Tuesday, March 4, 2008
My grandfather was a formidable man. He was larger than most, more intimidating, more powerful, and he did not accept nonsense in any form.
He was raised in Kansas and went off to war at seventeen. He was an x-ray technician in the Navy. I don't know much about his first wife, except that the had a son, the antithesis of my grandfather. Doug was a wrestler who then became a cruise ship director. It was his job to entertain, to play, to laugh. When I was a very little girl, I wanted to grow up to be Doug.
My grandfather's ranch was my favorite place to be when I was a child. My mother couldn't afford to take us on vacations, so she took us to the ranch; I never knew the difference. My brother and I would sit in that Jeep for three hours each way, during the hottest summer months. More often that not, the air conditioner was broken. Seeing the little green ranch house under massive trees, goats running around in the yard...that was the truest sense of home I've ever felt. I remember countless Christmases in my grandmother's tiny house; looking back now, I wonder how she was able to fit all of us. I slept in the back room, hiding my books under the bed and often forgetting them. I rode horses, chased chickens, threw hay to animals, fed the dogs. My grandfather was always present, watching for my slightest mistake. At eight years old, a goat pinned me to the fence, chewing on one of my pigtails. My grandfather yelled at me for crying, for not doing anything in response.
My grandfather always sat in the living room, in an old brown recliner. My grandfather always controlled the television, which only played two things: sports and westerns. I learned more about football than I ever cared to know. I watched more westerns than I could have ever imagined into existence. My grandfather barely spoke to me, chosing instead to watch Clint Eastwood films he'd seen dozens of times.
My grandfather had diabetes, which he never took care of, choosing to sneak candies from the kitchen and eat unhealthy foods.
My grandfather was a formidable man, and no one could dare doubt that.
I didn't begin to meet my grandfather, to understand him, until I had already left home. He had survived countless strokes and was in the process of withering away to half the man he had once been. He couldn't work the ranch like he once had, but still took pride in his dogs, showing them off to anyone who would watch. I sat on the couch in silence and watched his westerns. He asked me the same questions, and always in the same order: school, boyfriend, future.
For me, my grandfather became more alive as he neared death. He began to praise me, but always in his own way. He was always understated at expressing the pride he took in others. He became sweeter. He would surreptitiously give me money for school and for trips. I could tell that he became excited when I called, so I began to telephone more frequently.
Of course, he had his bad days. He was ill and developing Alzheimer's. His anger would flare up at the tiniest of things, usually toward my brother, who stopped coming around after a while. I understood that, to an extent, he couldn't help it. He was an old, frail man who was scared about what the future might bring him, and how quickly.
Toward the end, my grandfather started talking. About the war. About who he was when I was a young man. About my grandmother, whom he had largely ignored throughout my childhood. He was one of my biggest supports in my struggle with nursing school, although he was always gruff. "Maybe if you work hard, you can get in next time." My grandmother apologized for his harshness, but I understood that it was just his turn of phrase. He believed in me, but he also believed in hard work. He knew I could do it.
He broke my heart at Christmas. We were all in the living room, laughing at talking. In a very rare moment, he left his recliner chair and came to sit with the family. He asked me to sing, and I chose "O Come, O Come Emmanuel". Midway through the first verse, he started crying. My grandmother started to cry. Doug started to cry. My mom started to cry. I didn't know how to react, and stopped at the end of the next verse.
I felt far too old that day.
I made it a point to see my grandfather as often as possible before I left for France. I kissed him on the cheek before I left his house that day and told him that I would see him when I got back. I think I honestly believed that I would.
I am glad that I wasn't there for my grandfather's last days, because I have seen too many people I love on their last breaths. I want to remember him as strong, harsh, and in control, with a tender side that I was only very rarely allowed to see. My only regret is that I cannot be there with my family as they move on after his death. My heart longs to be back in Marysville, back on the ranch, watching the California sun set and paint my grandfather's land a warm, true shade of gold.
My grandfather was a formidable man, and I cannot find the words to explain how the loss of him tears at my heart.