Theme I: Habits, “Grandpa Ted”

By Emma Dollery

Ted  was allergic to a lot of things; nuts, dairy, children, the tiny colorful sprinkles on the top of cupcakes. Worst of all, Ted was allergic to change.

It was an allergy that had sprung up suddenly after the death of his wife and that was maturing as he did. In his old age, his aversion to adjustments had grown serious — change had the ability to render him completely helpless. One moment he was in control and the next, he was lost. The mere thought of rearranging the pictures on his desk caused his throat to start closing and his eyes to water painfully. He couldn’t even speak of unexpected time alternations.

But life has an awful habit of throwing one the unforeseen curve ball. In his misery of avoiding change, Ted kept a rigid daily schedule that was — if he could help it — perfectly adhered to. He awoke at 6:35am, on the dot, every single day of his life. He then meticulously made his bed, tucking the sheets tight around the lump of the mattress, and with a small portable iron, he used surgeon-like precision to steam out any wrinkles that he could find. The pillows, covered in strict white covers had to be placed at an exact 90 degree angle to the matching duvet and then sprinkled with twelve drops of an essential oil called petrevulia, found only in the foothills of the Indian Himalayas.

Ted brushed his teeth for 2 minutes and 12 seconds and had different slippers (color-coded, of course) for each room in his tiny house. Ted’s kitchen looked as it had been cut from a catalog, and his lounge had not a whisper of unnecessary decoration (or character for that matter).

So when my mother — Ted’s only daughter — called unexpectedly on a sunny Tuesday morning, Ted knew it was going to be a bad day.

“I’m coming to see you,” she said. “Today.”

It was October the 1st, which I remember clearly because the first day of the month was always the day when Ted prepared his lunch sandwiches. He would buy loaves and loaves of bread, enough to exactly account for the amount of sandwiches he would eat for the next month. He would butter them, place cheese and ham on each one, cut them into 4 cubes, then put the whole lot in the freezer. The system was irresistibly efficient and there was almost no chance that his lunch would be infected by an unwanted trace of change. It was perfect.

So when my mother arrived with me and my little brother in a tow, we waited almost 40 minutes as Ted finished his last sandwiches. He refused to talk to anyone before he was done, grunting and shrugging his arm away from my mother when she tried to touch him.

My brother and I, ages 5 and 7, respectively, were used to grumpy grandpa Ted’s ways. We paid no attention to it. In any case, we had just received a new puppy from a friend of mine; a tiny sausage dog that went by the name of Tot. She was so cute and so playful that the time slipped like light through our fingers until my mother, red faced and tearing up, screamed at Grandpa Ted to stop. The noise scared the puppy, who scampered away into the depths of the living room. I held my little brother’s hand as we watched Grandpa Ted and my mother waving their arms and shouting.

After a while, Grandpa Ted had to sit down. His face grew a distinctly yellow color and the way in which his breath was coming out in puffs — short and shocking. I had thought, in that moment, that he might die, right there, in front of us.

“It’s time to leave,” my mother said, still shaking with fury. We collected the cowering puppy from the lounge and left my poor grandpa in the midst of his allergic reaction to the havoc that we had caused in his morning.

I’m sure that he was able to calm down soon after we left. He probably jumped straight back into his daily routine in an attempt to forget about the short blip in his life. It might of worked, had another surprise not been lurking just around the corner.

Early the next morning, Ted awoke at 6:35am. He made his bed in his bedroom slippers and shuffled over to the bathroom pee and brush his teeth. He said later that there was an ominous feeling to the day, that he had noticed the moment he woke up. “It was heavy,” he described. Reaching the bathroom door, he slipped his right foot into his bathroom slippers (green) and then his left foot, but as he slid his big toe under the green lip, a squelching sound ripped apart his world.

There, in his perfectly placed green bathroom slipper, was a pile of puppy poop. It was warm and soft on the bottom of his feet, and waves of the smell wandered up to meet his nose. His cheeks went red, and his throat started to close. He reeled backwards, placing brown prints wherever he stepped. The mess of his bedroom made him feel like the whole world was tumbling, and it was all he could do to dial 911 before he passed out. They found him crumpled in on himself, barely breathing. He had collapsed under the weight of the crushing surprise. The puppy poop, he thought, was an assassination tool. We were trying to kill him.

We saw him later, lying in a hospital bed with nothing on but a robe. He was ashen in the face, and only spoke in whispers, if at all.

Grandpa Ted was never the same again. He was never one for showing affection, but from that event onwards, I was sure he hated me. He would narrow his eyes and lean back when talking to me, blaming me for all that occurred. He moved back into his house and refused to see a psychologist as it would mess with his routine.

“You’ve done enough already,” he stonily told my mother when she tried to insist.

My mother never visited without a month’s notice again. Each time we saw him we had designated seating and he sat across the table from us with his slit eyes and backwards leaning posture.

A couple of years later he died of a heart attack. The doctors told us that the exact reasons for the onset of the attack were unknown (he was an unusually healthy man), but I am almost certain that it was actually his allergy. Something small within him had changed.

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