The Broken Furnace

The following is a true story. I wrote this several years ago when I went home to Connecticut. My grandfather was very ill, and I knew it would be the last time I would see him. In an effort to cope with the emotions I was dealing with, I wrote everything down. The result is the following story, which up until now has only be read by three people.



The topic of the day was heat, and if there was enough of it. For some reason, which was not to clear to me, my grandfather was concerned about whether or not there was enough heat.

“How’s the heat?” he asked me.

“The heat?” I responded.

“Yeah, the heat. You got the furnace workin’ okay?” he asked.

“The furnace is working fine,” I said, deciding to go with whatever confusion was clouding his mind, rather than fighting against it. For me, it didn’t matter what we were talking about, as long as we were talking. “We’ve got plenty of heat.”

“You got to clean out the ashes and keep the coal well-stocked,” he said.

It was obvious that this was the direction the conversation was going to take. I wasn’t happy about it, but at the same time I was thankful for whatever lucidity could be found in my grandfather’s words. I knew this was going to be the final conversation I would have with the man – at least in this existence – and I was going to make the most of it. “The furnace is fine,” I said, repeating myself.

“My furnace don’t work, boy,” he said. “You got to keep your furnace running. Got to have that heat. You got all the coal you need?”

Three days earlier I had seen my grandfather, Marshall Walker, for the first time in over three years. I walked into the third floor room of the nursing home in Westport, Connecticut, not knowing what I would find. As a child, and even as an adult, my grandfather was a giant of a man. He was part John Henry and part Paul Bunyon, all rolled into a massive frame with a booming voice that made the walls shake. But what was laying on the bed was a tiny, frail human being, twisted and contorted with useless limbs, unable to walk or feed himself. This was my grandfather.

When I was much younger, my class had gone on a field trip to the P. T. Barnum Museum in Bridgeport. I was excited because the museum had a real-life mummy, and I was expecting to see something that looked like Boris Karloff or Christopher Lee in one of those old monster movies I watched on Channel 11 or Channel 9 when I was kid. Instead, what I saw were the skeletal remains of someone that terrified me. I thought of that mummy when I saw my grandfather. His sunken, hollow cheeks, his toothless mouth, and his glassy eyes that had long since lost the ability to see, all made me think of the living dead.

On that first visit, he didn’t know who I was. He didn’t seem to know who anyone was. I talked to him about anything and everything, hoping something would strike a responsive cord. I talked to him about Drakes Branch, the tiny town he grew up in Virginia. We had traveled there together nearly ten years earlier, and visited the places from his youth. But he didn’t remember that trip, or Drakes Branch, or much of anything.

Then I tried talking to him about my grandmother, Nannie Hancock Walker. They met when they were both still in high school, and he doggedly pursued her for years before she finally relented and married him. The story of my grandparent’s courtship was legendary. Both of them loved to tell the story, and I never grew tired of hearing it. I was convinced that no matter how diminished his mental capacity may be, no matter how many people, places, and events he might forget, the one thing my grandfather would hold on to would be the memory of his wife. But he didn’t remember my grandmother either. “I can’t make the connection,” he said in an apologetic tone.

We talked for a long time that first day. Most of what he said didn’t make any sense. He talked about people I had never heard of, and kept fretting about making sure his bags were packed. In response, I tried to steer the conversation in directions I could comprehend, hoping in some naïve way that I would say something that would magically cure him.

“I talked to Sean yesterday,” I said, referring to my cousin.

“Sean?” he asked.

“Sean is your other grandson. He lives in California now. He has a daughter named Nandi. She’s you’re great granddaughter.”

“Who the hell are you?” he demanded in agitated tone. “Don’t come at me with none of your bullshit, jack.”

“I’m your grandson. David. I’m not here to bullshit you. Have I ever lied to you?”

“David? My grandson? I’m sorry, I can’t make the connection.”

That’s how the first day went. We would try to talk about something, and he would tell me that he couldn’t “make the connection.” I could tell the whole experience was difficult for him. I could see him trying to remember people and places and things, only to come up woefully short. It seemed as if the only thing he was sure about was that something was terribly wrong. “I think I’m sick,” he said to me after a while. “But I don’t know if it’s mental or physical.”

