A Day Without Weather
Rainbow handed Grandpa the healing crystal she'd brought on the plane all the way from Sedona. "It's good for your heart," she said. Grandpa took the brilliant walnut-sized quartz in his palsied hand, winked at her and swallowed it. For a second or two, we didn't react. Then, as my panicked sister cried out to the Great Mother Spirit of the Universe, I ran into the hall and grabbed the nearest person in a uniform, a stuporous middle-aged nurse's aide who reluctantly followed me into the room.
After feeling for Grandpa's pulse, she quietly pronounced, "He done passed."
"Like hell I did," Grandpa said, opening one eye. Rainbow went pale as an alabaster saint and fainted, pitching forward onto Grandpa's chest with a whoompf.
"She done passed," the aide said as I shooed her out of the room.
Grandpa Alex came of age on a small family farm in southern Illinois, in the German-American community of New Frankfurt. He'd come to the USA to avoid conscription in the Kaiser's army way back in 1915, when, as he put it, "You were born a nobody, you died a nobody, and soon." He always grew things– at first tomatoes, beans, and squash, and later, under Grandma Magdalena's influence, yellow and white roses, for their beauty.
The seasons, he preached, heed the rhythm of the seasons. Walk a mile or two every day, even in the rain and cold. These were Grandpa's rules which he himself followed rigidly for six decades. They also had apple trees; as children, we thought their yard our own private Eden, especially early in June when the trees blossomed with the promise of fruit. Rainbow, who was then "Rose," swooned under their perfume.
"I'll be married under this tree," she swore, "to a prince from the old country, and we'll drive off in a carriage to his castle. We'll have servants," she pronounced, "and six beautiful and brilliant children."
What about crossing the ocean? I'd asked at a certain age. Never mind the ocean, we'll fly. I'd persist: What about Mom and Dad? They can visit every summer, she'd reply, exasperated, to babysit the children. Where will I be? You, she'd say– you'll be trapped here all your life with all the other ordinary people of the world.
But that isn't what happened.
The argument took me by surprise. "I'm taking Grandpa back with me," she said, once we learned he'd be okay. She sipped ginger ale and nibbled a gingerbread cookie someone had left in a plastic bowl in the lounge. The smell of disinfectant was too strong for me– I had no appetite.
In front of the blaring large-screen television sat a bent semicircle of aimless residents, several huddled in voluminous housecoats in need of a wash. They all wore slippers; none of them would venture outside today. How brittle they appear, how small, after all those years of effort. There are no guaranties of dignity in life, I reminded myself, neither for the very young nor the very old. It's only in the fat, spongy Midland of life, a fantasy realm where Rainbow and I currently reside, that we have any reason to believe that we're in charge, that our lives will be different, that we will not end up alone and afraid. (My parents escaped this tedious endgame, entering eternity in a car crash in their late fifties. We loved them, of course, but we were not close. Rainbow and I scattered their ashes in the backyard rose garden which flourishes to this day.)
My sister, approaching 40 but younger in spirit and dress, had changed very little over the years. Her hair color had transmogrified countless times, as had her dress, her speech, perhaps even her thoughts– but the Rainbow in Rose was unchanged.
"I got Grandpa's spirit in me," she'd say (gesturing with her thumb and index finger) "and a pinch of the Kaiser." Only when she fell in love, which was often, was she tongue-tied and yielding; her boyfriends, invariably unkempt and penniless, made me uneasy until they vanished.
Free of men, Rose spoke her mind without being asked. She would have made a great victim of the 17th century witch hunts– with 20 pounds of stones on her chest, she would have sunk to the bottom of the pond, argumentative and difficult in the first degree but technically innocent, a victim of her own loose tongue, yet a victim who somehow had it coming.
"You're taking him to the hotel?" I asked, to clarify.
"To Sedona. To heal. To be whole again." There was a community of healers in the desert, she explained, women with amazing restorative powers. The lame walk, dance, climb mountains. She's seen miracles performed with her own eyes. It has to do with sacred celestial energy dwelling in the earth and sky.
"He was doing pretty well until you fed him that rock," I pointed out.
She flashed. "How can you say that? Look at this place. Look!" Rose-now-Rainbow had a point. Cedar Ridge was a pleasant enough nursing home, but no one with his wits about him would choose to live here, certainly not Grandpa. As she knew, I had painstakingly and personally inspected every nursing home in the area before choosing Cedar Ridge. She also knew that Grandpa himself okayed the move after he'd accidentally started a fire at home and almost burned down the house.
"He chose the place, Rose. Just like he chose to leave behind all the sadness of his childhood in Germany. Grandpa said okay, enough, this is it." She wouldn't look at me.
"What were his choices? What choices did you present?" She was crying.
What could I say? No, I didn't offer to take him in, nor did he ask. He needs a great deal of care and she knows it. Even though I'm flying solo through life, like her, she has little empathy for my situation as a gay high school English teacher in a small town.
"It's clean, it's bright, they take good care of him," I pointed out with some anger. "He sees a doctor once a week. They have activities."
