A year ago, I lost my grandfather.
There is a story of how he died and there is a story of how he lived.
The story of how he died clouds my memories. The few times I’ve dreamed of him since he passed, it is of the older him, pushing a walker.
The short version of his death is this: Steadily progressing Parkinson’s and a badly shifting ratio of bad days to good. Leg pain that demanded surgical treatment he could not withstand. We didn’t know it at the time, but his stomach was bleeding. He began to faint. After the last episode, he refused to go back to a hospital and I stood up for his right to do so to a team of well-meaning EMTs. He passed out again and vomited blood on the couch. I called the EMTs back and caught up with him at the hospital. We talked about treatment. He told me, “I want to die” with the clarity and conviction of a man who means exactly that. His blood pressure dropped, he crashed, he thrashed, he tore at an oxygen mask. Finally, the doctors gave us a choice: surgery and life support, which he did not want, or easing his suffering.
The last thing I helped him with was a small piece of bandage stuck to his finger. In a sedated haze, he was still trying to take it off — to fix it. I removed it and he relaxed. That piece of bandage sits wrapped in a plastic bag on a shelf in my home, a totem of his battle with a thief of a disease.
So there is that and it is brutal and ugly because death is brutal and ugly. And it’s hard not to focus on his last years. I can’t forget these things. They’re a part of our story and I’m glad I was with him when he succumbed and that his children and grandchildren and their spouses were with him as he breathed his last. He gave us the gift of being clear — abundantly and ceaselessly clear — about his wishes.
A year later, I want to do a better job remembering how he lived.
The Dodge Aries I inherited from my great aunt had failed for the hundredth time. A new radiator might do the trick, Ewell suggested. We were still in the driveway working on the car as the sun set. I suddenly understood why my grandfather was always late to dinner. We were so close to having the thing connected; the meatloaf could wait. Nevertheless, I suggested that we might finish it later with headlamps so the dinner his wife cooked wouldn’t go cold.
Alas, the Aries had deeper problems. I was ready for a new car. We handed it over to the Toyota dealership as part of a misleading deal. A few weeks later, I got a letter in the mail from the Hagerstown police saying the Aries had been left abandoned on the side of the road and I was the last registered owner. Somebody must have bought it at auction and squeezed a few more miles out of it. I shrugged it off, but Ewell was filled with regret. “We should have held onto that car,” he said. “We could have fixed it.” He named one of my cousins, who was about to come of driving age, and suggested it could have been passed to him.
Ewell never gave up on a car.
He could argue, complain, and be stubborn with the best of them, but he always stated his case without embellishment or obfuscation. Everything he argued was the product of reasoning, much of it moral. His instructions, too, were moral. His story of drinking too much at a card game, stopping back by his office, uncertain of his ability to drive. Looking at himself in the mirror, washing his face, trying to sober up and saying out loud to himself, “You fool! You fool!”
His casual moments of tenderness with my grandmother, practiced for more than fifty years. Holding hands, dancing in the kitchen, the occasional peck on the lips and pat on the butt.
Many mornings while living there, I’d awake early for work and he’d be up already. Sometimes, he’d be standing in his underwear, whistling and making breakfast. When I came downstairs, sometimes in a shirt and tie, sometimes also in my underwear, he’d ask, “Want some scrapple, son?” I’m sure I always said yes.
His practical advice, grounded in experience. “Work’s not fun,” he told me when I was younger and complaining about nine-to-five life. “It’s just something you do.”
His great joy in fixing things. As an engineer, he knew everything could break. Thus, he was always fixing things, even things that didn’t seem like they needed fixing. He worked patiently and methodically, measuring twice and cutting once. He taught me a greater degree of patience.
He never stopped till the job was done. He taught me persistence.
He helped keep a roof over my head when I was a child. When it was time to sell my mother’s house in New Jersey, he spent weeks fixing things there. He enjoyed the tasks immensely, but eventually we cajoled him into going home. His wife missed him and he’d been away for quite a while. There was plenty to fix back home, too.
The mix of surprise, gratitude and pride on his face when I gave him a check for the money he floated me in college to keep the insurance on the Aries. He marked the promissory note he’d carefully updated over those years “Paid in Full” along with the date. He retrieved the note from his “Aaron” file, one of many files in two tall cabinets in the office. Files for cars, children, grandchildren, the mortgage, the broker, his wife, dogs living and dogs gone, old bills, strange correspondence.
His occasional whimsy:
The new dog we insisted upon, on his wife’s behalf, after the old one died. We call him “Scout,” but on his registration, Ewell named him “Just Because.”
Going to the bank so he could withdraw a significant amount of cash ahead of my mother’s wedding. “Are we going to Atlantic City or something?” I asked him, skeptically eyeing the wad of hundreds. He grinned, impish and boy-like. “I like cash,” he said, drawing out the last “shhh” with high-rolling largesse.
The money was intended, in part, to pay the officiant at the wedding. My mother married a Navy veteran. After the ceremony Ewell greeted him with a hearty, “Welcome aboard!”
“God bless Obama!” his punctuation to a Thanksgiving blessing, shouted among a family with diverse, divergent and diametrically opposed political views.
His corny humor:
“How are you?”
“What’s that mean?”
“That’s the fare-to-Midland.”
“‘Balls!’ cried the king, because he had to.”
The way he played poker. Conservatively and with an eye toward snapping off his opponents’ errant bluffs.
Ewell driving his truck to my new apartment and helping me fix the place up. He installed new locks there, the same ones from our old house in New Jersey, which, of course, he had saved, because there’s no reason to throw out a good lock.
I remember how the hugs became more frequent, how he stopped trying to stick his hand out for a shake when I went in for one. How he reacted less and less awkwardly to me telling him I loved him over the years until he finally just accepted it.
His simple grace: “Blessed be this food we are about to receive in your holy name. Amen.”
I remember a strong, proud, direct man. A tough man who screwed up and made mistakes, for sure. A product of his generation and upbringing like the rest of us, for better and worse. But a man who gave constantly to his children and grandchildren: his sweat, his patience, his time, his morals and his considerable expertise. A man who loved us and whom we loved back, through joy and difficulty and time and pain. Pain that stings and fades and must fade for the sake of the rest of him, and the rest of his life, which we loved so dearly.