On Saturday morning, 51 years after John F. Kennedy was assassinated and the day before my 34th birthday, my other grandfather died at the pump of a Speedy Q Market. He’d driven to town, stopped to fill up the tank with gas, and gotten back in the car again. After a while, someone noticed he was slumped in his seat, unmoving. They tried to perform CPR but it was too late. The paramedics said it had been a heart attack.
Outside of going out in the drive-thru line of McDonald’s, which probably would have been the most fittingly poetic tribute, the gas station was pretty much the best-case death scenario. He wasn’t driving at the time; he wasn’t alone. That seems like a carefully orchestrated twist from the universe when I consider how alone he was most of the time. At 91 he lived by himself on the same farm where he was born — he refused to stay anywhere else. If he’d keeled over at home it could have been days before anyone found out.
I feel bad because the funeral services start today and I’m not there; I’m just at the cutoff for air travel and on top of that I can’t afford to miss more work. I feel bad because I didn’t make an effort to visit him when I was in Michigan in September for my maternal grandfather’s funeral. It would have been a 20 minute drive out of my way which seemed inconvenient at the time and in hindsight seems like a cold and careless decision. 20 fucking minutes, I could have seen him one last time!
I heard him for the last time in October, quite accidentally, when I received a pocket-dial voicemail from my dad’s phone as he was taking my grandpa to the doctor for a routine check-up. The news was on in the waiting room and my grandpa began asking my dad about Ebola. “They only used to have one case in the US but now they have thousands,” he says in the message, pronouncing it tausends because English was not his first language. “I don’t know about thousands, dad,” my father replies with a thin edge of restraint, and I can practically hear his eyes rolling up in his head.1 Out of context my grandpa sounds like a confused oldster but I treasure this exchange because it’s so in-character for each of them; my dad perpetually playing the straight man to his dad’s bizarre hyperbole.
My grandpa was: cranky, eccentric, rebellious, reckless, coarse. He told half-truths and even though he often repeated his stories you might hear different versions every time. He gambled away his entire paycheck on more than one occasion. He was somehow hardworking while being fickle; usually holding down several jobs at once without dedicating himself to any of them. When he was 16 or 17 he fibbed his way into driving a truck for General Motors, and then moved on as an usher at the Fox Theatre in Detroit. He built houses without blueprints and he fixed cars without having the right parts. In the ’60s he ran a fishing tour business on the side for which he built his own boat; he casually mentioned that that gig came to an end when he “got tired” of the boat so he “set it on fire.” He somehow started working for the railroad and took great pride and pleasure in sleeping on the job whenever possible. He retired from the railroad with a pension when I was still young and so my childhood summer visits were evenly split between climbing up on the shed roof to help him hammer down shingle nails and taking long rides in his filthy truck to every flea market auction and McDonald’s in the region. He always brought home a plain hamburger or an apple pie for the dog.
One of his favorite stories to retell was of an old woman with whom he struck up a friendship when he was a kid. She lived alone in a cabin in the woods with no electricity and no running water. Grandpa was a notoriously unreliable narrator but he always mentioned the cabin burned down at least twice so I’m inclined to believe it happened once. She refused to have her picture taken but my grandpa was never one to back down from a challenge. In his 20s, when she was almost certainly near the end of her life, he devised a plan to have a friend surreptitiously take her picture while he distracted her with small talk. In the resulting black and white snapshot the woman is a tiny, wizened smudge of white against the deep grays of her porch, adrift in a large sack of a faded flower-print dress. She is leaning forward, gesturing delightedly at the horizon as if in the midst of spinning her own half-truth. She is almost certainly toothless. Across from her my grandpa is grinning broadly, goggles pushed up on his forehead and one leg hiked up on the porch step to show off his leather motorcycle boots. A large knife dangles from his belt.
This is my own editorial spin but I like to think he saw a lot of himself in her.
My grandpa was a baffling man and he lasted this long on his own sheer obstinance and I’m deeply sad my kid will never get to meet him. I’m sad because he was the last link to an old, strange world I barely got to experience myself: a Gary Larson-esque world of thick horn rimmed glasses and of rotary phones and of outhouses and where children start driving tractors at age 8. I want my kid to know this but I don’t know how, now, when we all live in cities and lead clean, modern, meticulously background-checked, technology-driven lives.
I have no answers, but I have requests. One, I want people to stop dying, if only for a little while. Two, I hope this kid comes out with a bit of an old soul. That’s the best I can hope for.
1 For those familiar with Coach’s Corner, my dad was the Ron MacLean to my grandpa’s Don Cherry, except my grandfather was much less sentimental and did not wear ostentatious suits constructed of shiny upholstery fabrics.