My grandpa passed away yesterday. He turned 82 on Monday. It wasn’t a surprise. He had been very sick for several years.
About 16 years ago, Grandpa suffered a major heart attack and had to have a heart transplant. He recovered nicely and tried to get back to his usual active lifestyle. But he just never did feel like his old self again. The anti-rejection medications he had to take for his heart began to wear him down and make him susceptible to skin cancers, strokes, and other ailments.
The last time I saw Grandpa was about 4 years ago. He was recovering from a recent stroke, so he had to drink his red wine through a straw at dinner. He was almost blind and missing an ear from one of his skin cancer surgeries. He just sat at the end of the table with a blanket draped over his shoulders, drinking wine, and listening to my brothers, cousins, and me talk and joke around. He was a shell of the man I grew up with.
To say I adored my grandfather would be an understatement. As a child, I idolized him. He was the epitome of the classy swinging bachelor. He always drove a sleek sports car. He worked as an attorney in Dallas. And I don’t remember ever seeing him without a glass of scotch on the rocks or a pretty girlfriend.
Growing up poor in Dublin made me hunger for life in the big city. We spent almost every holiday at Grandpa’s townhouse in Dallas. While he was busy cooking dinner for everyone, I would say I was tired and he would say I could crawl up in his bed for a bit. I remember laying in Grandpa’s waterbed with the satin leopard-print sheets and looking up at myself in the mirrors on the ceiling thinking “One day I’m gonna make it big and this is the kind of house I will have.”
The thing I loved most about Grandpa was that he was always relaxed and in-control. I never saw him lose his temper, cry, or raise his voice. Coming from a house of screamers, I always appreciated his silence.
|Grandpa at my college graduation August 1997|
“Aren’t you scared, Grandpa?” I asked him. “About what, dear?” he said as he took a sip of his scotch. “About the statue!” He shrugged his shoulders and said, “No, I’m pretty sure I know who did that and she’s just a little crazy. Can you turn on the television for me? The Cowboys are on.” And he went back to stirring the soup and humming to himself.
Grandpa was always dressed to the nines. He was the only man I knew who wore jewelry. His belt always matched his polished shoes and his pants were always pressed to perfection. He was one of the few people I knew who could wear a Speedo and not look like an asshole. He swam laps at the pool while we played Marco Polo and I thought he was the coolest guy ever.
Even his laugh was very controlled and classy. While we knew that fart jokes were off limits around Grandpa, we would throw out some pretty funny stories and he would always give a good-hearted chuckle.
One summer, he took my brothers and me to Six Flags in Arlington, TX—I was about 16 years old. He rode every ride with us. While in line, he would do his usual quiz and ask us educational things like, “If it takes 5 minutes for 20 people to get to the front of the line, then how long we will be standing here?”
I got to sit next to Grandpa on my favorite rollercoaster—the Shock Wave. I’m not sure if that ride is still there, but it has two loops that take you upside down. I knew there was no way Grandpa could ride this coaster and not scream. But as usual, he stayed completely cool. He just chuckled as we looped around twice. His hair was a bit off as the ride came to a stop, but he just ran both hands down the back of his head and smoothed it down and looked over at me and said, “Well, that was fun. Now what?”
And I guess that is what I have to ask myself this morning, “Now what?” Grandpa was one of those few people in my life who always believed I could be something really great. He talked to me about college since I was 8 years old.
In high school, I had decided that I would not go to college. I wanted to be a flight attendant so I could get the hell out of Dublin and see the world. Grandpa would just nod his head and listen to my plans.
“You know, Kim, you are one of the smartest people I know,” he told me. “You could go to college anywhere you want and make your own money and travel all over and have people waiting on you instead of waiting on other people.”
No one had ever told me that before. It had never occurred to me. Grandpa tried to talk me into going to Rice and studying law. And for a long time, I really wanted to do that. But my parents talked me into staying in Dublin and going to Tarleton State University. “Rice? You can’t afford that,” they told me.
I don’t regret my choices. My past decisions have gotten me to where I am today. Who knows where I would be today if I had listened to Grandpa and gone to Rice—but I still think about how different my life would be today if I had taken his advice. He was right—I was capable of becoming something great.
It’s been over a year since I spoke to Grandpa. I called him on his birthday Dec. 26th last year. He still called me sweetheart and his voice sounded familiar but tired. He asked if my husband was still in the Army and I had to remind him that I was divorced. He said, “I’m sorry to hear that.” He asked if I had children and I reminded him that I had two. We didn’t talk long and he didn’t remember that I had called. I knew from our conversation that the Grandpa I remembered was gone and it hurt too bad to hear his voice.
My siblings and I are much older than my cousins on my Dad’s side of the family and most of them never got to know Grandpa the way we did. They never got to have their first sip of champagne or taste caviar at one of Grandpa’s Christmas parties. They never got to race down the interstate in Dallas in his sports car and talk about math and science with him. They never got to hang out with him at dinner parties and watch him flirt and make the ladies giggle, “Oh, Harry, you’re too much.”
My Dad’s siblings have been great in taking care of Grandpa for the past several years. They did their best to maintain his sense of dignity and love for finer things. But it’s been hard on everyone to watch him become a shell of his former self and I think we are all relieved to know he is in a better place today.
I guess a part of me wishes he would not have had the heart transplant all those years ago and that he would have just gone out at the top of his game. And I know that is selfish of me, because if he would have died several years ago then I would not have the guilt I carry now—the guilt of refusing to call him and accept the old man that he became. I’m sorry, Grandpa. I love you.