So my daughter AND my son called me within 24 hours of each other a couple of days ago to tell me that their grandfather was having (major) health problems. He had collapsed while visiting his son in Buffalo and was now in the hospital. After surgery to remove a blood clot from (or near) his spine, he contracted pneumonia–an unfortunately all too common event with the elderly when they are put on bed rest. The initial reports were that he could not use his legs, but once he had pneumonia…well, it rapidly went to “he’s on life support and all the family is gathering in Buffalo”.
All the family. Let me explain. Fred has 8 children: 6 boys and 2 girls, with a little help from his wife Pat. And from that, there are 16 grandchildren. And 2 great-grandchildren. There are spouses as well. (That’s how you get grandchildren, of course). And then there is me. I’m an EX-spouse (one of 4), who used to be married to one of Fred’s sons (true of the other 3 “Exes”, since his daughters married and stayed married, although one is now a widow). I was married to Fred’s son for 17 years, 9 of which were spent in Rochester NY living near Fred and Pat. So even though the only connection I have to this man is that he is my children’s grandfather, we have, as they say, a history.
And I am sad at his current state of (un)health and the inevitability of his death within the very near future. The logical side of me points out that he is nearly 90 years old. That being bound to a wheelchair would have presented great difficulties for both him and for Pat, such that he would probably have had to live in a nursing home and not in his own home, the house that he had been born in. (That’s a level of continuity I cannot fathom, having moved more than 50 times in my 50 years.) That the slow but inevitable dementia that had begun to manifest won’t get any worse. (The explanation for that is based on the fact that Fred’s mother lived to be 92. Unfortunately, her mind began to wander at about age 75-80 and then eventually left totally for its own vacation in the tropics, leaving behind a body that was physically strong and kept living long after the intellect and any sense of self was gone. Pat and Fred cared for her for almost 10 years before having to finally place her in a nursing home because she needed more care than any untrained and solitary caregiver can manage. I did not want Pat to have to repeat that with her husband.) I worked for 5 years as a nurse’s aide and I know that there are worse things than death.
However…even as I can say that with great certainty, knowing in our heads that there ARE thing worse than death does not make it any easier to let go of someone who is going beyond our mortal plane. (Or not, depending on your beliefs. Whether there is an afterlife or not is not the discussion here. Suffice it to say that once someone dies, WE don’t see them any more, no matter where they *might* be.) And it’s the stuff that I am having to let go of as Fred moves on that I really wanted to share with you. Let me point out that the things I’m about to tell you are just facts (at least from my point of view, factual as I can know that they are) and there is no lingering negativity about them. I make no judgements, pass no sentence. I am just going to ramble on about this man, the father of the father of my children, Fred.
I met Fred’s son in the US Air Force and we were stationed in CA together–so I first met Fred in 1981 when we were in MD, visitng MY family prior to the wedding date. It was a very brief meeting, without the chance for much conversation to learn about each other. The next meeting was in May of 1982, but that was when his son and I were getting married. I had other things on my mind than forming a relationship with my new groom’s dad. We lived in other places from ’82 until ’92, when we settled in Rochester and that’s when I began to spend more time with the in-laws, all “more than a hundred” of them, if you only counted first cousins and didn’t include kissing cousins or old family friends with honorific relationship titles.
Right from the start, I knew that Fred was a great one to hang out with, to party with. He was charming and pleasant…and made great homemade wine. His tastes and mine didn’t line up, so I lucked out some years and got a decent supply of wine that he didn’t want. He was always very active: hunting and fishing, spending most of his free time and then in later years, most of his time (period) at the family cottage on Seneca Lake. He chopped wood for the wood stove, both at the cottage and at the house in Rochester. He rode his bike everywhere in East Rochester (where they actually lived; it’s a suburb of Rochester but more like the village it’s called in atmosphere and feeling). He took walks–and when at the cottage, had 54 stairs to contend with to get from car to cottage door. So he was healthy and active right up until very recently.
Fred worked at Burroughs as a lithographer. (See: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lithography if you want to know more about that) He was also a Veteran of the Foreign Wars and served at least in China, where he contracted the germ for TB but not the disease–and spent the next oh 60 years of his life explaining the “false” positive on his TB titre. He earned the moniker “Grandpa Cookie” from his habit of giving all kinds of sweets, but particularly cookies, to his grandchildren. He discovered the joy of children with those grandchildren–I make no judgement about why he didn’t seem to have it with his own children, but perhaps he was too caught up in the raising and being truly and totally responsible for them. This is something I can certainly understand now, as I have been blessed with my own grandchildren. Whatever the reason, he revelled in and fully participated in the wonder of childhood with his kids’ offspring.