"Woo-hoo, hooray for balloon-volleyball and Lawrence Welk singalongs," she said, sniffling. "It stinks. And what about that crazy aide who pronounced us both dead?"
I had to laugh. "Hey, at least she didn't crank up the defibrillator."
"I hate this," she said, breaking down. There were cookie crumbs on her lips. Couldn't she sense them and lick them away? Rose had always possessed an uneasy soul, half-martyr, half-hedonist. "Grandpa's a man of the soil. Mr. Outside. He's a doer."
"Well, sis, his day is done. I'm sorry." A shriveled old woman in a purple velvet gown wandered up to us, leaning on her walker. "You know, this Alzheimer's is all it's cracked up to be," she said as she trundled past.
"You visit every day?" Rose asked, though I'd already told her I did.
"Every day after work."
"He knows you? He remembers?"
"Oh, yeah. He stills scolds me for setting off firecrackers in his rosebuds 30 years ago."
"You did that?"
"Only once. It was spectacular. Boom!" She looked at me with renewed respect. But I could see she was working things out in her head, calculating what she was willing to sacrifice to save Grandpa. She wasn't convinced by my arguments, not yet.
"How'd it come out?" I asked the following day. We were outside in the sun, moving. His wheelchair was top-of-the-line, his one splurge upon entering the home after Grandma's death and his stroke and the fire. "The crystal."
Grandpa chuckled. "Like everything you swallow comes out– the other end."
"Did it hurt?"
He looked up at me, dumbfounded. "Like passing a canned ham."
"Damn right, ouch. Der Schmerz! Ouch, hell."
I rolled him to his favorite spot in the garden, in the shade of a drooping mulberry near a wooden fence draped in vines.
"Give me sun and rain," he said, "a thunderstorm. Hail too, hail the size of baseballs."
"Sorry, Grandpa, no hail today. Just sun and heat."
"Where's your silly sister?"
I didn't really want to answer. "I'm not sure. She has a way of disappearing." For years, I almost added, but there was no need. We were quiet for a few minutes. Overhead, a flock of tree swallows swooped and rose. The door opened, and Rainbow joined us. She had washed her hair and changed into a loose baby-blue sleeveless dress. Sheepishly she held out the gleaming crystal. "Why did you swallow it, Grandpa?"
"I made a wish."
I didn't understand his reply at first, but Rainbow did. "What for?" she asked.
"Weather! Imagine a day without weather. That's what we got here, every day, no weather. Air conditioning! What the hell kind of condition is that for the air! Circulating and recirculating day and night, trapped in an endless loop, round and round, same old air. It's Purgatory. Give me a breeze that makes me sneeze! That's my prayer to Gott en Himmel.
"So I closed my eyes, swallowed the magic and wished for one more day of weather. And here it is!" He held out his withered arms and showed his stumpy teeth. Even though his body had gone to waste, inside he was still a rose gardener, a hiker, a lover of thunderstorms. He was here, with us, his only grandson and granddaughter, outside in the messy, dirty, fallen world, seated while we stood, and we cherished him as the rose adores the summer sun, and he knew.
Later in the afternoon, clouds unexpectedly rolled in, bringing thunder and rain, rain we caught on our tongues like foolish children, and Grandpa laughed with us until the aide came to wheel him inside for dinner.
"We got him!" Rainbow called out, releasing the brake, and off we went.
Finding a balance between heartstring tugging and emotional overkill proved challenging for Ruemmler while writing "A Day Without Weather," one of this year's three runners-up.
Because the story details the relationship between grandchildren and their nursing home-bound grandfather, "I was concerned about it being too sugary and cutesy," says Ruemmler, 55, who earns his living at Crutchfield Corporation.
"Anytime I hit some obvious emotional tone, I tried to x it out." As a result, Ruemmler hopes the ending feels "full and complete and emotional, but not too 'TV movie of the week.'"
The judges agreed.
"One of the most surprising things about 'A Day Without Weather,'" says Boykewich, "is the way it finds comedy in the unlikeliest places: mid-life sibling rivalry and late-life decline in a nursing home. It pokes fun at our family mythologies while showing us what's most important in them."
Ruemmler is no stranger to winning local writing contests, though in last year's, he laughs, "I had no luck whatsoever."
Back in 1996, he took top honors in this premiere local contest for his story titled "Carter." (He's the one who brought the house down by calling his $250 winnings "nothing to sneeze at," pausing, and then delivering his punch line: "Gesundheit, Mr. Grisham.")
Ruemmler's had success in several writing genres. In 1988, he wrote Brothers in Arms, a "Civil War potboiler," under the pen name Courtney Bishop. Four years later, Smoke on the Water, a novel about the Powhatans of Jamestown, hit the shelves.
But Ruemmler says he won't be churning out novels again anytime soon. "It's just too difficult," he says. With short stories, "You can bite one off and spit it out in a couple of weeks."
So what'll Ruemmler do with his $150 prize?
"Put it toward my first artificial hip," he laughs. "It could be any day now."