“Both,” I told him.

And then, in the middle of all the fractured, disjointed conversation, my grandfather turned toward the direction of my voice. “Can you save me?” he asked.

“I can’t save you, grandpa,” I said. “But I can tell you that it’s okay, and that whatever you need to do is fine. But I’m sorry, I can’t help you.”

“That’s fine,” he said.

Three days later I was back in the same room, and not sure why I had returned. It just seemed like there was more to say, even if he didn’t remember any of it. Or maybe I just wanted the opportunity to have one last conversation with the man who raised me – even if it is about broken furnaces.

To my left was the sound of cars speeding by on the rain-streaked Boston Post Road. It was late April, one week after my grandfather’s 87th birthday, and spring should have arrived. But it was cold and it was wet and the flowers hadn’t even started to bloom. The dead of winter was still lingering – clinging in desperation, afraid that it would be forgotten once everything started to bloom. I couldn’t help but think that my grandfather was like the winter, his time was past as well, but he refused to leave, refused to let nature take its course.

A few miles down the street, on the same side of the road, was where my grandfather’s shop once stood. It was little more than a converted garage where he would strip, refinish, and repair antique furniture. He may not have been an artist, but my grandfather was a master craftsman. People would come from all over the tri-state area for his work. He could take the most unassuming piece of furniture, and, as if by magic, transform it into something beautiful.

During the summers, I would return to Connecticut and spend hours hanging out with him at the shop. He taught me the tricks of his trade, and for a long time I thought it would be my life’s trade as well. Sadly, all of those lessons had long since been forgotten. But there were other things I learned from watching my grandfather, besides how to identify types of wood. These were the lessons that stuck with me over the years. He was the father figure that instilled in me a sense of responsibility. His own father died when he was very young, and my grandfather, being the oldest child in the family, was forced to become head of the household while he was still a teenager, caring for his mother and younger siblings. This sense of obligation and commitment to provide for his family carried over, and as a result, my grandfather had an unrelenting work ethic that would keep him at the shop sometimes 18 hours a day. He would come home so tired that he would fall asleep at the kitchen table watching reruns of I Love Lucy before my grandmother could serve dinner. He would start to snore, and I would say, “Grandpa, wake up, dinner’s almost ready.” And he would pop awake for a brief moment, mumble, “I ain’t sleepin,” and then fall back asleep.

When my grandmother got sick with terminal cancer, my grandfather left the shop for nearly a year so he could take care of her. He wanted to make sure that when her time came, she would die in the comfort of her own home, and not pass away in some sterile hospital room like their oldest son, my Uncle Mark. A lot of people couldn’t understand why my grandfather would take on the monumental task of caring for my grandmother. “I loved that woman more than anything else in the world,” he once told me. “And I promised to love her and care for her no matter what happens.”

Watching Marshall Walker, my grandfather, take care of Nannie Walker, my grandmother, as her memory and identity were erased by the ravages of brain cancer, I learned about love and devotion and sacrifice. The doctor’s had given her three months to live, but she held on for over a year. I often thought it was the shear, palpable love that he had for her that kept her alive. When she died, he went back to the shop. But that had been a long time ago. Now the shop was gone – torn down – with no trace of existence other than the memories I was safe guarding for my grandfather. In the place of my grandfather’s shop was an Express Lube, one of those places that changes your car’s oil while you wait. Craftsmanship and care had lost out to convenience.

To my right was the clamor of the hall. Jamaican nurse’s aids and orderlies prattled on and on and laughed as if there was something to be amused by, unaware or uncaring that my grandfather was old and sick and dying. Some woman was concerned that someone had stolen her husband’s sweater. Her voice was loud and it traveled into the room, an unwanted guest that had dropped in on a whim. She sounded like an old Jewish American Princess from out on Long Island, whining and complaining to whoever would listen at the nurse’s station just outside the door. Between her and the Jamaicans, the noise was too much to bear. Is that what he had to listen to every day? Are these the real voices that keep him company in his fragmented mind? No wonder he seemed so crazy – I was going crazy overhearing bits and pieces of their innocuous babble.

