We all have a best friend when we’re young. The friend you remember when you think of playing video games, walking through the mall, and staying up late, doing nothing in particular.
For me, that companion was my grandpa.
The little bit of gray in his full head of hair was the only clue that he was over seventy years old. When he climbed on the roof to fix our TV antenna, it was my dad who almost had a heart attack. Grandpa was a man who spent his time doing what he wanted to do, and that included a lot of road trips with me. From Cape Canaveral to Disney World to Space Camp, Grandpa drove everywhere, and we did everything. As any kid would, I took it for granted that all of our days would be filled with action-packed amusement – until one of them wasn’t.
One time when I had a day off from school, Grandpa drove me to Busch Gardens in Tampa. We were immediately focused on the main attractions, so we hopped on the gondola skyride and a few roller
coasters. We checked out the dolphin show, and stopped for lunch… a few times. I had a hot dog, a pizza slice, a slushie… and a funnel cake. Finally, we stopped at the Marrakesh Theater to investigate a slide show about animals. I was eleven – I wanted to see action, ride roller coasters, get splashed by dolphins, and dry off while I rode another roller coaster. If I wanted to watch a slide show, I’d have asked my dad to show me pictures of Christmas, 1975.
To make it worse, the theater was warm. Very warm. The air conditioner wasn’t really working, but after walking all morning, it was nice to sit and watch. There was a freeze-frame of a Tanzanian sunrise. A freeze-frame of a gorilla family. A freeze-frame of a lioness pouncing on a gazelle. That reminded me: I was hungry again. Then I heard a sliding sound from my left and was brought out of the virtual safari back into reality. The man in the seat next to me had slumped over, slid out of his seat and collapsed on the floor. It took a second for this to register. This was a day full of fun and games and roller coasters and funnel cakes. Grandpa’s collapsing on the floor wasn’t part of the script.
I heard murmuring and gasps. Everything became a terrifying blur. The paramedics came and put Grandpa in a wheelchair. His eyes were open. “Grandpa? Grandpa?” I said. He didn’t answer. I followed the wheelchair to a golf cart with a big red cross on it. The paramedics let me sit next to him in the back. He looked at me and said one word that made the terror subside: “Marc?” Just then, it was the only word he could say, but it was enough.
Then, we went for a ride most people don’t experience in Busch Gardens or Disney World – or anywhere else. We drove through the employees-only back roads of the park. I held Grandpa’s hand the whole time, but my eyes were mostly on the road during the golf-cart safari. I knew we wouldn’t see any lions, hippos or giraffes on this safari, though. We stopped at the infirmary. Grandpa was talking a little as I helped the paramedics get him into a wheelchair. Inside, they took his pulse and blood pressure and listened to his heart with a stethoscope. He finally started talking in full sentences: “It was so hot in there,” he said. “I remember feeling dizzy and having trouble breathing. Then it was like I just fell asleep. Next thing I remember is seeing my grandson when you were helping me onto the golf cart.”
“How do you feel now, Grandpa?” I felt a little awkward talking with him like that in front of all the medical people, but it seemed like the right thing to do.