When the phone call arrives from my mother on a weekday morning, the news is seldom good.
“Uli, it’s Mom….” her voice trailing off, with a muted sob.
“What is it Ma? What’s going on?”
“Well, the news is bad; Grandpa died this morning.”
At the firehouse, after all that has transpired this year, it seems that the final straw comes days before Christmas arrives, and two years to the week after my Grandmother herself took leave of this world. I wrote an essay about my time with Grandpa in the car on the way to her service (read it here), and in truth half expected to return to California shortly after her passing to attend a service for him; I just couldn’t imagine my Grandfather without the company of his soul mate.
But persist he did, and in a character that was purely his, full of stubborn will and the inability to give up on anything. For 96 years, Paul Enns left his mark on this earth, and he left on his own terms. He would have it no other way. His was a generation of work; it was a trait he passed on to my stepfather, that all of the world’s ills could be solved if they would just add a few more hours to the day to get more work done. As a boy of thirteen, I wanted to join my friends out on the water when the surf was right, but Grandpa had employed me to remove the ice plant from his hillside at the rate of $3.75/hr. and he told me he wasn’t interested in the surf conditions in the least, he’d hired me, and if I wanted his respect, I’d finish the job. I grumbled under my breath, and he monitored me from inside the house, but I finished, not because I wanted to but because he made me earn it. I was angry at him for it, but feared his disapproval AND the cane he wielded like some sort of samurai senior citizen, so I held my tongue.
Later that week on an evening at my grandparents home, my stepdad was coming down on me for some sort of teenage stupidity, when, from his recliner my Grandfather’s voice boomed out “THAT’S ENOUGH, ROBERT. LEAVE THE BOY ALONE.” It was one of the few times I would ever witness my stepdad back down from anything, and in that moment, Grandpa won the loyalty and heart of a sullen and cocky teenager. I looked over at him, and he winked. Earn his respect by pulling ice plant, and he’d defend you if you needed it. My stepdad sat back down, dumbfounded and transported back to his own youth, no doubt, his own father in full control of the situation.
In later years, as time took it’s unrelenting toll on the body, his voice softened, his back stooped and confusion seemed to become a constant companion. But his mind was still sharp in so many ways. He still loved watching the L.A. Lakers play, a bizarre pastime for a family of farmers out in Bakersfield, but if he liked it, then he had his reasons. He didn’t need to share them with you. He didn’t suffer fools lightly, and each of his seven children grew up to be thoughtful and reflective in their own right, all fired with the will and nerve of both my Grandmother and Grandfather. They weren’t flashy, and they weren’t prone to bouts of hilarity, but they were SOLID. Like the tide, like the heat of a San Joaquin Valley summer, like their undying devotion to Ronald Reagan, they had a metered and consistent way about them that assured me in my most troubled of times. They loved and accepted me as family, a debt for which I will never be able to repay, but one that binds me to the Enns family for eternity.
I could use his strength now. My world has come unwound in a few short years. A co-worker gets diagnosed with advanced esophageal cancer and I worry about losing my friend. A close friend and coworker lost his father unexpectedly, and as he casts about for answers, my heart aches for the sorrow he endures daily. Another man now takes my children and ex-wife to see the Christmas lights in Branson, and two years after our separation, it still hurts, and badly. A bout with some minor flesh eating bacteria kicks me off the fire truck on Thanksgiving Day and I’m sent home, alone, to think about all of it and it’s not good. Drinking with the dog hardly makes up for the ache in my soul. I miss my family, scattered around this country, close but not so close that we spend the holidays together. At nearly forty years old, little seems to make sense in the grand scheme when it takes all I have emotionally, financially and mentally to get up in the morning and face reality. Self loathing comes easy, and I have to stare long and hard at my children as they sleep in their beds in order to muster up the courage and will to plow forward with one of my chins held up. I wish Grandpa could dispense some of his advice from his recliner to me right about now, because it would bring calm.
I know what he would say; it wouldn’t be much, but he’d likely point to a shovel and some ice plant on his hillside and tell me to get to work. He knew the value of hard work and the sense of self-esteem it could render. He knew what the soul needs can often be found in the sweat of toil and the callouses on your hands.
Farewell, Grandpa. Your work is done. I know it irks you that there weren’t just a few more hours to pull that damn ice plant, but your lessons did not fall on deaf ears. When I need your counsel, it will be found in work, it will be found in family and it will be found in a job done right. I’m grateful for your love and acceptance into your family, and I’m proud to be your grandson. Rest well, sir…..you’ve earned it.