As I drove to work this morning, I couldn’t get my Papa out of my head. I had this insistent, aching desire to see his face again. My father’s father served in the United States Marine Corps for almost 8 years. He fought, as did so many of his generation, in the Second World War.
But I didn’t know anything about that until I was a older.
Mostly, I knew my grandfather to be an eccentric, funny tough guy – who treated me not like a princess but like a fighter; like someone he loved AND respected. When I was diagnosed with diabetes, he came to the hospital. My mother said that as I slept, with an IV in my arm – too thin and too pale - he watched me – much as he had stood in the window of the nursery watching me sleep on the night I was born.
My grandfather had watched my grandmother struggle with type 2 diabetes (which in retrospect was probably type 1.5 – as she went on and off insulin for years and eventually succumbed to kidney failure) for many years. I have lots of vague recollections of the days around my diagnosis – and a few that are vivid – crystal clear. One of those clear memories is of my grandfather telling me “Coley, your parents don’t think you’re old enough to hear this, but THIS is your war. You will never give in to this, you will never stop believing that you are stronger than this disease. Do you understand that?” I nodded – even though I didn’t understand at all – I didn’t want to let my Papa down.
Maybe he knew that his words would stay in my mind, my heart for all these years – maybe he knew they’d remain – inspiring me and comforting me. Maybe he realized that when times got tough – I’d still have his confidence in me, his conviction that I’d be OK. I’ll never know. But I’ll always have that look of certainty on his face as he told me that I was strong.
I dream of him sometimes – usually of him in the driveway of his house working on his RV – cursing, laughing, having a beer. On occasion, I dream of him out of context – doing something strange or wondrous or ballsy. And when I ache to see him, as I do today, I take comfort in knowing that he’ll find me in those dreams.
Just over a month ago, another of the greatest generation left us. Bob’s granddad – who had become over these past 8 years, a granddad for me, served on a PT boat in the Second World War. The first time I visited Bob’s parents home, I saw photos of Granddad in his uniform. Those photos were my first introduction to this amazing man. I knew just looking at them that I was going to like him. The thin lanky young man standing in his dress uniform in one of them had a devilish glint in his eye and a grin that made you think he was up to something.
A couple of weeks after meeting his photograph, I had the privilege of meeting the man. We sat in the living room of Bob’s grandparents home – a home that the two of us now share. Granddad took us on a tour and then pulled out an album of photos. I heard the story of his early life in Washington State and his mother Sarah. I heard of how he joined the Navy and went to war. I heard of his spying Bob’s Gram at a dance and his thinking she was an American Indian. I heard of how he knew he would marry her, of their building a family and a home together, of their riding motorcycles and taking boats out on the local river and living a life that was – at once – stable and adventurous.
I saw in this man - all of the amazing qualities he’d passed on to his children – and more importantly, to his grandson. They were the qualities I’d fallen in love with. Love of family, strength tempered by gentleness, an unrivaled work-ethic, a loyalty to friends and loved ones, spirituality that surpassed the bounds of organized religion, patience, and a willingness to work at relationships and love.
It broke my heart to watch Granddad stolen from us. Alzheimer’s Disease is slow and vicious. But I’ll tell you – in the year before he died – there were a few moments when I could see that man I’d met all those years before. Sometimes, it was just the glint in those blue eyes – sometimes it was as he told us a story of days passed.
Now that he’s gone, I see Granddad everyday in the man I love. I see him in the person that has stolen my heart – a person worthy of everything in my soul.