We knew it was coming, but the death hit me harder than I expected. When my dad's folks passed away in 2004, they'd had dementia and Alzheimer's for years. In those final years, the Vancil grandparents didn't recognize me ; I would introduce myself every five minutes or so, and would tell Papa D.O. his favorite World War II joke (which he'd taught me), and hear him laugh and laugh because he'd never heard it before. And then he'd politely introduce himself. I'd been able to mourn them before they were gone, you see, and when they physically died there was as much relief as there was grief. And still, to this day, though I haven't been there in a decade, their little house in Longview is the place I go more frequently in my dreams than any other. I can remember every detail with stark, painful clarity. I believe it is because it's the first permanent place I ever lost. But that's a discussion for another time.
Grandpa Dick had also struggled for years with ailing health, but his mind stayed keen. The man was built like an iron goat, virtually indestructible with a fiercely stubborn constitution and will not just to live, but to stay able bodied. Everything he'd survived had tempered him to be so -- he survived the Great Depression, the death of both parents by age fourteen, two wars, three bypass surgeries and the replacement of both hips. And the only thing he would complain about -- this was in his late 80s, by the way -- was how he couldn't maintain the five-acre farm where he'd lived with Grandma for fifty years by himself anymore. He'd grouse about this to me -- me, in my 20s at the time, drenched in sweat and dirt and manure after only less than an hour outside, secretly wishing it would rain so I could go in without losing face -- about how he just couldn't do it all anymore. These last few years, he didn't spend much time outside. He couldn't. This last year, he could barely leave his chair.
I would call every week or two to check in, see how he was feeling. After exchanging pleasantries and laughs with my grandmother -- I've never met a woman quicker to laugh, though the one I married comes close -- she'd pass me off to Grandpa for about a ninety second conversation.
"Hi, Grandpa, it's Matt."
"Oh, hello there."
"How are you, sir?"
"Oh, you know. Some days are good, some are bad." He'd give me the details of what was ailing him at the time, whether it was the pneumonia or his lungs or his heart or the cancer. "What have you been up to?"
"Well ..." and I'd give him a brief rundown of my projects, and how Camille was doing. He always appreciated brevity.
"Well, thanks for calling," he'd say, whether I was through telling him what I was up to or not. "You take care. Bye bye, now." And he'd hang up. That was a long conversation , especially over the phone.
The way to get to know him was to work alongside him. I didn't really crack into that until I was in college, when I would spend some of each summer working on the farm under Grandpa's supervision. Under his mandatory supervision -- I am a terrible farmer. I can't till a straight line in the garden or uproot a rotten fence post without the foot breaking off or split wood without cracking an ax handle and sending every other piece of firewood pinwheeling off the cutting block. Dick would work alongside me, and when he'd tire (again, the man was in his 80s and still doing field word) would have me take over. He'd watch me work, adjust me when I erred, and emit a single chuckle with a wry smile when I'd embarrass myself -- like by cracking an ax handle or tilling a row that resembled the flight pattern of a moth.
After a few hours, Grandma would bring us out some sandwiches and a jug of lemonade. And he'd start to talk. He'd tell me about growing up in Tacoma in the Depression, and how he would run seven miles to school every day, swim after school, and run back home (hence his legendary stamina). He would tell me about how he worked full time at night while he was studying Orthodontia, expressly forbidden by the university. He'd tell me about being stationed in the Aleutians during the War in the Pacific, and how it would get so cold that a man could grab the coal-burning stove in the tent with his bare hands and not be burned. He'd tell me about becoming the first orthodontist in the city of Olympia, and practicing full time while raising four children on a farm with a dozen head of cattle. He'd tell me about the first time he saw my grandmother, coming down the steps of the library in that city in Texas (I forget which), and he turned to his brother and said "That's the girl I'm gonna marry." Which he did, 63 years ago.
You didn't just get these stories from him. You had to earn them. You had to spend time with him at work, in the trenches, in silent effort, and after that he would gift you with a pearl of family history you'd likely never heard before.
At the memorial service, I heard many stories I'd never heard before. My Uncle Jim spent a day scanning family photos, and put the slideshow on the TV on a loop. Family and friends dropped snippets of stories every time a new picture popped up. Many I recognized; more I did not. I saw sides of my grandfather I'd never seen (due mainly to my non-existence at the time they were taken), but that all informed the old man I had known.
The favorite picture -- indeed, the one that showed up on the program for his memorial -- is dated 1972. My Grandfather is standing on a dock somewhere on Vancouver Island. A solid curtain of trees conceals the horizon across obsidian water. He is holding up one end of a pipe supporting a 52-pound salmon he caught. The pipe in his teeth, held there despite the impish grin, is upside down. It fits him perfectly: his poise, his confidence, his sense of humor, his exuberance for the outdoors. His quiet nature, his eyes that saw everything, and were amused and moved by it all. It's pretty much the same expression in this picture, taken in July of 2008.
I miss you, Grandpa. Take care. Bye bye, now.