Two days ago my Grandpa Christmas would have been 80 years old. It's been almost 10 years since he succumbed to pancreatic cancer...since he left a yawning void in my heart and life. I weep for the fact that he is not here to say "How'do" to my babies, to help them do flips, to take them for lawnmower rides. But I rejoice that I knew him, and loved him. I rejoice that he loved me. This is a piece I wrote for his funeral. I share it so he won't be forgotten.
It's 1982. I'm four years old. We are watching the Jerry Lewis Telethon on TV. I hear Jerry Lewis say somethingâ€¦a phrase I've never heard anyone use before. Something tells me to go hide by the stairs while I try out this new thing to say. I say it slowly and quietly to myself. "What... the... hell." I was not quiet enough. Grandpa is behind me. "What did you say?" I am amazed by his harsh voice and start to cry. I didn't mean to be bad. He picks me up and hugs me and tells me not to cry. I don't say it again.
Grandpa chews Big Red gum and even though the cinnamon burns my tongue I have to chew it too, because he does. Grandpa takes me for rides on his moped and hitches a wagon to the back of his lawnmower and takes us for rides in the woods. Grandpa picks me up in his arms and holds me a certain way so that when he unfolds his arms I turn a flip and land on the ground like a circus star. Grandpa lies on his back and I lay on his legs and he does leg lifts and I go up and down like a carousel horse. Grandpa pours me a Sprite and I giggle happily as I watch the fountain forms at the top of my glass. Grandpa comes up behind me and scratches his whiskers on my delicate face and I pretend to hate it,Â but I love it. Grandpa fixes me air-popped popcorn with oil and orange salt and we watch The Tonight Show together. Grandpa climbs to the top of the basketball goal and straddles the air, one foot on each bar and I stare up, amazed at his courage and strength. Grandpa takes me on the big yellow slide at the Fall Festival and I feel safe, because I am with him. Grandpa is a tickle monster, a horse that eats corn, a bear with whiskers, a tree trunk to climb, a swing-set.
Now I am eight. Everyday I go to Grandma's house after school. When Grandpa gets off work he takes my brothers and me to pick up my mother from work and then he takes us all home. Sometimes if we are good we leave early and he takes us on little adventuresâ€¦to an old footbridge over Pigeon Creek, to the park down by the river. Any place is exciting when you are only eight and your grandpa shows it to you.
Now, I'm 22. I have just started dating my fiancÃ©, Hugh. I see Grandpa at church and he is in one of his best moods. I go to hug him and he puckers up his lips at me. Feeling a little old for that, I pull back. "Oh I see," he jokes, "You're saving your lips for Hugh."
Grandpa always wears the same kind of work jacket, dungarees, and steel toed shoes that he has worn since he was twenty, yet fusses over his hair, combing it over and over and frequently getting it trimmed. He is humble in speech, using homespun vernacular that belies his brilliant mind. I have never seen anyone work a crossword puzzle, or un-jumble letters, or guess at Wheel of Fortune with half the self-assured speed and accuracy as he. He can fix anything you put in front of him or tell you how to get anything done, and it's always the cheapest way, using the most loopholes. He combines the cleverest wit with the soberest face, and the sweetest heart with the sternest discipline. He has a reputation for being thrifty, but...
I just got my driver's license and was nervously driving to work and turned left in front of oncoming traffic. I am not hurt, but there is a dent over my wheel that makes it difficult to drive. I am afraid to call my parents, so I call Grandpa. He drives out to where I am, bangs out the dents, and gives me a hundred dollars. He hugs me and grins. "Don't worry, Katie. I won't squeal on you."
Grandpa has a long history of physical problems coupled with depression, so at first we think little of his mysterious pain and weakness. The doctors couldn't turn up anything; it seemed to be more of the same. It wasn't until he is unable to make to my brother's wedding that I realize something else is going on. His weight drops to just over 100 pounds and he is so weak he barely leaves the bed. Just a month later my grandma has a heart attack, and is in the hospital over a week. Someone needs to come take care of Grandpa while she is gone. It was finals week at school but somehow I know I am the only one who can help.
I have high hopes of getting Grandpa to eat. I wake up early every morning to get his breakfast, and try to get him snacks several times a day. He tries so hard to eat whatever I set before him. Even when I enthusiastically fill the plate, he smiles and tries to muster up the will to take a few bites. I meticulously record everything he eats, what time, what makes him ill. I go to his doctor's appointment with him. His weight has dropped further. The nurse chirps brightly, "Mr. Christmas, you need to be eating!" I stick the meal diary in her face. Tests are run. A mass is found on his pancreas. It's cancer.
Grandpa is nervous about the chemotherapy. He doesn't want to lose his hair. I look at his beautiful wavy grey locks, always combed and perfectly parted, and ache. This particular chemo didn't have that side effect, so he is spared that trauma. Grandma is hospitalized again a few weeks later. I 'm responsible for learning how to attach his feeding bag, dole out his medications, and prepare our meals. I try to sit with him as much as I can. Sometimes he takes my hand in his and just holds it and pats it, telling me that I am a good, sweet granddaughter. I tell him he is a good, sweet grandfather.
One night he can't take a deep breath and the sweat rolls off of him like rain. An ambulance is called. The paramedic tells Grandpa to put his arms around his neck. "Oh no," Grandpa said," You don't have to carry me." "Yes I do," said the paramedic, "I have to show off my brute strength," and this strong, big man swoops my tiny grandfather in his arms tenderly and carries him to the gurney. I ache again, knowing his pride has been wounded. Grandma and I walk to the door, watching him being loaded onto the ambulance. My aunt and I convinced her not to go along...she is not well...it is too much of a strain. "If I never get to bring him home again, I'll never forgive myself for not going with him," she whispers with a broken voice. I tell her that he will come home again. I am wrong.
Grandpa has been hospitalized for over two months, and I am watching him fade away. At first he can laugh and joke and watch his favorite shows and work his puzzles, but eventually all of his strength leaves him, except for when he feels a compulsion to climb out of bed or pull out his tubes. My brother takes his hand, and Grandpa tried to squeeze it the way he used to, moving the bones in Ian's hand as a joke, but he can't even do that anymore. He has had a small stroke that makes him make no sense much of the time. He addresses unseen visitors, plays with babies that have long since grown up, and works on invisible engines.
Attached to his IV is valve that controls his morphine levelsâ€¦when he needs more painkiller he can push a button that sends an extra dose to his bloodstream, but eventually he loses the strength to push it. "Grandpa, do you want me to punch your button?" He sits up suddenly, eyes wide and fist clenched. "I'll punch you!" he declared. I am taken aback...it's been weeks since he has joked in his old way. "You can punch me any time you want," I say gently.
This is the last time I remember him being himself, two weeks before his death. He is soon after moved to a nursing home and within two days he can no longer even speak. We moisten his mouth with a lollipop made of sponge and press his morphine button, and tried to keep him in a comfortable position. He died on April 29, 2001, in my mother's presence.
I remember soon after the stroke he looked at me and smiled widely, then he began reaching into the air, grasping for something." What are you doing Grandpa?" I ask. "You were asking me questions," he replied. "I was trying to answer them."
I wish you could Grandpa. I wish you could.