On this day eighteen years ago, my paternal Grandfather passed away of lung cancer. He was seventy-three.
In the grand course of things, I failed him.
It’s not something I regret - I’ve come to accept that life works out the way it should most of the time, and I would imagine our relationship falls into that axiom - but I would do things differently.
In the thirteen years we coexisted on this planet we never lived more than a half mile apart, but we might as well have been strangers. He was my Grandfather, and I could not tell you the color of his eyes, where he went to school, or which party earned his vote. I couldn’t even remember the year of his birth, relying on my father for that most basic of biographical facts.
I’ll tell you what I do remember.
I called him Big Grandpa, because at 6’2” and 220 pounds he seemed an intimidating giant to a shy, awkward boy. What I remember most about him was his handshake, a painfully firm grip that reinforced his image. The kindest word from his mouth came gift-wrapped with these pre-conceptions. He once asked me to straighten a rug in his kitchen and I ran off in tears.
The irony? In a few more years I would have dwarfed him and erased that self-imposed gulf. That I never had the chance is more proof that things happen as they should.
It didn’t really matter. Whether he knew it or not Big Grandpa lived in the shadow of my maternal Grandfather. To his oldest grandchild he seemed warm and gregarious, gentle and all-knowing. I wrote a book to honor his memory; this post is the greatest memorial I have offered the father of my father.
To be sure, the responsibility for this chasm also rests squarely on his shoulders. To my recollection, he made no great effort to understand his grandson. Whether he made the same mistake with his son is only conjecture, but to this day I rarely hear him mentioned by my father.
It was only at the end that I formed a bond with him.
Twenty-six days before his death, he moved in with us. There were annoyances - his obsession with Wheel of Fortune, which seems amusing now, drove me crazy. But that was only half the story.
I remember how stoically he took the news of his impeding death, never blinking when the visiting nurse broke the news. I don’t remember a complaint as his body collapsed with stunning swiftness, reducing the giant of my youth to someone that fit into my pajamas.
And I remember the last day of his life. He was bedridden and mute but in his eyes I saw a silent plea for a drink of water to quench his thirst. No longer able to swallow properly, I fed him a teaspoon of water at a time. The thanks in his eyes was one of the deepest emotional connections we ever shared.
He died the first day I returned to school from Christmas break.
In death I came to know him better. I value size now - adore it really - and I’m proud he left me his genes. I respect that he spent his life as a welder for Milwaukee Road, that he was confident enough to let his wife rise to the title of company President in an age of sexism, and enjoy the fact that we seem to share a strong affinity for the opposite sex.
Eighteen years after the fact, I miss the man more than I ever thought I could.