I remembered that today is my late Grandfather's birthday. He was born August 14, 1916, and died ten years ago. Growing up, I only saw him every two years or so, and because I was born abroad, he didn't see me until I was already three years old.
In 1987, I went to grad school at the University of Michigan, a few hours' drive from his home in Stevensville, Michigan. I stayed in Michigan for five years, so I saw him and his wife Jean (my grandmother died in 1976, and he remarried) every few months.
My grandfather fought in World War II. He was in the 10th army, and spent four years in the Pacific without seeing his wife or his baby boy (my dad). He fought in the battle for Okinawa, where my father was later posted in the Navy, and where my sister and I were born.
I don't think he had a happy life. He worked as an accountant for the Lutheran Church, and had a domineering father who overshadowed him until he was almost 70. He became an alcoholic. Happily, his life became better when his second wife threatened to leave him. He joined AA and cleaned himself up. She slowly went blind, and he found new meaning in life by looking after her. He stayed dry for the rest of his life, though he and his wife chain-smoked to the end.
One day in 1999, I called him from Tbilisi. I could tell that something was wrong. He did not sound happy to be talking to me, and it took over ten minutes for his wife to get to the phone. She sounded terrible. It was the last time we spoke.
The next day I went to Armenia. I was chatting with my dad by Yahoo instant messenger and told him that they sounded awful. He called his brother, who lived in Michigan, and we quickly learned that it was the end game: she was dying of lung cancer. I booked a flight to the States. I told them I was coming.
By the time I arrived, she had already died. I remember getting to their house: it was full of family, but my grandfather was sitting in a chair in a delirious state. He was only dimly aware that I was there. This was the last time I saw him conscious. We carried him to bed. He struggled; he was afraid to go to bed because he thought he might never wake up.
He was right. We didn't know it, but he had serious emphysema. His body did not get enough oxygen, and he slipped into a coma. We could not wake him up in the morning for his wife's funeral. He went to the hospital, but never woke up. He died a couple days later. He and his wife had a joint funeral.
I have a lot of good memories of my grandfather, who I called Gramps.
And also of my Gramma Jean, who was a super cool lady. Her first husband was a jazz musician who died of cancer at a young age. She was always a fun girl, and enjoyed smoking and drinking throughout her life. She preferred gin to Jesus. A good choice, in my opinion.
How many times I sat in their their little house, smoking and drinking and talking, listening to their stories. Watching sitcoms, with Gramma Jean looking through binoculars to get some visual input to the show.
I was his first grandson. Because of the war, he never had a close relationship with my dad. He skipped a generation and bonded with me. I remember how upset he was when I left Michigan for Russia, in 1992, for Peace Corps. But he didn't lay big guilt trips on me, and we remained close.
I never forget his birthday. I miss him. I'm glad that he didn't die alone; because his wife Jean was already dying, the entire family was already there, and was with him when it was time for him to go. I hope that when my time comes, I'll be as lucky as he.