Grandpa was a heck of a guy. One of my earliest memories is being with him, sitting in his lap in the kitchen of the fire house. We did that a lot, visited him at work. I do remember getting quite red in the face though when he wouldn’t let me slide down the brass pole from the upstairs to the garage where the smells of oil and smoke intermingled. In his defense, he was right not to let me. I was only 6 or 7 then–falling would have been disastrous. But those were good times.
Grandpa was the chief by that point and he had had quite the career with the fire department. He always said there was nothing better than pulling out of the garage, sitting shotgun in the gleaming red engine, their siren’s wail parting a sea of traffic. He used to tease me and say that once they got the call, they navigated to the fire by using their noses.
“C’mon grandpa, you do not sniff out the fire,” I used to argue.
“Of course we do.” This was when he would bounce me on his knee and put his baseball cap on my head. “We spend so much time smelling smoke that we actually train our noses to become more sensitive to it.”
“Of course,” he would say with a grin wide enough to reveal his crooked bottom teeth.
But that was more than fifteen years ago. It wasn’t long after those days he was forced to retire. His crew and three others had reported to an apartment fire, the worst seen in years. He sent up a few teams to search and evacuate the building. The fire grew so large and hot that they had no choice but to let the building burn. Grandpa was sure all his guys were out of the building at that point, but one pair wasn’t. The hoses and water were pulled out of the building and the pair lost their path of retreat. Luckily they found a safe way out the back of the building where they leapt to the adjacent roof.
There was an investigation. Grandpa was held responsible.
Given his age, the department asked grandpa to see a doctor. That was when I first learned about dementia. Visits with grandpa became fewer and shorter and we didn’t go to the firehouse anymore, but grandma’s house. Grandpa used to say it smelled funny at home and we would catch him picking his nose.
“Grandpa, don’t be digging around in your nose,” we’d yell.
“I can’t help it,” he’d yell back, arms in the air. “My nose hairs have grown so long without constantly being singed that they trap everything up there. I can’t breathe with a clogged filter of a nose!”
We’d laugh and laugh and roll on the ground, all of us grandkids.
But the laughter faded after a few years. Grandpa’s animated self relaxed and he didn’t even take the time to hug us anymore. He had forgotten most of our names, most of us grandkids.
Grandma used to tell my parents that he would still wake up at night sometimes, yelling about a fire. He would try to leave the house. And the amazing thing was he always had an address. I asked grandma to start keeping track. After a few months, she gave me a list and it was always a different address. I did some digging and found out that these were calls grandpa had responded to when he was still a probationary fire fighter.
Funny how his memory worked. All of my cousins would say grandpa was getting older–I thought he was getting younger. He was erasing all his years as an old man and working backwards, back toward his days fresh out of fire fighting school, back to when he first met grandma, back to when he could still sniff out the exact location of a fire.
And he did.
My grandpa didn’t die of his Alzheimer’s. He woke in the middle of the night screaming, “Fire!” as my grandma had been growing accustomed to. Only this time grandpa bolted down the stairs and out the door before grandma could stop him. The next thing grandma saw was the neighbor’s house ablaze. Grandpa bounded across the road, beneath the orange street lights, past the green oak leaves that transformed to brown the closer they got to the flames, and through the lawn littered with children’s toys.
Grandpa carried that entire family to safety that nigh. The whole house was ablaze by the time the fire department arrived. The responding engine’s chief said if it weren’t for my grandpa, that family wouldn’t have made it, that no one could survive that fire.
Sadly, the chief was still partly right–the smoke had been too much for grandpa’s lungs. He was taken to the hospital in bad shape. Grandma called in the whole family. Most of us made it to see him. Even with an oxygen mask on–a mask that couldn’t contain his smile–grandpa addressed us all by name, names he remembered, and gave us one last hug, finally able to breathe again, the cool oxygen running past his singed nose hairs.