Last month–or was it longer ago? I can barely remember, which makes me feel callous–my grandfather had a stroke. It wasn’t too serious–his mind is intact, and his muscle control over his left leg was damaged but is slowly recovering. The immediacy of the whole thing has passed.
I’ve watched it unfold from a distance, mainly from a series of phone calls, to my mother, my grandmother, and my grandfather himself. I have to guess at emotions from tones of voice over the phone–my grandmother’s initial deflation and vulnerability, but now recovered perky mood; my mother’s return to the brisk and businesslike manner that quickly dissolved, the first time she called to tell me the news, into the tears she’d been trying not to shed for the sake of everyone else. When I talk to my grandfather, I still guess at the long pauses between inane questions like “How are you?”, that seem to serve as placeholders for all the unarticulated emotions and questions that have been swirling beneath the surface of my mind for a few years now, and not just because of the stroke. How long will you continue to live for? Why haven’t I spent more time with you? What more should I be doing now, so I won’t regret later? What is going to happen next time, when my mother calls and says that you’ve had another stroke, but this time, there was nothing they can do? Why am I thinking any of this at all?
One of Jimbo’s favorite phrases–or rather, concepts–is “Zippy the Chimp.” I’m still not sure where it comes from but whenever he likens someone to Zippy I know exactly what he means–a sucker, an idiot, a goofball–and I will always vividly remember his laugh as he slams his palms down on the kitchen table, rattling the spaghetti dish, at the punchline of one of his many jokes. He’s the only person I know who reads the cartoons and comic strips of the newspaper. Occasionally he clips them out and sticks them on the fridge–one of his favorites was a cartoon about the Red Sox’s World Series victory in 2004 after an 86 year drought. It showed a young boy transitioning into middle and then old age: “I believe!” “I still believe!” “I can’t believe it!”. For many years I bought him “a cartoon a day” desk calendars, until I finally realized I’d gone through every cartoon there is, and he’d probably read them already. Still, he always unwrapped them every Christmas with an authentically surprised and happy look on his face, more for the giver than for himself.
I remember going through my grandparents’ garage as a kid, looking for the old pop-up-gopher water sprinkler during summer visits, or the plastic sled during winter, and coming across his bag of golf clubs, with their signature gaudy stuffed Sylvester head on top of one of the bulkier drivers. Golf is, and has been for as long as I’ve been around, one of his favorite pastimes. Whenever my mother sits down with a bowl of popcorn for the afternoon, and urges the family to come watch The Masters with her, I know it’s because of him.
I remember his long afternoons playing bridge (but only because I impatiently wanted to use the computer after him), and the small bag of gummy bears just beside the monitor, tied up neatly with a rubber band. I remember looking up from my sandcastles to see him return from a long walk on the Florida beach with his sunglasses and white, wide-brimmed hat on, hands in the pockets of his chinos, and stop to pick up a shell or two. I remember the way, more recently, he ceaselessly keeps all of us in check when we get carried away, with words of reason and perspective, in one of our quintessential family debates around the dinner table.
I feel like maybe I’m writing this as some sort of preemptive eulogy, and I hate that–as though I’m clouded by future sorrows, regrets and “I remember”s. Why am I so fixated on what will inevitably, but unpredictably, come to be, instead of focusing on the present? I worry about my grandmother, I worry about my mother, I worry about how I, will react in the event of our future loss. I worry about the big, empty space that will be left at the table and in our hearts. But I find it harder to worry about Jimbo himself, as he is right now; the one who, really, this is all about, who is going to physical therapy every day to work on regaining his ability to walk without a cane. The man who I spoke to on the phone yesterday, who told me he was fine but that things are hard.
I worry more about losing him than appreciating and respecting the fact that he is still around. Perhaps I assume he is coping because of his no-nonsense demeanor, his lack of tolerance for exactly my kind of abstract worrying, his fundamentally practical outlook towards life. But perhaps it is really because I have no idea how to look after, or give advice, or cheer up someone who has always been the one looking after me. I haven’t yet lost someone I care deeply about, and I fear. I fear, and it paralyzes me, sucks me out of my ability to laugh and love; exactly the things he’d want me to be doing.
Many things in life are shitty, but you just have to get on with it: This is the basic lesson both of my grandparents have taught me. Routine, work ethic and moderation; a fierce loyalty to family and friends, and a calm acceptance of the times when life, to put it mildly, doesn’t go your way. But, most importantly, do it all with a sense of humor. So, as I sit here and try to make sense of it all, I’m trying to apply his wisdom. Loss is inevitable, but just as inevitable as the fact that another day will come tomorrow. Get over it. Just sit back, soak up the gorgeous spring sunshine, and focus on living, and who knows–maybe later this year I can go play a round of golf with my grandfather.