The Gentle Giant

I wrote the following entry just over three years ago.  I’ve often thought I should post it over here…and, well, now it’s applicable again.

My beloved grandfather is currently being airlifted to Duke University Medical Center, and the prognosis is not good.  This is a tribute to him.

(I will note that I did, in fact, pull him aside and tell him all the things I said in this post that I wanted to tell him.  On more than one occasion.  So that, at least, I feel good about.)


My Papa is not well.

No, not my father.  “Papa” is the name my brother, my five first cousins and I use for my maternal grandfather.  It was, I guess, his choice.  It was convenient for me and my brother, at least.  It allowed us to easily distinguish a Sunday afternoon at “Papa and Granny’s” from “Granny and Granddaddy’s.”  This is important when you’re little.

And don’t get me wrong, things could be worse.  To the best of my knowledge, he’s not exactly on his deathbed.  But he’s in the ICU in the hospital where he’s been on and off for a few days while the doctors try to stop some internal bleeding.  Not too good for anybody; for a 70-something-year-old man who’s survived a stroke in the last year, definitely not good news.

We’re due to go home this Friday to see my still-smells-new nephew for the first time, so the trip is coming at a good time.  I hope.

Since I got off the phone with my mother last night I’ve actually been doing quite a bit of thinking about it.  And I’m definitely glad that I’m on my way home, regardless of how Papa does.  And I assume at this point that he’ll be out of ICU and maybe even home by the weekend.

My paternal grandfather who lived two houses down from me the entire time I grew up died ten years and a few months ago, a few days shy of his 68th birthday, after a years-long battle with the bone cancer that the doctors told him would kill him in six months.  At that point in time, I was 22 years old, a few hours away in Richmond in my first year of graduate school, just getting used to living with my then-girlfriend, now-wife.  My grandparents didn’t approve of that arrangement, I knew; besides, I was busy.  Things were crazy.  And most importantly, I was young and still comparatively immature.  When I got the call that Granddaddy was back in Duke Hospital again, and that this was probably it, I offered to pack up and drive the five hours down.  Immediately.  That night.  My parents convinced me that that wouldn’t really serve any purpose; there wasn’t enough room in the hospital for my grandmother, my parents, and my aunts and uncles as it was.  Adding all of us grandchildren to the mix would have just put more of a strain on everything.  So, I didn’t go, although I felt bad about it, and to a degree I still do.

Now I realize it wasn’t so much that I wasn’t there for him and the family when he died, it was that I never took the time to tell him what he meant to me.  I suppose that somewhere in the back of my mind I thought if I was there for him at the end it would show him that I cared.  Enough to make up for the fact that I hadn’t just come out and told him at any point before then.  It’s not that I don’t think he knew, and I can comfort myself with that thought, but it’s still a poor substitute for knowing I should have come right out and told him.

It’s only after some thought (both consciously and subconsciously) about my Papa’s situation that I realized that.  And more importantly, I have the ability to step in and make sure it doesn’t happen again.  And hopefully I finally have the maturity and good sense to make use of the opportunity.

Papa is the kind of guy that is fairly described as “jovial.”  He’s a big man like his father’s family tends to be, significantly bigger than the men in my own father’s family.  He’s about 6′ and at one point probably 250 or so, although he’s a bit thinner now.  He’s got a face kind of like Babe Ruth’s, which someone described once as looking like “a happy catcher’s mitt.”  It’s a big face for a big man, but it usually had an equally big grin to soften it up.  And it was always ready to let out a big, loud laugh.  Papa loves to clap his hands when he really laughs.  It’s kind of an old-fashioned gesture, I guess, but there’s something childlike about it, too.

Papa sings old country songs about love and loss…maybe not always on key, but always with feeling.

Papa was a long-haul trucker, making the run up and down the East Coast regularly from New York and New Jersey to North Carolina.  A short couple of years from an early retirement, a woman in a car full of kids pulled out in front of Papa’s rig, and he wrecked it when he swerved to avoid them.  Of course, the car full of kids sped away.  His employer, which I won’t name, took the opportunity to unload Papa and his looming pension.  The good times and good money he was making took a hit, but he signed on to drive 18-wheel dump trucks for his cousin’s company down in North Carolina, hauling gravel for road projects.  He did that until he retired, commuting back and forth fifty or sixty miles from his home in Virginia to the shop in Carolina.

Papa used to drive his truck home every now and then.  When you’re a six or seven year old boy, this is like a gift from Heaven, to be able to sit in Papa’s lap and look over all the gauges, lights, and switches surrounding that huge flat steering wheel of a tractor truck.  Even if it does kind of terrify you when he cranks it up and you feel the entire earth vibrate around you.

Even when we all told him (with some reason) that he was crazy to be doing it at his age, Papa kept a fresh vegetable garden on the back part of the lot behind his house.  It was big enough that he had to plow it with a tractor.  And every year, he and Granny (even if sometimes it was mostly Granny) took enough vegetables out of that garden to feed the whole family a few weekends a year.  Squash, beans, tomatoes, turnips, corn, everything.

