We were staying in a chic little townhouse cottage on the sands of Punta Del Diablo, Uruguay, in the off season. We’d traveled 9000km from our Canadian home to visit Montevideo and an additional 300km to get to this small region, at my grandfather’s request. He was a Montevideo native.
Back in the 60s, when he was still living in Uruguay, he had been offered the opportunity to invest in a new construction project in the north of the country. He was told of the grandiose plans to develop the coastal region of the Rocha. He was given blueprints of the proposed city streets, the lake shore rambla and commercial plazas. Naturally, my grandfather, along with a few buddies of his, decided to invest in individual plots of land.
Fast forward 60 years. My grandfather had consistently paid taxes on that plot of land he owned for the greater portion of his life, but he’d never actually visited Rocha. He had never seen it. He moved to Canada and had only traveled back to Montevideo once since then. That’s why on this particular trip, he insisted we go to Rocha. So we went.
What we found seemed shocking to me. The yellowed blueprints that my grandfather had kept in pristine condition all those years, through his multiple residences, bore no resemblance the area that we found. The roads had not been built. The trees had not been cleared. The woods certainly hadn’t been divided into the parcels that had been sold off. The ground wasn’t even leveled. The plot of land my grandfather supposedly owned was untraceable, surrounded by the others.
“That’s how things work here,” my grandfather shrugged calmly. He didn’t seem surprised, but I could sense his disappointment. “The original developers probably declared bankrupcy and abandoned the project with all of our money.”
After dinner the night we’d gone looking for the land, my grandfather started drinking the cheap whiskey he’d bought at the corner store. Now, as my mom took my grandmother up the stairs to get ready for bed, my grandfather sat at the table lost in thought. From upstairs, my grandmother called out to him with urgency. She was always like this, she always wanted him around.
“It’s always like this,” my grandfather murmured after assuring her he’d be up in a minute. “Every night in bed, she asks if we’re going to put her in a nursing home because she knows her memory’s getting worse. She begs me not to.”
His eyes were bleary now, from more than just the alcohol. I didn’t have time to respond, he just needed someone to listen. “And every night, I tell her that I won’t let them! But if she has to go, then I’ll just go live in the nursing home with her. I’ll never leave her side.”
Suddenly my chest contracted like all of the wind had been knocked out of me. It hurt to hear him talk this way. My grandmother’s Alzheimers was so hard on all of us, that it was easy to forget my grandfather was bearing the brunt of it all. He was the one who stayed home with her every day. Who watched her forget things more and more. Who was slowly losing his best friend of over 60 years.
“The one time in my life that I left her side,” he remembered, his voice cracking, “was when I went to Canada. For a few months I was there, trying to get established. She stayed here with the kids. That was the hardest time in my life. I sent letters, and they never arrived. They never arrived. Everyone else got letters, but my family didn’t. What happened to them?!”
He was nearly whimpering now, really channeling that memory. He sounded lost and confused. Hurt. He shook his head as if trying to expel all of the pain. “Ahhh! It’s okay. It happened.”
I nodded, still trying hard to maintain my composure. I’d heard many of my grandfather’s stories, but this one had never come up. It was difficult. I didn’t like seeing my grandfather upset. He was usually so bright and cheery. He kept right on talking. “You know, I was raised to believe that real men don’t cry. But we all cry. My whole family is emotional.”
It was true. Just the day before, I’d met his grown nephew who had nearly wept tears of joy because we had stopped in to visit him at his bakery. It was so sweet.
“But we’re a good family,” my grandfather insisted. “I’ve always done my best to do right by my family. That’s why I wanted to find this land. It’s all I have left to leave after selling the condo and the car.”
It took me a second to figure out exactly what he was talking about. They had moved in with my mom the previous year and he had given up driving a few months back. He was talking about an inheritance. Leaving something behind for us after he passed away. As if he was going to pass away. I didn’t like him thinking this way.
“But of course this plot of land is nothing. What did I think?! I’m just a stupid old man.”
At this point my grandmother had realized that my grandfather still had not gone upstairs. She bellowed down the stairs for him again. He sighed. “That’s just the way life is.”
He enveloped me in the tight hug I needed after listening to his qualms. He kissed me goodnight and then disappeared up the stairs. I collapsed onto the couch, a complete mess. Grief stricken. My heart broken into pieces for my marvelous grandfather.
My grandfather is a born storyteller. He can talk to anyone. He just needs someone willing to listen. I didn’t inherit such talents. For me, talking is hard. I’m a storyteller too, but my strength lays with writing things out in retrospect. In the moment, I don’t have much to offer. During that whole conversation, I hadn’t been able to speak a single word.
I hadn’t been able to tell him that he’s the greatest man I know. That everything I believe about life and love and family and selflessness and devotion, I’ve learned from him. That if he ever were to pass, though I’m not sure I could handle it, the greatest thing he could leave for us would not be monetary. That a car, nor a plot of land in Canada or Uruguay could hold a candle to his legacy. To who he is, and how having him in our lives has positively impacted us all.
I wish he could understand that if I am lucky enough to resemble his character in any given way, then that would be the greatest thing I could ever inherit from him.