My grandfather spent the first months of his life as a widower sleeping above the covers of his decades-old queen size bed. Changing the sheets required the initiative of his daughters; my grandfather felt that if he washed anything he would lose, forever, the pillow-case smell of his wife. He and my grandmother had been married some fifty years when she died over twelve years ago, and in some sense, I think, he has simply been waiting around to die.
Over the last few days, it seemed increasingly likely that day had come. My grandfather isn’t supposed to have aspirin, but had unknowingly been swallowing 325 mg of the stuff each time he followed up his vanilla ice cream with an Alka Seltzer tablet. The aspirin ate a hole in something, he started leaking blood internally, then throwing it up.
We have been down this road before. Several times in the last few years, and a few isolated events over his lifetime, have prompted his five children to make the one- to seven-hour trek from the nether regions of Nevada to his hospital bedside, muscling past the hovering priest and fawning nurses (even in the throes of death, he’s a bit of a charming fellow).
But again my grandfather has defied the cumulative effects of age, odds, loneliness and preservatives; again his children have packed up and went back home, heads shaking in equal parts admiration and disbelief. To be fair, for a man who subsists almost entirely on bear claws and Hot Pockets, every day he gets up is a spit in the face of the devil himself.
A funeral is an ablution for the life of man. Tragic and cheerless for those who die young; a maudlin celebration for those whose lives have been full and satisfying, but an ablution regardless. It is also, unfortunately, a chit you can use just once. But why? Why are there no eulogies for the living?
My grandfather has always been, with the exception of his brief hospital stays, in full control of his faculties. He continues to hunt and ride horses even in his 87th year, walks daily, and possesses a wit that seems to only get more lascivious as he ages (he recently told his nurses he didn’t want an X-Ray because he was worried it would make him sterile). He takes my grandmother with him just about everywhere he goes, she the permanent resident of the left side of a small oak box, he the would-be tenant of the right. He buys her flowers regularly. When he comes into town on cold-day errands he leaves grandma at his youngest child’s house so she won’t get cold, and if he wants to stay only briefly grandma provides a ready-made excuse: can’t stay long, I’ve got your grandmother in the car.
My grandfather is simple. My gut tells me that definition means something different to you than it does to me, but I don’t know a better single word to convey my admiration for the man. Dictionary-dot-com lists twenty-nine different uses, and of those I think the one coming closest is free of deceit or guile; sincere; unconditional.
A high-school graduate, in his lifetime he has been a first-generation American, a hair-tonic hocker, a newspaper boy, a retriever of moonshine for the drunks under Bayonne’s bridges, a sailor, a World War II veteran, a pipe-fitter, a miner, construction worker, heavy-machine operator and a member of the Greatest Generation. He is a pioneer, part of the post-World War II westward migration; a cowboy, a hunter, an amateur rancher, artist, and leather-worker; a husband, father of five, grandfather to eighteen and great grandfather to sixteen (with number seventeen on the way).
He is also, for me, an unfalteringly good example of what it means to be a man. He wishes ill-will to no one, and is the least judgmental person I know. I have never heard him raise his voice and never heard him swear in anger. He deflects praise, takes responsibility for his actions and expects others to do the same. His most prized possession – he told me once – is his family. No contest. I know every man sins, but I wager we could use both hands, less thumbs, to accurately account for the times in his life he has lied, cheated, or stolen (and make fists if you want to count the times he failed to correct it). He used to drink, daily, but when he realized he was an alcoholic he just quit. No twelve-step program, no intervention, no relapse – he just quit. Simple.
He uses words sparingly. I once read Ernest Hemingway won a bet by writing a story with just six words (For sale: baby shoes. Never worn); I think grandpa could give him a run for his money. If something doesn’t sit well with him, he might say “that’s not right.” Only later, after I began to develop my own moral compass, did I realize he didn’t mean “that’s incorrect,” but something much, much closer to
life is but a series of decisions, of interwoven threads not only keeping you tethered to the ground but keeping your friends and families close, close where they can pull you back down, if need be, or even give you yards of slack to make your own way. If you are lucky, you can pull them right along with you, or let them lead you back on course. But if you make that choice, or tolerate those who choose to make such decisions, even in passing, you might take those first steps down a path that ends someplace you just don’t want to be.
He grew up in Bayonne, New Jersey, one of the most densely populated cities in America, but home is, and has been, a double-wide trailer at the end of a quarter-mile long dusty road in the high deserts of Nevada. And though his blood is Irish, and his heart belongs to a dead German, his soul is unmistakably and firmly set in the salty dirt of the sagebrushed American West. Here was – is – his dream: to own a horse, to be a cowboy, to raise a family and work the dirt and hunt and fish and never take more than you need and respect others and have your own space. And he did it, he has it all – maybe not much to you and I, but it is everything he ever wanted. Simple.
Josey Wales is one of my favorite fictional characters, and I have only recently put a fine point on the reasons why: but for the six-shooters and the inclination towards serial killing, he is a man who reminds me of my grandfather. I think he and Josey would get along right well. Neither say much, but say what they’re going to do and do what they say. Both kind to animals and lovers of the earth, they have understated senses of humor, respect other people and above all else love their families.
Appropriate, then, to borrow Josey’s simple words for a fallen companion and put them to my living grandfather: I rode with him, and I got no complaints.