I was awake when he passed away, but of course I didn’t know it at the time. I was stuck in that kind of sleep purgatory where you desperately want to sleep but the relief never comes. I rarely have trouble falling asleep, but I lay there watching the minutes rolls by, 11:50…midnight…12:15… I don’t remember exactly when I fell asleep.
When I woke up the next day, I had a missed call from my Mom at 12:52 in the morning. I knew what that meant as soon as I saw it, My Grandpa, Pop Pop, was gone.
We still don’t know the exact moment when he died, but the nurses found him sometime after midnight, finally at peace. I think that on some level I knew that he was finally resting, and that made it okay for me to sleep as well, it just seemed weird that I was able to drift off only in the minutes after he had passed. When I spoke with my sister the next day, she said she was doing the same thing, lying there in the dark thinking and crying, unable to conjure up the calmness necessary to sleep. Maybe there was some connection in it all. Maybe we knew.
I had gone in earlier that day to say goodbye. The nurses had called the family in to say that the end was imminent, so there were a lot of us packed into his tiny room. By that time, the Parkinson’s had taken such a toll on his body that it was more unsettling than comforting being there. The disease had stolen his control of his legs, his hands, his voice. There was no way for his brilliant mind to shine through his broken down body, and it was plain for all to see that it was down to a matter of hours.
He was diagnosed with Parkinson’s nearly a decade ago, and it was basically a long slow decline over the past few years of his life that was not easy to watch. After more falls that we could count, He was moved out of the apartment that he shared with my grandma and into personal care facility where they were able to take care of his daily needs.
In a lot of ways, I was lucky, I was often able to stop by and see him since my grandparents had moved from their family home in New Jersey to retire close to my family. Once my sister was married, I was left as the only grandchild that still lived nearby. The rest of the family had spread out across the country. Proximity gave me the opportunity to spend time with him.
On the best days, Pop would get into a story-telling mood, and he didn’t need much prodding to get a good story out of him. The stories ran the entire gamut of his entire life. He would talk about his childhood, where he was born into a German speaking family, and only learned English once he started going to school. He talked about his Father, who pied his trade as a brewer for Anheuser-Busch during the good years, and bootlegged beer out of his basement during prohibition. His memories were that of a young boy and he spoke of remembering the sound of the bottles clinking of his back porch when someone came by at night to pick them up. He talked about his love of baseball, and how he was part of the “knot hole gang” St. Louis, a group of boys that were constantly trying to peer into the Cardinal’s games through the fences in the outfield.
He talked about his life as a machinist working in the yeast factory in New Jersey, and he smiled as he remembered an old anecdote about a time where he meticulously drew up plans for a new exhaust vent in his factory, and the plans were submitted to an engineer somewhere in Anheuser-Busch’s corporate offices. The engineer sent back “improved” plans that happened to run the exhaust vent right through an existing staircase. Needless to say, his original plans were the ones that were used during construction.
There was a period of his life that he wasn’t always forthcoming about, and it usually took some pointed questions to get him to discuss his time in the Army during World War II. He always like to say that the Army’s motto was “hurry up and wait” and seemed to like pointing out the inherent absurdities of the Army.
He was drafted late, when he was 28 years old, and his new bride was pregnant with their first child. As he reported for duty at Fort Dix, he found out that there was some leniency provided to men whose wives were about to have children, and they would be permitted to leave to be with their wives when they were ready to have the baby. Pop used this to his advantage, and began to tell his commanding officers that his wife was “expecting”, and they would give him leave on the weekends to travel back home. He continued this for months, exploiting a little loophole to get off base until one day the officer questioned him a little bit further to find out that his wife wasn’t “expecting” for another month or so.
This story hit home for me last year when my son Jack was born. In my experience, I was right beside my wife the entire time, and encouraged to be as much a part of the process as I could. When I took Jack in to meet Pop, I asked him about his experience having kids. He told me that he was given leave from the army to go home when his wife was in labor, and he got to the hospital in his full Army uniform and he sat in the waiting room for hours, sometimes sleeping on the windowsill, waiting for news. Only after his daughter Wilma was born, was he allowed to go back and meet her and see his wife. It made me reflect for a moment on how different our lives were.
Pop had other war stories, but there always seemed to be tangentially related to the actual business of war. I found out at his funeral that he had been awarded a number of different medals for his service, but from the way that he told it to me, you would never had guessed. He was taken into the Army as a mechanic, and spent most of his deployment in the Phillipines.
