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sometimes, god works through traffic

July 26, 2012

My grandpa’s first name is Elmer.  I didn’t know that for a long time because he hates being called Elmer and prefers to go by his last name, Neto.  As in, “Golly, that’s neat-o.”  He’s the son of Portuguese immigrants.  When my sister took a trip to Portugal a few years ago she sent me a text that said, “All the old men look like Neto!”

Neto was a powerful word.  He used to do this trick when driving us around where he’d slow waaaaay down when approaching a red light, and we’d chant his name, “Neto, Neto, Neto, Neto….” until the light turned green.  He said his name magically turns red lights green before you get to intersections.  Worked every time.

He was famous for his “Netoburgers.”  Something about the charcoal flavor and his seasoning made a hamburger so good I wish I could pay $50 for one right now.  When we were little we used to climb around his brown leather recliner like monkeys and put barrettes in his hair and ask for him to help us find Waldo.

Shortly after losing my grandmother, his dementia steeply worsened.  He was moved into an assisted living facility after a few scary episodes, one of which involved him driving in circles in his Cadillac hours from home, lost.  He repeats himself a lot, and gets confused about things big and small (like what day it is or the fact that my grandma is no longer with us).  The highlight of his week is calling out the numbers on Bingo night.

A few weeks ago, though, was a sad milestone.  I went for a visit on Father’s Day, which was also the day before his birthday, and Neto didn’t know me anymore.  He seemed to find me familiar, but introduced me to his nurse as his cousin rather than his granddaughter, and said to me, “Tell her your name,” as he clearly didn’t remember it.

This episode made me really sad.  Mostly sad for him, sad for the way his mind is deteriorating.  But selfishly sad too, because I love him and I want to still have a relationship with him while he’s alive.  For weeks since my visit, I’ve thought of him and felt a lump in my throat and the feeling that if I focus on it for too long I will definitely cry.

One memory that stands out to me is a trip my sister and I took with my grandparents to Universal Studios years ago.  We went on the E.T. ride.  As you leave the ride, E.T. says goodbye to you by name.  I think I recall telling my name to an attendant in line and them typing it in a computer as we loaded onto the ride.  Anyway, as we got to the end of the ride, E.T. said “Goodbye, Patricia, Jill, Kristin, Ehhllmer.”  My sister and I died laughing.  Him being called by the name he never used by a animatronic alien was one of the funniest things we’d ever, ever heard.  In my head, I can still hear the way E.T. pronounced Elmer, drawing out the Eh sound in his “E.T. phone home” voice.

If you fast forward to about 6:30, you can hear E.T. say goodbye.

Yesterday, I was driving home from dinner with my husband and I saw a white SUV.

I nearly crashed trying to get a picture.  I heard E.T. in my head and felt a rush of joy to my heart.  Encountering this license plate felt like God smiling on me, reminding me of a happy time with my beloved grandpa Neto.  He was reminding me that although Neto’s sick, and he may never recognize me again, he’s the same man with the magic name who grilled burgers, drove an El Camino, hid Easter eggs and carved the turkey every Thanksgiving.  He is still the man who served our country in Korea.  He’s still my grandpa.  It’s okay to be sad…  And I am.  But mostly I’m thankful for him, and I love him, and I miss him.  The smells of coffee, Old Spice, and newspapers will always remind me of him.

And someday I’ll teach my kids to chant Neto at stoplights.

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