“Thanks, Grandpa, for letting me drive you to the service; it means a lot to me to be able to spend this time with you”, I said, probably a little too loudly.
“I didn’t have a damn say in the decision”, he replied.
“Odd”, I thought, “that’s the second time in ten minutes he’s cursed”. While I may swear like a sailor on shore leave, my grandfather isn’t prone to profanity except in times of great distress. So, in essence, it wasn’t weird at all: my grandmother, his wife of 70 years, had passed away in her childhood home after 92 years of toil on this earth. While not totally unexpected following a difficult surgical procedure, the loss is profound for all of us, not the least of which for this once-strapping man, reduced at age 94 to minimal talk and the frail carriage of a body he struggles to control. Here’s the man who showed me how to ride a bicycle backwards in his late 60’s now requiring two people and a considerable effort to get him from his wheelchair to the car, where I’ll spend what will probably be our last time together privately, save for Uncle Phil riding in the back seat.
As soon as he uttered his seemingly derisive curse, I noticed the faintest hint of a smile curl up at the corner of his mouth. He was yanking my chain in the face of all this sadness, while I witnessed, for the first time in 33 years of knowing him, a tear escape his blurred eyes. His rock, his soul mate, the love of his life had soldiered on into the beyond, and while he was surrounded by family, I was struck by the enormity of his new, lonely reality. And yet, there he was, tears dripping on to his natty pin-striped suit, busting my chops, just a little.
“Did I ever tell you about the time I told mother to meet me in Omaha?” he mumbled to me as we bounced through the rough outlying town of Oildale, a nasty stretch known for brawling roughnecks and hardscrabble living.
I thought I’d heard all of his stories over the years; most I knew by heart. I’ve always tried to patiently hear each one each time, knowing that these chapters are the significant tales of his life, and someday, when he’s gone, those will be my memories of him. I couldn’t believe I hadn’t heard this story and told him as much. His stooped posture took on a re-invigorated thrust of energy, and his gnarled hand rested on my arm, one conspirator to another as Uncle Phil leaned forward from the back seat, hungrily devouring his father’s words, no matter the content.
“I had just graduated from Officer’s Candidate School in Maryland” he feebly uttered, “and I wanted to get posted as far west as I could, wanted to get back home. So I tried for, and found out I was going to be stationed at Ft. Crook, Nebraska. That’s near Omaha, you know. And so I got ahold of your grandma in Bakersfield and told her ‘Meet me in Omaha’. It was 1941, or 1942, and the war was on. I got on a train, and mother got on a train in Bakersfield, and wouldn’t you know it, three days later, we both got there. (I later found out they got there within a half an hour of one another, something of a miracle, given the time period, the war, all of the variables). So there we are, and I meet her on the platform at 11 at night, and I hadn’t seen her in 3 months….” his voice trailed off at this point, and he muttered a little more about getting a hotel and ending up in Nebraska for 3 years, but for the briefest moment, as he described being on the train platform, he was again a young man in uniform, serving his country and waiting for his pregnant bride, a remarkably stoic and thoughtful woman. The reunion was being played out in his mind, and he was joyful at the thought; more tears flowed. Time froze for he and I both, loving silence enveloping us in its sad beauty.
“I told you to slow down; it’s 45mph here, and you’re going to get a damn ticket if you’re not careful”
“Yes, sir. I’m doing 44, Grandpa.”
“I know. You know that time we took that trip to Mexico?”
“Of course Grandpa. It was a very important time in my childhood.”
“I remember we were all there at Puerto Vallarta, at dinner, and Robert announced that he would be marrying your mother. And I remember, you must have been, what, 7? And I remember you looked up at me and you said ‘Now I can call you Grandpa’”, another sad smile emerging from the corners of his mouth as he recounted the evening in perfect detail. “I told you to slow down through here.”
Now we’re BOTH leaking water from our eyes, the tough old farmer and me. He and grandma were the only grandparents I’d ever really know, accepting me into the family as one of their own from the moment I came crashing into their lives a chaotic 4yr. old, top of my lungs and full throttle. In their strong, quiet way, they’d be the foundation of so much in my life, from the now priceless hand-knit pot holders she would give me at Christmas to the work ethic he demanded of his family, trying to instill a sense of self-sufficiency and pride in craftsmanship that is the hallmark of each of their seven children.
He was at once strong and vulnerable as the oil derricks and freight trains quietly passed by the windows of his Buick, and our time slipping too fast before my eyes. He won’t read this, and I don’t know if he can today recall the conversation we had three days ago, but as we journeyed together to bid a sad farewell to a remarkable woman, he gave me what will probably be his last and most important gift: the recognition of our bond as family with all that that entails: loving, squabbling, growing, but through it all, doing it together.
After the service and the lunch and he was situated in his chair, grandmother’s recliner conspicuously unoccupied by little more than memory, I clutched his gnarled hand and told him that, yes, I’d be safe going home, and more importantly, I love you, Grandpa.
“I love you too, Uli.”
Maybe she’s in heaven and maybe she’s in Omaha, but I bet no matter where it is, she’s waiting to meet you there, Grandpa. And she’ll be damn happy to see you again. Thanks for the ride, it was worth every last mile to me.