Wednesday, June 21, 2006

Last Goodbye

My grandpa passed away on the morning of the 11th. It was a Sunday; he was born on a Sunday too. So it goes.

His name was Douglas Harry McDowell. Harry was his middle name because his mother’s maiden name was Harry. He’s from that generation. He was born in Chicago in 1926. There were many pictures of him as a child, and while I was gathered with my family for his wake last weekend, we noted how the photos abruptly stopped after his childhood. “Well the Depression came,” was an answer muttered and we all understood: there was no money for frivolity, photographs being the most frivolous things at the time. There was a picture of the house they had lost in Illinois, on the back there’s a note reading, ‘we paid $400 down.” He’s from that generation.

The photos picked up again in the 1940’s, after the war. He was in the army air corps in the occupying force in France; he fixed the ball turrets in B29 bombers. In his black and white photos he looked very handsome in his uniform, all of 20 years old. He stands in front of the Eiffel Tower, the Arc de Triumph, stands in front of his bombers, he stands with friends in front of a base, his uniform pristine: tie tucked into shirt, a short smirk on his face, just a bit confident that his country had done the right thing. He’s from that generation.

He told me a story once about his airfield in France. He was walking the perimeter fence one day with an orange in his hand, and a girl stood on the other side of the fence looking at him. He gave her his orange, and having not seen proper fruit in 4 years of Nazi occupation, she cried.

He was good with his hands, and after he left the service he worked repairing cash registers and typewriters in Iowa. He had twin sons who grew and had children of their own, who also had children of their own. After his retirement he made a hobby of refurbishing ancient radios and woodwork.

He loved garage sales and would bring things home, sneak them past my grandmother and keep them in the basement. But she knew.

My grandpa was simply quite wonderful. I had only known him to be kind and generous, and I knew that I would miss him when he passed. Four years ago he was diagnosed with liver cancer, and we all knew it was just a matter of time for a man his age. He gave me a check for $50 the year of his diagnosis, for helping move his radios from the garage to the basement. I never cashed it, and today it is the only thing I have of his bearing his signature. I kept it because his name was worth more.

I cried the night he checked into the hospice and I was too drained to cry the next morning when he died. It happened quickly, as he slept, which is a wonderful way to die. I knew the funeral was going to be sad, not tragic, but I wasn’t prepared for this enormous grief. And as my father eulogized his own, I cried when he said, “The last thing he said to me was ‘I want to take a nap.’”

A few years ago I helped my friend Jay and his family move from a town north of Denver to a town south of Denver. His little girl, Brittany, had to say goodbye to a friend she had seen every day of her young life. As her friend walked away, Brittany started crying with her own sorrow of a friendship ended by the circumstance of geography. “It’s a new feeling for her, eh?” I asked her mother. “It is,” she said.

When you’re 6 years old you have a lot of emotions to yet experience. At 26 I had naively thought I was finished learning how to feel, but my grandpa’s death has proven to me otherwise. I’ve been heart broken and depressed, sad and pitiful, but I have never known this feeling: so absolute and pure, genuine and grave. I’m learning now what real grief is, I am learning how to mourn someone I loved, and even after his funeral I am not done crying over his loss.

It’s odd to know I won’t be able to see him again, hug him and say ‘I love you’ first because otherwise it’d only be silently understood. It’s odd to wonder what his death was like for him, and what he could have been feeling himself as he passed. It seems we’re never fully learned when it comes to emotion, and that is a discomforting thought.

But I smile now as I recall my memories of him:

He’d let me watch him brush his teeth when I visited him in the summers of my childhood. He always made me laugh because he’d have to take out his top dentures and set them on the sink and I thought he was like George Washington.

He used a magnifying glass to read the paper sometimes, and I’d use to it to burn ants in his backyard.

I’d play with his old radios in the basement, pretending to be in a submarine, and he’d come down and show us how they worked.

He’d get cut off mid sentence by my grandmother sometimes, and he’d just swallow his sentence and tilt his head with a little nod, and while everyone’s attention was now drawn to my grandma, I’d keep focused on him and note the look on his face as if he was saying, “Well you go ahead, honey, you tell it, it’s not like it was my story or anything.”

He drove with both feet.

He had a dent in his head from when they had to remove a small growth decades ago.

He was hard of hearing, but wouldn’t get a hearing aid.

He said “warsh” instead of “wash.”

He always carried a small pocketknife and used it to cut an apple at lunch or tighten a screw. My grandma gave it to me before I came back to New York, knowing he would have wanted me to have it.

He loved us all, without ever having to say it. He was from that generation.


Nicci said...

Oh Nick, thank you for the honor of allowing me to meet your Grandpa through your words. What a beautiful tribute.

Blair Brown said...

All I can say is Wow!! My heart is with you!