As I mentioned on Facebook, my Grandpa passed away this summer at the age of 89. It’s been a bad year for Grandpas in my family. My other grandfather passed away exactly nine months earlier. When I received this most recent news about Grandpa’s passing, I expected to go through the typical grief process. But I didn’t. At all, really. My mind skipped over all the steps of grieving and went right to acceptance. Later I realized this was more of a testament to how Grandpa lived, than an emotional flaw of my own. Grandpa lived and left this world exactly on his own terms, with no unfinished business, and his colorful, hilarious, and cantankerous personality is not one that simply disappears.
Grandpa’s feisty personality was present from the get-go. In grade school, Grandpa and his friends taught the school bully a lesson when they trapped him in an outhouse and threatened to tip it over. On a dare, he jumped off a bridge into the river, only to be greeted on the shore by the police, firemen, and his Mom with her hair in curlers. Grandpa dropped out of school at 15 after he told off the principal. He respected authority–he was in the Army, after all–but he had no tolerance for rules without a purpose. “Because I said so,” was simply not a good enough reason for him. I’m certain this is why he ran his own business until he retired. He and my Grandma ran one of the most well-known blue collar bars in the city. He worked long hours with few days off, often late into the night, but at least he was the one calling the shots.
There are two things I always loved about Grandpa. The first was his honesty and his directness. He was never afraid to call a spade a spade. If you asked him his honest opinion, well goddamnit, you were getting it. He was never mean, but he couldn’t be bothered with fake niceties either. You always knew where you stood with him, whether he liked you or not. And if he said he was proud of you or happy for you, you never questioned it.
The second thing I loved about him is his ability to hold a conversation with anyone. He would go to college football games with my Dad, but rarely actually watched the game. Instead, he’d spend the entire game chatting with a complete stranger next to him, periodically poking my father with “Hey, what the hell just happened?” Many people lose their ability to communicate with the younger generation when they get old. Not Grandpa. Even at 89, he had that easy-to-talk-to bartender swagger about him. He kept up-to-date with world affairs and pop culture. He never touched a computer, but he knew who the head of Facebook was. He watched The Sopranos (which he openly denied, but he could tell you about the characters and the plot points, if questioned). And he remained open to the changing world around him. We recently had a long discussion on society’s changing family structure, gay marriage, and the like, and he said, “Jenny, at the end of the day — everyone’s life is their own business. No one tells me how to live mine, so no one else should be telling anyone else how to live their life either.”
I can’t possibly write about Grandpa without giving a nod to his colorful turn of phrase. He never used the F-bomb that I can recall. “Shit” was his spice of choice, peppered in with liberal amounts of “goddamn” and “sonofabitch.” Some mix of the three ended up in every conversation, often in the same sentence. Oldies like “you don’t know shit from Shinola” made it regularly into rotation. When writing his eulogy, I asked my brother to share the most important advice Grandpa ever gave him. Seconds later, he texted back, “Never bullshit a bullshitter.” My favorite phrase came out when Grandpa was backed into a corner with no rebuttal to the argument (a rarity). He’d just wave his hand and yell “Go take a shit for yourself!” I still don’t know what this means–it seems that following this order would relieve me of discomfort, instead of causing me any–yet that phrase became a universal sign in our family that Grandpa’s closing arguments were officially complete.
Grandpa may have had a rough exterior, but his heart was never in question. He never missed the opportunity to say he loved us. Animals had a special place for him. He became the designated dog sitter for my parents’ dog Fluffy whenever they went out of town. When my parents traveled less frequently, Grandpa asked Dad to bring Fluffy over for visits when Dad was running out for errands, “just so the dog won’t get lonely.” The day before Grandpa died, he was so weak, that he could barely move in his hospital bed. But before my father left for the night, Grandpa reached over to his bed side table and pulled out a piece of meat wrapped in a napkin. Grandpa had swiped it off his dinner tray just so Dad could take it home to his pal, Fluffy.
I got the call that Grandpa was in his final hours early in the morning. It wasn’t shocking news—he had been in hospice for a week. But everyone thought he had at least a month. He was physically failing, but his mind was sharp as a tack. The night before he died, he held lengthy conversations with visitors, just like he was sitting in his barcalounger at home. I learned that Grandpa had a serious talk with Dad that night, and Dad told him that he’d never get out of bed again. The next morning Grandpa went into cardiac arrest. The story actually made me laugh, because it was just like Grandpa. He knew the truth, he didn’t like it, so he said, “This is shit for the birds. I’m out.”
I often have to remind myself that it has only been two months since he passed. The shitstorm of distressing updates during his final weeks now feels like a lifetime ago. At the same time, it doesn’t really feel like he’s gone. I felt my other grandfather’s absence immediately, even before he died. My other grandfather was such a quiet, calming presence for our family–the type of presence that is immediately felt when it’s extinguished. Grandpa, however, had a strong personality that’s instantly recalled to memory in vibrant detail, as if you just saw him yesterday. I’ve visited Grandma several times since the funeral. Even though I know Grandpa isn’t there, it still feels like he is just in the back room yelling at the idiots on the evening news.
So here’s to you, Grandpa. You lived life on your terms up until the very end and left a slew of hilarious stories, memories, and creative cursing behind. I hope to love life as much as you did, and live it with as few regrets. And when it’s my time to go, I hope I’ll be able to follow your lead and look the ol’ Reaper in the eye and say,
“This is shit for the birds. I’m out.”