Despite the outside noises that kept interrupting us, and reminding me that despite all I was feeling, life was going on, I decided to make the most of the time we had. And so we continued to talk, as we both tried to find some sort of comfort in the moment. It hurt, sitting there at his side, starring at the demons that scare me most. But at the same time I was taking comfort in the fact that this day was a bit better than a few days earlier. This day he seemed to vaguely know who I was – or at least he knew that someone named David was in the room with him. Whether or not he thought I was David his grandson, David his son, or David his younger brother was unclear, and at times he seemed to think I was all three, but for the most part he was aware that he was talking to David. And more than anything he was concerned that I keep my furnace in good working order.

The more I sat there, the more I noticed that he seemed to be trying harder to make sense of everything. Much of the conversation was like having a disjointed dream, but he seemed to be struggling to wake up. Much of what he said was punctuated by these mournful, groaning wails of pain. It was almost as if the harder he tried to understand and be understood, the more agony it caused him.

I tried to get him to relax, but there was something in his mind, beyond proper furnace care, fighting to get out. And then he said it to me with a sense of clarity that would almost make you think he wasn’t sick. My grandfather turned his head to face me, and even though he could no longer see, he stared right at me as he said, “Listen, I won’t worry about you, and you don’t worry about me.”

For a tiny moment, my grandfather – my whole grandfather – was there in the room. “That sounds good to me,” I said. “You don’t worry about me or anyone else, and I won’t worry about you.”

“David, I think I’m sick,” he said, going back to the conversation from a few days past. “Am I sick?”

“Yeah, you’re sick.”

“What’s wrong with me?” he asked. “Is it physical or mental?”

I didn’t know what to say. I didn’t know how to answer. How do I tell my grandfather that he’s dying? I looked for the right words to explain to him, searching for them like a set of lost keys. Was this how his mind worked? Was this the confusion he felt? Was this the uncertainty that plagued his every word and thought?

I started out slowly, picking each word carefully. “You’re sick grandpa,” I started to say. “And you’ve been sick for a very long time. And now you’ve reached a point where…”

“Hold on there,” he said, cutting me off. “Don’t get too deep.”

“You’ve been sick for a long time now. You’ve been through a lot, and now you’re at a stage where you just need to move on and…”

“I told you, don’t go deep. Keep it simple. I can’t go deep.”

Then he started to get agitated, and reality began to shift. He started to think I was Van Jefferies.

Mr. and Mrs. Jefferies were the next door neighbors of my grandparents. The Jefferies had two children, Beverly and Robbie, who went to high school with my father. Beverly and Robbie were my godparents, but I had never gotten a birthday card or Christmas card from either of them, and I hadn’t talked to either of them in nearly twenty years. Beverly married Butch Watkins, and they had a son, Keith, who was two years older than me. Keith and I grew up together. I watched the original Planet of the Apes for the first time with him, and he showed me my first Playboy magazine. Like many childhood friends, we grew apart. Years later, his parents got divorced, and his father married my cousin Beatrice.

Later that day, several hours after my grandfather thought that I was Van Jefferies, I found out from my aunt that Van’s grandson, my old childhood friend Keith Watkins, had been shot and killed two years earlier. When I went to the cemetery to visit the graves of my grandmother, and my father, and my uncles, and all the others I had lost over the years, I passed the stone that marked the final resting place of Keith; and in the unseasonably cold April wind I could swear I heard the voice of Thomas Wolfe, mockingly reminding me that I could never go home again.

I tried to convince my grandfather that I wasn’t Mr. Jefferies. Van Jefferies, like his wife Bea, and like his grandson Keith, was dead. “Don’t bullshit me, Van,” my grandfather snapped. He wanted to know if I had gotten the pipes needed to fix the plumbing.

