I didn’t see my father’s parents much when I was growing up. They lived in Colorado, then Hawaii, then Colorado again. I sent them letters when I was young, and perhaps they visited us once every year. When Big Brother hit high school, they flew him out to Hawaii for several weeks in the summer. The next year Future Doctor Sister got to go, and finally it was my turn.
It was the greatest summer ever. I was briefly, gloriously, an only child. I had my own bedroom and bathroom. I didn’t have to fight with siblings over the front seat, the cereal boxes, the shower, or adult attention. It was mine, all mine! Even better, there wasn’t anything as mundane as frosted flakes for breakfast. My grandmother made oatmeal, eggs, bacon, and sliced up fresh mangoes or papaya. Once I got to pick a pineapple. Heaven.
My grandmother had definite ideas about everything: what I eat should eat, what I should wear, and even when I should go to bed. It made my sisters nuts when they visited her, but I didn’t mind being micro managed. I supposed it might have gotten irritating eventually, but as a middle child, I reveled in the novelty that someone actually cared about my diet and clothing.
My grandparents paid for tennis lessons. I was terrible, but the tennis pro was cute, so I stuck with it. They arranged windsurfing lessons, which I didn’t suck at, but which ended as soon as my grandmother realized I thought the college-aged instructors were hot.
“Autumn,” she gasped. “We don’t t know anything about those boys! Or their families!”
“Oh, but Gram, we’d sure like to, wouldn’t we?”
Apparently, we would not. That was my last windsurfing lesson. But my grandparents took me out to the country club for dinner, and I was easily able to bury my disappointment in prime rib and chocolate mousse.
My grandfather and I walked down to the beach several times. We snorkeled and sailed out on his sunfish. He told me some of his undoubtedly highly censored stories about being in the Navy in World War II, and how he fell in love with Hawaii when he was stationed in the Pacific. He lost his temper once when I whined, and I gained immediate insight on the genetic origins of my own nasty temper.
But I remember that summer as mostly golden, filled with stories, laughter, and Hawaiian sunshine. I was so sad to leave them.
When they moved back to Colorado, I stayed with them every time I drove across the continent. In college, one of my projects was recording oral histories from World War II. I interviewed both Grammy and Granddad. My grandmother had stories of bicycling around Germany in the late 1930’s. She talked about how the impeccable manners of the young German men impressed her…until she saw them attack a Jewish girl. She would never give details, only say that it was “horrible,” and she was glad to leave Germany afterwards.
My grandfather had fallen in love with my grandmother before the war, but she insisted that he had to finish law school before they married. Granddad always joked, “Well, lucky for me, along came the war!” They married quickly and Granddad was immediately shipped off to officer training. His memories of naval battles in the Pacific were mainly of the masses of Japanese fighters. He told me, “It was like a turkey shoot. There were planes and bullets everywhere, and if you weren’t killed or injured, you were just lucky.”
My grandfather stayed lucky until he was in his mid-eighties. A few years after he and my grandmother celebrated their sixtieth wedding anniversary, his body stopped producing red blood cells. I don’t know if they tried to make light of his illness, or they simply didn’t know how bad it was, but Judgmental Genius Doctor Sister called me and told me that she’d consulted her colleagues and Granddad didn’t have very long to live.
“Did you tell Dad?” I asked. “I don’t think he knows.”
“No,” she said. “I don’t think anyone knows.” The silence stretched between us, until I caved.
“Okay,” I said. “I’ll tell Dad.”
My father had been the one to tell me that my mother was dying when I was in high school. In an odd and ironic reversal, it was my turn to tell him his father was dying.
He was shocked silent.
“Are you okay?” I finally ventured. Then felt like the idiot I was. Of course he wasn’t okay. No one is okay after getting news like that, and no one should have known that better than me.
“Well,” he said. “It’s not really okay to hear your father has a death sentence. But I’m glad you told me.”
My dad left Utah few days later and spent the next month with his ailing father. He carried Granddad when he needed to be carried, helped with the oxygen tank, and handled all the unpleasant aspect of caring for an invalid.
Every grandchild that could flew to Colorado for one last visit. I did, and had to laugh over my grandmother. She couldn’t help managing and fussing over Granddad, just as she had for over sixty years. He asked for a second martini, and she pushed out her lower lip in a disapproving pout: “I don’t think that’s a good idea, dear.”
We grandchildren looked at her in disbelief and erupted in a chorus of protests:
“For God’s sake’s, Grammy!”
“If the man wants another martini, give him a damned martini!”
“Give him TWO martinis, for crying out loud!”
A minute later, Granddad accepted his second martini with a weak, but very smug, grin. It was the only time my iron-willed grandmother was ever overruled by the younger generation.
When I went to say my final good-bye, my grandfather reminisced about my vacation in Hawaii, and about Genius Judgmental Doctor Sisters’ time in Hawaii, and how he fell off the sailboat, and she then rammed the sunfish into a yacht. He remembered all my windsurfing, and my terrible golf-cart driving.
I dissolved into a sobbing mess. My grandfather did not.
He patted my hand. “It’s okay, Autumn. I’ve had such a great life. There are so many that didn’t. So many that died in the war. But instead, I got your grandmother, and your father, and your uncle and all you grandkids. And golf.” He winked at me.
I laughed through my tears. And even in that painful moment, I recognized what a great gift my grandfather had given me.
I was sad to lose him, but I only hurt for my loss. Knowing that my grandfather was content freed me from feeling any pain or rage on his behalf. I did not rail at the universe for ripping away another relative too soon, or feel anguish for him.
To this day, I take comfort in the fact that he was grateful for the time he got and completely at peace with his own ending. Today especially, I remember his life, his service, and his gratitude.
There were — and are — millions who never got the chance for a peaceful end to a long life, well-lived.
Today, we remember them as well.