Old age hath yet his honor and his toil;
Death closes all: but something ere the end,
Some work of noble note, may yet be done…
Ulysses – Alfred, Lord Tennyson
My grandfather was so proud when Ronald Reagan was sworn into office the first time, January, 1981, because, as he noted, the nation had placed their trust in someone of advanced years. Exactly Grandaddy’s age actually – 69. Somehow this was affirming to him, that if Reagan could hold the highest office in the nation, maybe he could also still accomplish great things.
I can see, looking back, how this would have been important to him. He really didn’t have much. His laundry business had burned years before, and for whatever reason he never tried to rebuild or begin again. He did own his home, but mainly he sat all day in his wheelchair the years I really knew him, watching television, reading newspapers, the Reader’s Digest, and The Saturday Evening Post. He was a retired Army man, who had married an Army nurse, he a Tech Sergeant, she a Captain. My Aunt Elizabeth stared down at their foot stones after they were placed on their graves and said, “If he weren’t already dead it would kill Daddy that the whole world can see that Mama outranked him.”
It seemed to me that was pretty much the opinion of his family – he was outranked. Alcohol had taken hold of him in his youth, and because of that, my Grammy was driving the laundry route one fateful winter day, when a young woman ran a stop sign and smashed into the laundry truck. Grammy continued to draw breath for almost a month, not living really. Her brain had been twisted in her skull from the violence of the impact. Finally, mercifully, she died, and my Grandaddy’s will to live died with her. He continued to draw breath another twenty-three years. I don’t think he ever forgave himself, knowing if he’d been able to drive the route that day, she might still be alive.
I was only three years old at the time, so I don’t have much recollection of my Grammy, and I didn’t see my Grandaddy again for almost twelve years. Even though we lived less than three miles apart, the hurt in my family created a divide that no bridge could span. Finally, as a teenager, for reasons still unknown to me, we again came together as family, and I began to know the grandfather I lost so early in life.
One thing I learned was that he had a twisted sense of humor. Grandaddy heated his house with natural gas, and one day, when I went over after school, he was seated in his wheelchair as usual, looking out the sliding glass doors where I always parked. He was waiting for me. He needed help. “What do you want me to do?” I questioned him after our hellos. “I want you to run this match over that metal tubing right there. I think I’ve got a gas leak and I need to find it so it can be repaired.” “I don’t think that’s a good idea, Grandaddy,” I cautioned, “I’m afraid I’ll blow up the house.” He chuckled, “It won’t blow up. I’ve done it before. It’s just getting so hard for me to get to it. Here’s the match,” which he promptly lit and handed to me.” I blew the match out. “Grandaddy, I’m scared! I don’t want us to get hurt and if that gas has been leaking the whole house could explode!” A little annoyed he responded, “It’s not going to blow up! If there is a leak it’ll just flare the match a little and I’ll be able to see where it is.” He lit another match and handed it to me. Very frightened, but wishing to be obedient, I waved the match along over the tubing. Imagine my horror as, with one pass, there was a sudden fireball rolling and spitting above the silvery metallic tube.
“Oh my God!” I cried out, falling backwards away from the glowing, hissing ball of fire, bracing for the ensuing explosion.
Grandaddy didn’t even flinch. He was prepared with a wet washcloth which he casually tossed over the small pipe. “You found the leak. Thanks,” he said with a smile. “You knew that was going to happen! You knew I was scared but you made me do it anyway!” I sputtered, still shaking from fright. “I told you it wouldn’t blow up,” he reminded me. “I wish you could have seen your face,” he muttered. “Well, I might not have seen mine but I could see yours and you were laughing at me when I was scared to death!” I retorted. He just smiled again and said, “You should know I would never ask you to do anything that would hurt you.” I considered this and began to calm down as I thought on it.
This man sitting nearly helpless before me had served in Okinawa in WWII, had moved away from friends and family to another state to begin a new business, had lost his wife in a terrible accident and been alienated from his family, experiencing many long, lonely years. He lost his business, and so much more, and yet here he was, surviving. A little gas leak held no terror for him, and suddenly I had a great desire to know more about him.
We had many good talks, developing a kind of comradeship after what I thought was a mutual near-death experience. He told me his recollections of life during WWI and WWII, and all the technological developments he had seen, as well as some historical events I had heard of but not witnessed. And yet, I never felt I really got to know him. He was always guarded somehow, and after I went away to school, I missed several more years of our life together, although we did stay in touch through birthday and Christmas cards and an occasional letter. He passed away just about eighteen months after I returned home from school to began teaching. I sadly realized how very little I knew the man.
In all his life, what brought him joy? Where did his hope lie? Did he feel at peace? What was the light he followed? I will never get to ask him, but I will never forget his amusement as I leapt back in fright from what I feared was imminent death while he trembled not in the least. And I will never forget the pride he took in knowing that someone his age could be honored, trusted, respected, and believed in for leadership, somehow restoring by association all the things I think he longed for, yet was unable to attain for himself.
If I cannot hold up his life as a course to steer by, at least I can admire his tenacity, his ability to persevere, and the ideals which he held fast to in spite of his own shortcomings. For those things I am grateful today as I continue to pursue joy, hope, peace and light, in spite of my own shortcomings.
With gratitude, in this Memorial month, for our armed service members who gave their all…
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