There, he was tasked with building Jeep engines. The specifics of the process seemed to be lost for time, but the way he told it, he was in charge of a unit that was responsible to rebuild Jeeps after they had been damaged or disassembled. Apparently, there was some sort of system in place that he needed to reach a certain quota of engines per day, he said that his men had their days planned out precisely so that they didn’t have to work very hard, but would still meet the quota. It is maddening now that the details escape me, but he told a story once of how he had arranged with one of his officers for himself and his men to get preferential treatment if they could turn out an extra Jeep engine a day. He was essentially trading a Jeep engine for more rations, and preferred bunks.
There were only two stories that he told that even hinted at the possibility that he did more than turn a wrench. Part of his encampment was turned in a POW holding area towards the end of the war. Supply lines had begun to trickle down as the war wound up and they were certainly hurting for more than a few essential items at the time. The POW area was a fenced off portion of camp that had a constant guard around it. Pop rather sheepishly confessed one day that for a time, ammunition was so scarce that the guards had no bullets. The prisoners were being held captive by men with empty guns.
As part of the same story I pressed him with some questions about what it was like to be a soldier, and if he ever had to be afraid, or if he had any regrets about the experience. I remember the conversation so distinctly. He looked off towards the window in the room and seemed kind of lost in thought. He told me that the POW enclosure was located out near the garbage dump, and after every meal the cooks would haul the garbage off to be put into the pit and past the prisoners.
One day after breakfast, it was his job to get the trash out, and he carried a large tub that was full of the leftover pancakes out past the POWs. He didn’t elaborate on the physical condition of the prisoners, but it is safe to say that they were not exactly well fed, and would have been grateful for any kind of food. As he walked past the men, they put out their hands, begging for the pancakes that he carried. He saw them begging, and walked right past them to dump the food into the garbage. As he sat in his recliner 65 years later, relating the story to me I could see the sadness in his eyes, and he confessed that he wishes that he would have just given them the leftovers, because who really would it have hurt? They were men just like him, and throwing food in the trash didn’t help the war effort.
Talking to Pop became a bittersweet experience towards the end. There were stories like this that were permanently ingrained in his mind, along with his undeniable sense of humor and dry wit. But as the disease stole away his vitality, more often, my visits were spent announcing my arrival and sitting beside him while he mumbled a hello and fell back asleep. Sometimes he would have a baseball game on, but he never knew the score. Other times, he would ask me questions, sometimes the same ones.
Yet, one of the most powerful testaments that he leaves for me is the grace in which he faced the humbling challenges of a deteriorating body. A couple of years ago, soon after a fall left him with bruised ribs I went to see him. He wasn’t able to get out of bed for the pain, but he was sitting up and eating the dinner that was brought to him. Part of the tragedy of Parkinson’s is that it attacks the nerves in your extremities, rending large portions of your sense of touch useless. Fine motor skills became impossible as his fingers and his hands went numb. I sat there and watched him as he picked up a brownie wrapped in the ubiquitous cling wrap and began to struggle with getting the wrapping off. Completing that task is sometimes difficult for anyone, finding the edge of the plastic and fighting with it until you can uncover a portion big enough to grasp and tear off. Imagine doing it without any sensation in your fingers.
I watched him silently for a moment, and then offered to help. “No.” He replied, “I need to do this myself.” He went back to it, eventually struggling long enough to finally free the dessert. The frustration was plain on his face, but it was more than that, it was watching a man make the realization that the simplest tasks that serve to give a man his self sufficiency and his pride were slipping away from him. I can’t imagine what that feels like, what it means to lose the ability to be the person you believe yourself to be. Faced with the same realization, I would probably retreat to anger and bitterness. He never did.
Even with the diminished faculties of his body, he maintained his sense of humor. In the last few months, when he could barely choke out a verbal greeting, The nurses would come into the room and ask him how he was. “I don’t know. You tell me” was his somewhat cheeky response. Where his once strong body failed him, his always sharp mind was with him till the last.
When it came time for me to leave after my visits, I would always give him a hug and say the same thing, “I’ll see you soon, Pop.” To which he usually said “Well, I’ll be here.” Leaving the room the day before he died, I still said the same thing to him. By that point, he was unresponsive and I couldn’t hope for a reply, and the silence spoke volumes.