Last night, I spent an hour or so holding my grandfather's hand. With a variety of tubes running out of his body, electrodes hooked to his chest, he looked small, smaller than I've ever seen him, but he squeezed my hand with a strength that put me at ease, despite his situation.
On Saturday my mom called to tell us that my grandfather had suffered a heart attack. Although the doctors had been able to stabilize him, things didn't look good. His remaining kidney was failing, the heart attack was likely caused by the faulty valve he had in his chest, and there were other problems as well, but when he squeezed my hand, somehow I felt like it was going to be okay. Its funny how we're forever children before our parents.
My childhood was a complicated mess of ignored responsibilities. My biological mom really wasn't capable of being a parent, and when she dropped the ball with me, which often happened, my grandparents were always there to pick it up again. I think I lived with them more than I lived with my biological mother, until my aunt, uncle, and cousins took me in permanently.
I learned a lot about being a dad from my grandfather and I catch myself, sometimes, talking to Chunk like my grandfather spoke to me. He retired early and my summers off from school consisted mostly of he and I running errands around Minneapolis, sometimes going for short hikes, or hanging out in diners run by guys who knew my grandfather by name. At the time, it seemed like everyone knew my grandfather by name, and although he was an abrasive guy at times, everyone had a smile for him.
Every time we got in the car, I would learn something. We would drive along power lines and my grandfather would quiz me on why the birds could stand on the power lines without getting electrocuted. We would go to the hardware store and walk about how plumbing worked. Sometimes we'd just talk about the car we were driving in, have long conversations about traffic rules. That's the quality I think I mirror most from my grandfather. When Chunk points at something and asks, "What's that?" his voice more shrill, depending on his level of excitement, I never just answer, "That's a truck." I tell him its a truck, then we spend a long time talking about what it's used for, why it needs to be so big, etc. At two, he doesn't always get it, but I think he gets more than he lets on, just like I did with my grandpa.
There are strange moments that come with from dealing with our own parents, times when your perceptions are rattled and altered forever. Chunk will have these moments with me, I'm sure. I was shocked and surprised when I realized I was taller than my grandfather, a man who had been larger than life itself for my entire childhood. I was devastated when my grandmother passed away almost twenty years ago, not just because I had lost an amazing woman in my life, but because the devastation that my grandfather wore on his face was something I couldn't bare to see. Seeing how sunken my grandfather had become after the death of his daughter, my biological mother, shrunk me as well. And now, watching him lie in a hospital bed, straddling that strangely wide line between life and death, has been another moment of realization, a time when I can see very plainly that the man I idolized my entire life is just a man, like I am, not a legend made real, not a tall tale from the north like Paul Bunyon and thousands of fishing stories.
My grandfather wasn't always a good man, but he became one. He struggled with alcohol for a lot of years, but exorcised that demon and went to work helping others do the same. He wasn't always a good husband, but when my grandmother retired, he grew roses for her, big bushes of reds and pinks and whites and yellow, flowers that even I knew meant something more than just their surface beauty. He wasn't always a good father, but when given the chance to try again, became an excellent father to a boy that didn't seem to have any parents at all.
His calm in his hospital bed perhaps remakes him as the legend I've always seen him as being. When I told him he scared a lot of us, he told me, between machine assisted gulps of air, that he was scared too. Then, he smiled, like it was all a joke, like it was nothing at all, and squeezed my hand with a firmness that said he was right, that none of this was serious. After that, he turned his gaze back up to the ceiling and struggled with each and every breath, hiccuping with a strangely soft, high sound, that should come from a bird, not my grandfather.
His chances don't look very good. He lives 900 miles away and hasn't really gotten a chance to get to know my son. Like my great-grandparents, my grandpa will exist more as a story for Chunk, but there will be a lot of stories to tell. Some of those stories will be funny, others sad, some beautiful, and others inspiring.
I'm looking forward to seeing him this morning, but not because I want to say good-bye. I didn't spend two days in the car to say good-bye. I came here because I want to spend a little more time with my "bump-pa."