September 20, 2006

The Pain In My Grandfather's Eyes

It feels like forever since my grandfather passed away. I think that in part this is because he started to slip away long before his soul left his body.

Some people claim that his mind had started to go and at just short of 92 it is not totally unreasonable. I disagree with this. His mental faculties were intact, but his emotional capacity to deal with a body that no longer functioned as he wanted to was worn down.

Though we try to outrun the coming darkness there is a time in which we cannot maintain the pace and slowly the sun begins to set. In some respects it was like watching a row of dominos collapse. First his legs began to give him trouble and after a while he needed a cane to help him get around.

That worked for a while and then his pelvis gave out, there was a fracture and a stay at a rehab facility. There were various hospital stays for odds and ends. Things that never would have slowed him down suddenly turned into issues and led to other issues.

This is how it went. He would face some sort of medical challenge and slowly but surely he would overcome it. And each time he would come back home I would see that the fire in his eyes still burned, but the truth was that sometimes it was dimmer than before.

My grandfather was fiercely independent and I know without question that if his body had held up better his will to live would have kept him around longer. It is selfish of me to say that, but it is true.

As his body went, he retreated into memories of happier times. He became less responsive. It began to be more of a challenge to get him to talk. I worked on it. I tried to get him to tell me those stories that I loved so much. It didn't matter that I had heard them a thousand times, I never got tired of them.

I can tell many of them, virtually word for word, but they lack the authenticity that he gave them. There are many to choose from but some stand out from the others. One in particular struck me.

It was the summer of 2004. The summer in which my father nearly died. For that reason alone it is a summer that I will never forget, but in regards to this particular story here is the relevance.

My grandfather was telling me stories about the Chicago of his youth. Interspersed were tales of his time with the carnival and of winters in New Orleans. At one point he changed gears and told me of a disagreement that he had had with his father.

The details of the disagreement aren't important to this story. What really struck me was the hitch in his voice and the pain in his eyes as he told me this story. He remembered feeling ashamed that he had disappointed his father more than seventy years earlier.

So much time had passed, but sometimes the pain we experience doesn't always go away. For a brief moment I could see the young man that my grandfather had been. For a moment I was able to relate to him in a way that I had never had before. For a moment the pain in my grandfather's eyes took me back in time and then it was gone.

And now, so is he.

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