From there things got worse. Whatever sense of clarity or reality there had been earlier was now completely gone. He was just rambling on, starting sentences and not finishing them, getting more and more lost in the twisted maze of his mind. And then, mid-sentence, he fell asleep. It was as if his body and mind had had enough, had worked too hard to be understood, and had just stalled. And as he slumbered, I began to dream of better times, when my grandfather was a giant man. Then my dreams turned to the here and now. I took the pillow from underneath his head and placed it over his face. He was too old and too weak to struggle, and besides that, he was ready for this. His vitals signs weren’t being monitored. I could get away with it. As I pressed down on him, smothering the life from my grandfather, I knew this was what he wanted. He wanted an end to the pain he had been suffering. This was his chance to be with the people he loved, who had left him over the years to fend for himself in world that had become increasingly cruel. I felt no guilt as his life slowly drained away, because I knew that I was giving him the peace he so desperately needed. And then the nurse’s aid came in to the room to give him his bath and change his diaper, and we both woke from our afternoon sleep. In my mid-day dream I was able to help my grandfather leave this world – to end his suffering and help him along on his journey. But in the waking world, I could do nothing to help him, and the tears began to flow. For all the strength he had given me, I was nothing but a weak man, as helpless as he was, unable to protect those that I loved the most.

I asked the nurse’s aid to give me a few more minutes alone with him. I told him that I was going to be leaving. He kept asking me not to leave – to help him. But I had to leave. The rental car was due back, and I had already exceeded my free mileage by over 200 miles. The last thing I needed was a late charge as well. Or maybe I was just looking for a reason to get out of there before my emotions tore me apart from the inside out, and the rental car was just a convenient excuse. Whatever the reason was, I had to get out of there.

I kissed my grandfather on top of his head. I realized then that that was the first time I had ever kissed him. I knew he wouldn’t even remember it. Then I told him that I loved him, and I tried to remember if I had ever actually told him I loved him before. It was too late. He wouldn’t remember that either.

I turned to leave the lonely room with the water stains on the ceiling. The pieces of a man that was once Marshall Walker lay contorted on the bed, as he continued to talk to no one in particular. As I left the room, my grandfather was still talking about the broken furnace.


One Response to “The Broken Furnace”

  1. L13 Says:

    oh dude
    this was so similar to my grandmother’s passing
    you got me all choked up
    I have a heavy sense of guilt that I have never been able to shake because the last time I saw my grandmother was in the nursing home.She was also incoherent and ready to die.She was pulling her clothes off and makeing me feel super un-comfortable.She said she was gonna die soon,and I wasn’t dealing with it so well.It was at night and all I wanted to do was get the hell out of there as fast as possible.
    Surrounded by those same jamaican nurses who were carrying on as if all was well,oblivious to the departing pain and the shells of soon to be ghosts,those husks of humans that surrounded them,that un obligeingly sustained their pay checks.
    Grandma was in her gown and kept pulling it off.The last thng you ever want to see is your senile demented grandmother naked.I got her gown back on and she just kept rambling on and on ,restless and dazed.I kept waiting for her to fall asleep,so I could duck out,but that never happened and she just kept bugging out ,on and on about nothing .Random thougts,misplaced memories not sure of who I was or if she remembered me entirely.At times She would call me by the name of one of the orderlies that cared for her .
    I had to leave as it was getting late and visitng hours were over.I could have stayed,but I wanted more than anything to get the hell out of there as fast as possible.She dozed off for a minute and I started to bail.Confused and sad,lonely and scared on cue in the movie of our lives….. she awoke just as I was tip toeing out of her room.”please don’t go..don’t leave me alone” I told her I had to go and I kissed he goodbye.
    She pleaded with me and I split ,uncomfortable and disturbed by the whole thing.
    Well,those were her last words to me as I would find out 2 weeks later.I went back to the nursing home on 12/24/03 during the day to give her her xmas present.I was looking all over the day room where they had all of the patients lined up in their wheelchairs,singing or listening to a young woman leading them in xmas carols.As hard as I looked I couldn’t find my grams.
    A nurse finally came over to me and asked who I was looking for and with a frown and a look of uncomfortable shame she told me she had passed away early that morning.
    I bolted out of the door into the freezing cold December day.It was dark,raining and hailing,got to my car and totally lost it.


    A week After the funeral I buried myself in weed and booze on a trip to Amsterdam,to no avail.The pain stayed and the memory still burns me up.
    I left her in her hour of need.

    cue up Issac Hayes
    Never can say goodbye
    Merry Xmas L13

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