When my dad called me last week to tell me that my grandfather was in the hospital, I wasn’t all that concerned. Pops was a tough guy, and he had survived a stroke and numerous other health problems throughout the years. The next day, my dad called again. The news was more serious this time. Pops had a major infection, as well as some internal bleeding. “What is the prognosis?” I asked cautiously. “Nobody really knows,” my dad said, “But they are keeping him comfortable.”
Okay, my mind reasoned. Pops might be nearing the end of his life, but he probably has about two weeks left. Two weeks was off in the distance somewhere. That time frame felt safe, like something I could handle. As long as Pops had two weeks left, I didn’t have to deal with my feelings right now.
He passed away the next morning. He was 95, lived well, and didn’t suffer, save a few days at the end. Even though in my head I knew he was nearing the end of his life, his death was unexpected, and it hit me like a punch in the gut.
I find my mind flooded with memories and random facts, some of which I have not thought about for more than 30 years.
- My grandfather loved rice pudding
- His stooped stature and the shuffle of his feet were uniquely his
- When I was five or six, he taught me to smack my lips and let out a satisfied “Ahhhh” after every sip of Coke I drank.
- He was a man of strong opinions, but most of the time, few words. His facial expressions could speak volumes to anyone who was really paying attention.
- He was born in Ireland and moved to America as an adult. He found Guinness Stout particularly enjoyable and had me state “Guinness is good for you” as a young child to anyone who would listen.
- My favorite story about him? In the early 1970’s, my grandmother was diagnosed with breast cancer. My grandfather found dealing with her treatments to be emotionally overwhelming. On the day of her mastectomy, sitting in the waiting room was uncomfortable for him, so he volunteered to look after my sister, who was then about five. When he took her outside to the parking lot of the hospital, she promptly declared “This place is a mess, Pops! We need to clean it up!” So, instead of dismissing the claims of a small child, my grandfather took two pretend brooms out of his pocket. After giving one to my sister, the two of them spent the next 45 minutes sweeping the sidewalk, all in pantomime. Later, upon seeing my grandmother in recovery after her surgery, he seemed calmer than she had seen him in a while. “It’s okay”, he told his wife as she came awake from the anesthetic, “We swept the sidewalk”. During that process, I will always believe that he cleaned up some emotions within himself as well.
- After a major surgery I had when I was about 12, I was in a full body cast and could not be left alone. One evening, my grandfather stayed with me, and the same old TV shows were dry and dull. In an effort to keep me entertained, he got out the tape recorder and had me interview him pretending to be Barbara Walters, while he was “the man from God knows where”. Remembering the questions and answers on that tape still makes me chuckle today.
- He was known to have spectacular tea parties in the afternoons with my cousins when they were little girls
- He loved Christmas carols and sang them repeatedly with gusto, each and every time
- He was a devout Catholic and spent several hours each morning deeply in prayer
There is one characteristic, though, that stands out to me about him, more than anything else. He had a particularly significant birthmark that covered over half his face. He rarely spoke about it, and I didn’t realize until relatively recently how much courage it must have taken for him to go out in public and do what he did every day. I remember watching as some people turned away from him. He was a man of few words. He seemed to take it in stride. But did he really?
Did it ever bother him that there was something about him out of his control that some people were frightened by? Did he ever take it personally that he struggled to order a sandwich whenever the deli down the street from his house hired someone new? Did that characteristic about him influence his confidence, his self-image?
He did not like to have his picture taken. When a picture was planned, he would turn the side of his face that had the birthmark away from the camera, or duck his head so that nobody could clearly see his face. They say a picture is worth 1000 words, right? The fact that he did those things answers every question I have.
I use my wheelchair up to sixteen hours per day. But there is a difference between that situation and what my grandfather dealt with. If I am ever uncomfortable in my wheelchair, I can always get out of it. Further, there are some circumstances that I am in, riding in a car for example when my disability is not readily apparent. It is not always the first thing that people see about me.
I had never looked at that fact as a gift until I thought about it in the context of my grandfather. He was “stuck” in his skin every minute of his life. There is something truly admirable, something much more courageous and intense, about dealing with that. Something I will never know or really understand.
After Christmas dinner a couple of years ago, most of us had left the table. Kids were playing with their presents, some adults were doing dishes, and some others were watching TV. My mother and grandfather remained at the table, deeply engrossed in a conversation. I was within earshot.
My grandfather said, “I like to believe that Lorraine has accepted her disability as well as she has because of me.” I had never heard him talk like that before. And maybe, if I am very lucky, that was one of the reasons why he accepted the way things were as okay.
And prior to the last few days, I never realized how true it was that I profoundly learned from his example.
He was buried with a bottle of Worcester sauce and a bottle of Miller Genuine Draft. And for all eternity, he can look people in the eye with confidence. Nobody will take a picture, and he doesn’t have to turn away.
Rest in peace, Pops. You taught me profound lessons. Even though you were a man of few words.