Grandpa Jim wasn't technically my grandfather. He was, by way of a fairly convoluted chain of remarriages, essentially my great-grandfather. I'm still not entirely clear on how my dad's side of the family works, but I know that for as long as I can remember, Grandpa Jim was a big part of it. He always was a lot of fun to be around, and always had some cool picture book, story, National Geographic video documentary, or bit of wisdom to share.
He had an amazing personality and spirit. He was a tail gunner on a B-17 during WW2. He was a fantastically devoted, loyal, and dedicated worker. He was the kind of guy who, in his early eighties, volunteered for a county sherrif's posse in Arizona of all places, where, for a few years, he packed a Beretta and went on manhunts in the desert. I don't think there was ever a church function or a community gathering that he didn't contribute to in some direct way. The guy was amazing.
Almost all of my memories of him are from when I was fairly young. I remember that, even when under pressure and agitated, he always spoke slowly, quietly, and calmly. It made a big impression on me, for reasons I still don't really understand. He had a really cool stutter, and would often stammer the first sound of a word three or four times before getting the rest of it out. I have no idea why, but when I was a kid, that was the awesomest thing ever. I remember thinking that, when I was that old, I wanted to have that sort of kind, gentle stutter myself.
The last time I got to see him was in August. He'd had some pretty bad kidney problems, and ended up with a DNR living will and a sad but comfortable slot in an assisted living home. For a while, he went through the typical habits of old age, inventing wild stories of kidnappings and conspiracies to try and drum up attention. Then, he just kind of dropped off the radar. He seemed to be doing fine for so long. In a lot of ways, I think a lot of us just kind of forgot that he was getting on in life and took it for granted that he'd be around for a while still.
I was with my parents for Christmas, and on Christmas Eve my dad tried to call Grandpa. He got connected to an empty shell, a broken man who didn't remember much of anything. This poor man tried valiantly to explain to the lunatic on the other end of the line that he was 88 years old, darn it, and I don't know why you're so interested in telling me about this kid that's supposedly my newest great-grandson, but I'm going to go eat lunch now. It was tough to hear, but we all more or less let it slide in the face of Christmas.
I can't get over how bizarre it is to know, on many levels of conscious awareness, that you have a relative who is near death; and yet, when they finally move on to that which comes next, it's almost always some kind of shock. It's not nearly as much of a jolt as if you weren't expecting it, but somehow, we manage to tell ourselves that it isn't going to happen just yet. There'll always be one more lucid phone call, one last photo, one last time to hear the old stories.
I don't understand death, really. The literal, physiological bit is easy enough: stop enough of the body's processes, and natural decay catches up with you and wins the fight. There's some metaphysical, spiritual type stuff that's involved, too, but somehow that doesn't seem to really play that much of a role from the observer's viewpoint. All I know is, I've lost a few people that I care about. It's always the same, too; the initial news is weird, but sort of numbing. It always takes me more or less exactly a week to really comprehend what's happened. And even after that, for years later, I'll catch myself having fond memories, and suddenly, with a sickening shock, realize that I'll never see that person again.
My first jolt hit tonight, somewhere between drinking Gatorade out of a gallon jug and taking a shower before bed. There's so much more I wish I could have done. People are so easy to forget when they're still here, but there's always one last thing you wish you could have said, one more experience to share, one more au revoir before the real goodbye.
I'm finally at a point in my life where I feel like I could really have appreciated some of the years of gentle, quietly passionate wisdom and power that my Grandpa Jim had. I feel like we could have had some very deep bonds, and had some great times. It's hard to accept that I'll have to be content with the times that we did have. It's even harder to accept that, no matter how many times I do this, I'll probably never really learn to quit taking people for granted before it's too late. The immortal folly of being a selfish human being, I guess.
When we visited in August, I think all of us deep down knew it was going to be one of the last good visits we had together. We were very blessed to all be in relatively sane states of mind (as "sane" as any of my family ever gets), and it was a good time to write the last chapter. Leaving from a visit like that is always awkward, but this particular one hit me pretty hard. As we got up from our seats to head for the door, Grandpa Jim grabbed my arm and pulled me back. For a person facing death and, in essence, virtually immobile all day, he was frighteningly strong and steady. He didn't even stutter. In fact, that conversation that day was the only time in my entire life when I can remember him saying more than two consecutive words without stuttering.
He stared in my eyes, and in his quiet, gentle voice, said "Michael, thanks for coming." It is an enormous honor, and an enormous feeling of responsibility, to have a man with that kind of character and legacy look in your eyes and, in not so many words, tell you that you have brightened the final pages of his life.
Somewhere, our family has a five generation photo, with everyone from Grandpa Jim on down to my nephews. I know that I've had a rare privilege to even know someone that far back in my ancestry, and yet I can't help but wish that I could have known him just a little bit more.
More than that, I wish that someday, I will be able to sit in my chair, look at my own great-grandchildren, and tell them that they are the happy ending of my own long and fulfilled life. I've never really been too concerned about death (mostly just the pain and the suffering that usually precedes it), but I don't think I could handle looking back on my years and having any kind of regrets.
It always hurts to lose someone you love. Even still, though, I'm happy for Grandpa Jim. He got by with, by all accounts, a decent minimum of the unpleasantries of old age. He got to see things happen and change in his lifetime that I can't even begin to imagine. All in all, he checked out of the hotel just before booking time, and it worked out pretty good for all involved.
I know for sure he didn't have any regrets.
So long, Grandpa Jim. Sometime, when the rest of us finish up our dues here in this world, we'll have to meet up again, and make up for lost time.
Say hi to God for me.