He may not have had the greatest levels of patience with the little ones, but he was always willing to be with them. He would baby sit if asked and he certainly didn’t mind them following him around at the cottage. He taught them to respect fire by including them in the process of trash removal at the cottage which did not require hauling it up those 54 stairs–burning it served the purpose while at the same time giving them something to toast marshmallows over. As they got older, he shared more of his knowledge by taking them fishing, baiting the hook for them until they were able to do it themselves. And when they were old enough, he also taught them how to shoot a gun–and all of the safety lessons necessary to be around firearms. I have always told people that when you have 8 children and 6 of them boys, you hunt to put meat on the table. That is one thing Fred passed on to his boys, all of whom know how to hunt and most of whom have hunted with him on the hills at the cottage.
I can’t make any assessment on how good a husband Fred was–that’s for Pat to say. But I do know that he loved her, cared for and about her when I was around them. But I do want to share a story that shows their distinct personalities and maybe describes their interaction as husband and wife accurately. Now when I tell you that Fred liked to fish, I mean all year round. There is an unholy sport referred to as “ice fishing” which is just a socially acceptable way of saying, “sitting around with a bunch of (other) men, swearing and drinking all day”… We’re not talking high tech ice fishing, which involves heated huts carried out onto the ice, but the primitive, back to earth reality of augering out a hole in the ice over a lake (did I mention that it gets freaking COLD in Rochester? Lakes freeze over. Sufficiently that one can, if one is so inclined, to snowmobile across them. I did that. Once. And the noises, like the Earth groaning, I was told was MORE ice forming. Still sounded like the lake was going to open up and swallow us into the frigid depths…) but I digress…oh, yeah. Make a hole in the ice and drop a baited line into it. Some poor bastard fish, barely awake from the semicomatose condition of trying to avoid winter, will see that bait in the same way you look into the fridge late at night and find the last pork chop. He’ll take a bite and before he knows it, WHAMMO, he’s out on the ice. Where he does his little “ohmigodsiamdyingofthecold” dance and…dies. Ice fishing. A good excuse to carry a flask of schnapps and wear your itchy wool Union suit.
So back to the original story, now that you know Fred liked to ice fish. One Christmas, we’re all over at Pat and Fred’s. Full house as usual, with 6 or 7 of the kids actually in attendance (the oldest lives in AK and can’t get to the Lower 48 all that often) as well as their spouses, children and those honorific titled family members like Aunt Em or Eric’s friend John, “their 9th child”. FULL house. We’re opening presents (“Thank you, it’s just what I wanted”) and Fred handed Pat her present from him. He had a strange (one might even say wicked) glint in his eyes as he watched her unwrap it. And she pulled out…wait for it…an ice auger. Yes, a giant corkscrew for putting a hole into ice you shouldn’t even be walking on. The room went silent as we all looked and then realized just what it was that Fred had done…ummmm had given Pat. The look she gave him…would have melted titanium. He grinned, that charming and disarming grin most of the boys have inherited…and said, “So I can borrow this, right?” (Yes, I know he’s on thin ice, but remember, he likes to ice fish. One assumes that he is both familiar and comfortable with thin ice.) And Pat, without missing a beat, with a perfectly straight and pleasant face, looked at her beloved husband in the eyes and said, “NO.” Epic. We talked about it for years. (And just to let you know, as far as I am aware, she NEVER let him use that ice auger. Ever.)
There are lots more of “Fred” stories, but I think you get the idea. He has lived a long and full life. He has lived long enough to see not only the next immediate generation that fulfills his immortality, but the following one as well. He leaves a legacy of children and grandchildren who learned a great deal from him, and a community of family, friend and neighbors who were blessed to have known him. He has had a worthy life and so letting go of it, to reach out to the next mystery, is not a dreadful thing. Not for him. Those of us left behind will find him within our own memories, mirrored in the faces of his own children and as a genetically inherited expression, a certain tilt of the head or slanting glance in his grandchildren. Each time a story of him is told, he will live again in the words and the shared feelings the story evokes.
I happened to find this poem just today, which I think expresses it better and the words about the stars, the birds and the wind certainly apply to Fred, who loved the outdoors and spent much of his time there. It’s a comfort for anyone who has lost someone to death (and unless you’re very young, who hasn’t?) so I share it with you:
“Do not stand at my grave and weep,
I am not there… I do not sleep.
I am the thousand winds that blow…
I am the diamond glints on snow…
I am the sunlight on ripened grain…
I am the gentle autumn rain.
When you waken in the morning’s hush,
I am the swift uplifting rush
Of gentle birds in circling flight…
I am the soft star that shines at night.
Do not stand at my grave and cry—
I am not there… I did not die…”
As long as there is one person who remembers us after we die, we are not truly dead. And the memories of Fred, our Grandpa Cookie…will go on for a very long, long time.