Friday, April 07, 2006


My grandfather died this afternoon, April 6, 2006.

His name was Allan, and he was the very definition of the Salt of the Earth.

My earliest memory of Granddad Allan is of my brother and I playing in his front yard, in front of a red brick tract house in a suburb of Detroit. He had worked for years for Ford Motors, and he and much of his extended family had settled down in the suburb of Taylor. Zach and I, as toddlers, would play in the fallen oak and maple leaves in the yard while Granddad raked them up, and he would eventually pile us up into the black plastic bags along with the leaves. There are countless yellowed Polaroids of us, grinning while sitting in the trash bags as Granddad smiled next to us.

Inside, my grandparents' little house smelled like the ginger snaps and bread my Grammie has been making for decades, and the basement smelled like the gas-powered clothes dryer.

While I was a child living in Washington state, Grammie would send my brothers and I the sugar cereals my parents said were bad for us.

When we visited, we would go out back into the yard surrounded by chain-link fence and watch as Granddad would tend to the beets and other vegetables he meticulously kept in the garden next to the garage. We would throw Nerf footballs, then venture inside the garage and look at the old iron tools on the table inside. My favorite one was the vise; flakes of red lead paint still clung to it after years of use by a man who'd spent decades building cars.

Once, while I was sitting, bored, in his living room, Allan answered the phone that hung on the wall of the small kitchen that sat in back of their home. He murmured assent to everything the caller said, and finally, after a lengthy exchange, Granddad said "Póg mo thóin," and hung up the phone.

My uncle, sitting on the front room sofa, burst out laughing.

"What did he just say?" I asked.

"He just said 'Kiss my ass' in Gaelic," my uncle said.

Later in life, my grandfather developed vicious Alzheimer's Disease. He spent several of his last years living with my parents in central New York state, others he spent near his original home of Nova Scotia, Canada.

I remember bringing my girlfriend to our house for my high school graduation party while Granddad was home. He gave the two of us no end of hell -- at least as far as two awkward 18-year-olds were concerned. Granddad was a saint, but he never hesitated to say exactly what was on his mind.

My brother Jake loved Allan -- in fact, Jake's middle name is Allan, after our grandfather -- and he spent every extra minute he had with him, even after he left for university.

Alzheimer's hit Granddad Allan hard, and often he'd become confused -- not knowing where he was, what he was doing, or who he was talking to. He'd say inappropriate things sometimes: for a while, his answer to any personal dispute was "Kick 'em in the ass." Through it all, up to the time he died, Grammie never left his side.

But he never seemed to forget us, especially Jake.

Granddad was a blue-collar man, a hard worker. I saw him cry once in my life. He and Grammie were visiting us in New York state, and when they were about to go, we gave him a corny Fathers Day gift -- a coffee mug that said, "Grampa's the name, Spoilin's the game." We were outside on the back verandah when he opened it, and when he did, he stared at if for a long time.

He stared at it for a long while, and he sniffed a few times. He tried to get a few words out, but settled for, "I love you all, I wish I could stay."

Eventually he did get to stay, and he died very near where he said that. He was always a quiet man, and while Grammie sat nearby, he fell asleep. And that was the end.

I spoke with Jake tonight, after both of us had gotten the call and had some time to try to understand he was gone.

"I can't make it real to me," I said.

"That's exactly how I feel," said Jake. "I really can't believe he's gone. I don't know what to do."

Neither of us did.

"This is the first time," I said, "that death has touched us so close. I don't know how to deal with it."

We swapped memories for more than an hour, and had to end the conversation in the interest of getting to work or school the next day. But we both agreed that we'd spent too much time away from our family, taking the love we had for those who shared that blood bond with us for granted.

We both said we'd make it to the funeral, universities or militaries be damned.

"I'll see you soon, then," I said as we were signing off.

"Yeah, next week," Jake said. He paused, then: "I love you, brother."

"I love you too," I said, and felt my eyes well up.

I've missed too much, but not any more.