It was Papa who taught me to buy good equipment and take good care of it.  They sold his ’73 Ford Ranger about six years ago; it was still running.  His John Deere lawn mower that he bought in probably 1981 or 1982 finally had to be put down a couple of years ago.  He still asks me how my cars are running, what kind of tires I’m running, what kind of mileage I’m getting.  And reminds me to keep ’em in good working order at all times.  He’ll recommend tire brands at the drop of a hat.

When Dad was working six days a week to help pay for the new carport we were adding onto the house, it was Papa who came over on Saturday and Sunday in the summertime and broke up the cement sidewalk with a sledgehammer to make way for it.  I don’t remember how old I was then, probably about 7 or so.  I remember thinking how strong Papa must be to keep swinging that big heavy hammer, shirtless and sweating under the sun, and breaking up that hard concrete.  I always carried that image of him around in my subconscious, I think.  It was part of my conception of him.  “Papa is a big, strong man.  I wish I could be like him.”

So even though he doesn’t get around quite as well after the stroke, I still think of him as my big, strong Papa.  His handshake doesn’t crush my hand anymore like he used to pretend to do when I was a kid, but his grip is still solid.  And his hand still envelops mine like I’m not quite full grown.  I can still feel the strength in him when he puts his arm around me, as he always does when he sees me, and asks me if I’m taking care of my wife and son.

Because that’s what was important to Papa.  He taught me by example that it’s important how you treat women, even though most modern folks would say he was and still is, let’s say, the kind of guy that feminists of a prior generation pointed to as a problem.  He still expects his dinner at a certain hour, and he expects to be served first with the biggest and the best.  (Every Sunday there was a basket of biscuits, and then there was Papa’s Biscuit…a triple-sized hoecake.)  And he still likes to sneak a hug and, preferably, kiss on the cheek from the ladies.  Even my wife, who God bless her, has tolerated it with a lot more good-natured grace than I think I would have shown in similar circumstances.  But underneath his this-is-the-way and his mischievious sexism was always a good heart.  And a kind of respect that, while it may put the women in his life in a subservient position in some ways, puts them on a pedestal in others.  That’s Papa.

That’s the most important thing I learned from Papa.  That it may be important to take care of your vehicles, but more important to take care of your family.  That’s a good thing to remember.

I’m lucky to have had pretty good male role models when I was a kid.  Papa was a great part of that.  And I’m thankful for it.

So this weekend I’m planning on pulling him aside and telling him.  Without embarrassing him, if I can.  But if he’s embarrassed, oh well.  I want him to know.  I’m too old to make that mistake again if I can help it.  And he deserves better.

He’s my Papa, and I love him.


16 Responses

  1. **hugs**
    He’s in my prayers.

  2. Oh man…I am such a baby. Now I’m crying for YOUR grandfather. I’m glad you got to tell him you love him. Wish you and your family the best.

  3. Cyber hugs from me.

  4. Brilliant. Impressive.

    Both the story and the man.

  5. I’m thinking about you, TB. Sending you big hugs and all my good thoughts. This might be one of my very favorite entries of yours.

  6. Thanks for all the well-wishes, guys. I’ll update as the situation allows. At this point, no news is good news – honestly, I thought when I took the call that he might not even survive the flight, and if that was the case I’d have heard before now. So it could be worse. I’ve been a little broken-up about it, but for the time being I’m soldiering on. It’s what he’d want me to do – until the time comes not to.

    I remember spending a night or a weekend with Papa and Granny when I was about my son’s age, and an acquaintance of theirs had died, so they brought me along to the viewing at the funeral home. (The evening before the funeral itself – do they do that everywhere, or just in the South?)

    I remember holding Papa’s hand, standing beside the casket, as Papa remarked to the person next to him in that heavy drawl of his: “He nevah said a ‘naw’ to nobodeh.” The same is equally applicable here.

    One day he’ll be gone, and that’ll be a sad day for my world. I hope it’s not today – but if it is, I’ll keep taking care of my family, because that’s what he’d want me to do.

    That, and buy some Michelins. Heh.

    Thanks again.

  7. And, hey, update. Just got off the phone with my mom. He’s about to go into surgery, but the surgeon thinks there’s a 90% chance of success. (Had they not caught the problem so early, supposedly he might have made it two days. At best.)

    The surgery will be lengthy – 6-7 hours or so – so I probably won’t know more until tomorrow. But for now, there’s better news than before.

    Edit: Just missed him before he went into surgery, but I called my mom and told her to pass the word along that he’d better buck up or I’ll never buy another damned Michelin as long as I live.

  8. What a lovely tribute. I pray that everything goes will with his surgery!!!

  9. Thinking of him and you today.

  10. Wow; add me to the thoughts and prayers – what a beautiful story.

  11. “That it may be important to take care of your vehicles, but more important to take care of your family”….lovely, as was this whole tribute.

    I’m sending my good thoughts now!

  12. Glad to hear that the doctor is optimistic about the surgery. Still thinking about you.

    And yeah, every funeral I’ve been to had a viewing the night before. But Kansas isn’t really that far from the south.

  13. […] she’s flipping out. Trying to think good thoughts for her. And also for TB, who is having a family […]

  14. […] importantly, my grandfather went home from the hospital this weekend.  For a little while it looked like he might stay a […]

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