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Saturday, December 20, 2003

December 21 marks what would have been my grandfather’s 83rd birthday.  He died on October 25, one month after the last time I saw him, two weeks after my brother’s wedding, the day before my brother and sister-in-law returned from their honeymoon.

There is a theory floating around the conventional wisdom ether that when we meet someone, we keep their age at meeting as a fixed reference point.  I know it holds true for me.  Lloyd, in my life for almost 12 years, will always be 30—no, make that 27, because even though he was on the cusp of his 31st birthday, he didn’t look a day over 27.  Lloyd cheats time in a way my friends envy.  It is why my mom will always be as a child bride to me, young and stunning.  And because I have early baby memories of living in my grandparents’ house, lying in a crib while my grandmom yelled at my teenage uncles to turn down the Frank Zappa record so that the baby could sleep, my grandfather is fixed in my mind as he was at 48.  It is why I’m always surprised when people ask me how old he was when he died, and I say 82, and everyone acknowledges that yes, it’s a shame, but 82 is not really considered too young to die.  I certainly thought he was too young to die.

He had been ill over the past four years, two go-arounds with colon cancer, surgery after surgery after surgery, getting thinner and frailer after each one, but he always bounced back, always.  It got to be like clockwork, a biorhythm:  now he is ill, now he is fine. My brother and I always secretly suspected that Grandpop would outlive all of us, that as long as there was something interesting for him to do on this earth, he wasn’t going anywhere.  He had plenty of interesting things to do: playing his guitars, acoustic and electric, with his friends; his watercolors; his woodworking; shooting pool with his pool buddies; teaching the other residents of his retirement community how to go online (his imitations of his more technophobic peers were cruel but funny).  The Wednesday before he died, my mom called to say that the “minor” heart surgery (his doctor’s words, not ours, as if there were such a thing as minor heart surgery on an 82-year-old man) he’d just had did not fix the “minor” problem of fluid around his heart, which was not fluid but some mysterious muscle inflammation that his doctors couldn’t fix, and that his heart was beating at 15% capacity.  Because I ached to make my mom feel better, I resorted to that last refuge of fools, mindless optimism.  “It looks awful now,” I said to my mom, “but he’s had much worse than this, and he always bounces back.” “I don’t think he’s going to bounce back this time,” said Mom, and even as I quieted down and listened to what she had to tell me, I thought, by Christmas we’ll all be laughing at this.  Thinking of this now makes me curl up inside, shrimp-like, with shame.

Everybody has at least one story in them, and my grandfather had dozens.  I am almost full to bursting with the urge to tell them:  how he was a technical sergeant in the Army Air Corps during World War II, on the ground crew of the Mission Belle, which flew 148 successful missions before being shot down on the 149th.  How he never told war stories, never bragged about battle, but did have fond memories of furlough travels through France and England.  How he had little patience with the lionization of elite fighting units—he believed that in the heat of battle, the people shooting at you don’t care whether or not you belong to an elite unit—and how irritated he was by the success of Top Gun.  How he took an instant liking to my best friend and her RAF firefighter husband when they came over for my wedding, and how we all longed to get him back to England, source of happy memories that had fed him for 50 years.  How crazy he was about the girl he married right before shipping off to Europe—no shock there, as my grandmother was so beautiful, movie-star beautiful, Gene Tierney beautiful, Vivien Leigh beautiful.  How after he came home, he went to work for Bell Telephone, the safest job you could have, a sure bet; once Ma Bell said yes to you, she said yes for life, or at least until you were ready to retire with your full pension that would never ever be touched by raiders; but he decided that there was more to life than safety, and he left the safest gig in the world to start his own business.  How he was able to sell that business when he was ready to retire.  How he was a careful but smart investor.  How he decided to learn how to do magic tricks in his 50’s, as an easy way to keep us amused, and how he applied himself to the task with the same singlemindedness he brought to everything he did.  How he loved his family, and how we loved him back, but more telling, how he liked us, and we liked him, how we always looked forward to a visit from my grandparents because we knew that the next two hours, or two days, would be filled with interesting and funny conversation.  How there are easily more stories to tell, how my mom and I wanted to tell them at his wake, but we didn’t, because most of them were off-color.  How I’m not going to tell them this year, or at least not tonight, because I honestly thought he would be here for this birthday, this Christmas, and I am furious at the universe because he is not.

Here is the poem, courtesy of Stephen Spender, that I read at his wake:

I think continually of those who were truly great.
Who, from the womb, remembered the soul’s history
Through corridors of light where the hours are suns
Endless and singing. Whose lovely ambition
Was that their lips, still touched with fire,
Should tell of the Spirit clothed from head to foot in song.
And who hoarded from the Spring branches
The desires falling across their bodies like blossoms.

What is precious is never to forget
The essential delight of the blood drawn from ageless springs
Breaking through rocks in worlds before our earth.
Never to deny its pleasure in the morning simple light
Nor its grave evening demand for love.
Never to allow gradually the traffic to smother
With noise and fog the flowering of the spirit.

Near the snow, near the sun, in the highest fields
See how these names are feted by the waving grass
And by the streamers of white cloud
And whispers of wind in the listening sky.
The names of those who in their lives fought for life
Who wore at their hearts the fire’s center.
Born of the sun they traveled a short while towards the sun,
And left the vivid air signed with their honor.

Posted by Bakerina at 11:51 PM in valentines • (1) Comments • (0) Trackbacks

Yes, yes, absolutely yes.  As much as I know about what he did in the war, there’s so much more that I don’t know.  I know that he kept the Mission Belle airborne; I know that when he was interviewed by a journalist for one of the military newspapers (not Stars and Stripes, but something like it), the reporter made some comment about the Belle being an old banger of a plane, and Grandpop was very quick to disabuse him of that notion.  I know he was proud of the work he did, and proud of the guys who actually flew the missions.  I know he loved his furloughs in France and England, and the people he met there.  But I know he left a lot unsaid, and there was something in me that told me not to ask, not because he couldn’t talk about it, but because he wouldn’t, or rather, didn’t see the point of it.  He loathed the whole cottage industry that sprung up around the “greatest generation”—and he really loathed Tom Brokaw.

The more I read about your coach, the more I like him.

Bakerina on 12/21/03 at 08:41 PM  
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