Thursday, April 23, 2009

The Man I Want to Be

My grandparents on my mom's side are getting up in years. I heard awhile back that my grandmother was not doing well. I don't have a relationship with my parents and one of my brothers, so I'm kind of out of the loop where family is concerned. Curiosity got the best of me and I finally e-mailed the one brother I maintain a relationship with.

His wife e-mailed me back promptly, as he was away on a business trip. My grandmother is doing okay. My grandfather, however, recently developed Alzheimer's. It's hit him hard and fast. He was just recently diagnosed and is already struggling to recognize his own family. I read this and my heart broke.

My grandfather has always been my hero. If there was one person I ever aspired to be like, it was him. The last two nights (since getting the news) I've stayed awake thinking about this fabulous man and why he means so much to me. I've also been thinking of what I need to change in my own life to honor what I've always respected in his life.

My grandfather had 6 children. He worked as an electrician for years until an accident on the job nearly killed him. He was working with 2 apprentices and heard a noise from a breaker box they were working on. He flew across the room and dove onto the two men just the box exploded. The two men (who otherwise would have died) were saved, but he suffered 3rd and 4th degree burns over most of his body.

He spent a year in the hospital getting skin grafts and recovering. Although a truly horrid event, he would make jokes about it (even to us kids). These are the two I remember clearly:

"I just kissed you with my butt," he'd say, referring to the fact that the skin grafted to his lips came from his butt.

"That just might have been the most painful way to remove a tattoo, and look, it didn't even get rid of all of it!" he'd joke, pointing to the green and fading remainder of a tattoo he got while in the military.

My grandfather was also a clown. Literally. He had a registered name and face (a big deal in the clowning world). He would travel, mostly with his Elks Lodge, putting on shows. Mostly they performed at Native American reservations, in poor communities or at the children's hospitals. I don't remember a single Christmas morning with him, as he would put on his clown suit and head off to cheer up the children that were too sick to be at home on Christmas morning.

The burn damaged his skin making it very difficult for him to wear the make-up or costumes. But he would still visit the children's hospital on Christmas morning.

My oldest uncle came out as gay in his twenties, during a time when it was NOT acceptable to be so. My grandpa and grandma still loved and accepted him, just as they always had. He was never unwelcome in their own.

I will always remember these, and so many other, amazing things that made my grandfather the wonderful man he was. And while he has not passed, I believe he is in the process. He won't be able to finish the crossword puzzle in his Lazy Boy every morning, or beat the pants off everyone on Wheel of Fortune. He won't remember the stories surrounding his courtship of my grandma. He won't get to know his great-grandchildren. He'll never remember the jokes he told at his 50th wedding anniversary. He'll never recall telling me that I was his favorite grandkid ever as he slipped 5 bucks into my pocket (as I'm sure he did to all the other grandkids). And I'll never stand in awe at the quarter he found in my ear.

If I ever manage to be half the man he was, I will have done extraordinarily well in this life.

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