities have long been replaced with teenage and adult activities, and time seems to be passing at a frightening pace.

Recently, my wife has been busy moving her parents from their Linesville home to Rolling Fields — her mother into a villa and her father into the full-care facility, as he is sadly suffering from Alzheimer’s disease. His oft-repeated question has been, “When am I going home?” No one wanted to tell him that when he walked out the front door of his house it was the last time. Home now has a different address.

Late last summer while driving between Meadville and Cochranton on one of those crystal clear pre-fall days, I stopped along the road near my grandparents’ farm. Time to smell the roses. I climbed up through the pasture fields to the pond and the woods that lay beyond, where I had spent many a childhood day that had seemed to last forever. When was that one last time I was here? At the age of 13 or 14? If only I could pinpoint it. Why did I stop coming here? I loved it up here.

Nearly 35 years have passed at this point. The pond was long-drained and full of trees and brush. The picnic table, which had been supported on one end by a giant red oak just beyond the fence row, was now only a memory, lost to the logger’s saw. When was the last time my grandmother and I ate sandwiches and carrot sticks from a wicker basket at that table and looked down upon the farms below?

This Fourth of July, something strange happened. The boyfriend and girlfriend were otherwise engaged, so our two grown children stuffed themselves (literally) into the back of our nearly antique Mustang convertible and we set off on, what has been for years, a family tradition. We play miniature golf in Edinboro, eat lunch and/or supper on a patio somewhere or another in Erie, go for ice cream on Presque Isle and chase down fireworks wherever we can find them. It is, without exception, the best holiday of the year. No commitments, no gifts or cards required, just red-white-and-blue mid-summer freedom. It was a day to remember, especially for my wife, who can see her little brood slipping away. Was it the last time? Hopefully not, but we celebrated as if it was.

Crawford County native Kevin L. Kiefer is a Summit Township resident and self-employed toolmaker.

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