On Thursday night, Noel and I were watching a special episode of Gold Rush where the young miner Parker Schnabel was dealing with the decline of his grandfather John Schnabel. The final shots showed John celebrating his 96th birthday in a hospital in California after an operation to attempt to restore blood flow to his leg. John died a month later, peacefully, in his sleep.
The finer details aren’t totally important, but the relationship between John and his grandson Parker, on film at least, reminded me very much of my relationship with my Grandpa, who was born in the same year as John and suffered from prostate cancer the same as John, but only lived to 83 and a half, compared to John’s 96 years.
You could see that John felt the sun rose and set in Parker, and Parker didn’t seem too terribly reserved in showing his love for his grandfather. My Grandpa had always encouraged us to show our emotions, that it was okay to hug, to cry, to laugh, to tell people what they meant to you. And I think this helped make me a more caring, empathetic person.
Grandpa had scoliosis, and as the years progressed, the curve in his spine became more pronounced, even ending up with a major surgery to insert a metal (stainless surgical steel) in his back when I was in fourth grade to help halt the decline in his spine deteriorating further. From the stories I overheard as a kid, the bones in his spine were turning to mush, so they needed to act. The day of his surgery remains etched in my mind as I was anxious all day and distinctly remember our teacher, Mrs. Hemetter, making a prayer that morning in class for Grandpa. He pulled through and lived many more years after that, although he couldn’t handle winter as well as he used to as the metal in his back used to make him ache, so he and Grandma would head down to Florida some winters to escape the cold.
The scoliosis was something I honestly barely ever registered. Grandpa was Grandpa, and I loved him very much. I saw beyond the curve in his spine, and I never thought to say to friends about it before they met him. He didn’t really let it define him, from what I can remember, and I think, more than anything, it made him more confident as a person.
He told each grandchild a different story about his life, so Brian had one story, Jeremy had another, and I had a third. I know when I was a teenager, when he started to repeat the stories, it would annoy me. Now I’m older, I can’t remember my story, and it makes me sad and angry at myself for not paying better attention. One story that did always get me was, when Grandpa was younger, he grew up with twin brothers. I don’t know where exactly this fit into the timeline of his life, but he was hanging out with one brother when that brother said they had to go because his twin was being beat up somewhere. Using that instinct that some twins seem to have, the brother tracked down the other, and, with Grandpa and a few of their friends, managed to save the twin under attack. I always thought that was rather cool and wondered if the twins had some sort of telepathy or something.
Another story he told was one I heard when he was older. I don’t know why he went to the hospital, but he was there as an adult, and the hospital was extremely busy. As he told it to me, a nurse came in to see him and said that he could wait for a white doctor, which might be a while, and Grandpa understood what the nurse was saying and asked if there were any other doctors on duty. The nurse replied that there was a “colored” doctor on duty, and Grandpa was completely fine with that. I can’t quite remember if it was the nurse or the doctor himself who talked more to Grandpa about this, but his response was, “You have your qualifications, don’t you? I don’t care if you are polka-dotted, I need a doctor.” And the doctor treated him. And that was the type of man Grandpa was.
I think that’s part of the reason I seem to be open-minded as a person. He taught me that we all come in different shapes, sizes, races, ethnicities, religions, genders, sexual orientations, and colors, but we all deserve respect and we all are human beings. When I came out to him and my Grandma, it wasn’t a problem; they told me they loved me unconditionally, gay, straight, or otherwise. I knew this deep down before I even came out to them, but they reaffirmed it.
Sometimes, I hear Grandpa’s laugh in my mind. He used to get so caught up in relaying a funny story that he’d start laughing a bit uncontrollably in the middle of it, trying to catch his breath as tears rolled down his cheeks, his voice getting higher and higher, with a laugh or three staccatoing through when he could talk. The stories and jokes were often quite funny, although there were a few groaners in there, but the look on his face and his uncontrollable laughing made it all the funnier.
I dropped everything and flew halfway around the world to be with him and my family when he was dying. I would’ve stayed a decade if I had to. Walking in the room, my hair slick with not having been washed in over a day and feeling remarkably dirty, I found him lying in the hospital bed with a ventilator tube sticking out of his mouth. The sunset that had emblazoned the western horizon as my brothers drove me from the airport to the hospital had faded to that edge between the last of sunset and the onset of a harsh winter’s evening outside the window beside his bed. His eyes welled with tears and he tried to start crying, the ventilator screaming an alarm because his breathing wasn’t at the pace it wanted, and I rushed to his side. He couldn’t stop crying, and I grabbed his hand and told him it was okay, that I was there now and I’d stay as long as he needed me to.
The day after, when he and I were alone, ventilator still pushing air into his lungs, he tried to say something to me. I rested my hand on his chest and told him that he needed to rest; what else was there to say that I didn’t already know? It was to calm him down a little, but deep down, I wanted to know what he had to say. He shrugged, resigned and tired, and that was that.
He had protected me so much when I was growing up, loved me at my best and my worst, and then, he had needed me so much. I was a fresh mind. I describe it as being a “guest star in my own life”. My poor family were so tired from the whirlwind — Grandpa had entered the hospital with a nosebleed and never left — so I came in to help. He wanted to die with dignity. I remember asking him if he wanted the ventilator tube taken out, and he emphatically shook his head yes. The words came calmly from my mouth that, without the ventilator, he probably wouldn’t survive (I couldn’t believe how calmly I said these words to someone I loved very deeply and very dearly), and he understood that.
We were all with him when he died. He told us one last time that he loved us. It was a very difficult thing to go through. He was, and always will be, one of my best friends in my life, and I learned so much from him.
So I understood, when Parker was saying what he most likely knew was his final good-bye to his grandfather John. The tears that fell when John told Parker he was very ill were like the tears that fell when I found out Grandpa was not well. There was a bond between the two that can never be replicated. My relationship with Grandpa was different from my brothers’ relationships with him. There’s nothing wrong with that. There’s everything special with that.
I could go on and on about Grandpa, because he was an amazing man who will always hold a special place in my heart. Every special opportunity I get to have a martini in his honor — and man, did he make a powerful martini, although one year I did make a pretty strong one for him, and God bless him, he drank it — or enjoy a nice spicy dish (my love of spicy food comes from him, I think), I do.
After he died, I was very upset. I had a few dreams about him, some of which were those ones some of you who know me call my “sixth sense”. The night of the day he died, I had a dream he was very angry at me. I still remember the rage in his eyes and demeanor. That haunts me to this day. There are dreams I have that I need to save him, but I fail him. One night, that dream replayed over and over again. He had slipped and somehow fell, holding a railing for dear life, in a stairwell, outside the stairs and railing itself, dangling three or more floors above the lobby below. I reach out for him, trying to grab his hand. Either I’m too weak or he misses — I can’t remember which — and he falls, a rather sickening thud coming before I can look away. Even years later, this is one of the most disturbing dreams I’ve ever had.
There have been other, better dreams. One is quite personal, so I don’t want to delve into that because I truly felt that was a message from him from “beyond” and a pep-talk to boot. But, at a low point of my grieving for him, I had a dream I was back in Chicago at my parents’ place, and the phone rang. My Mom answered and told me it was Grandma for me. When I started to speak to her, she said Grandpa wanted to talk to me, but I answered he was dead. With that, the sounds of stars rushing past and angels singing filled the background of the call. Grandpa’s voice sounded raspy and a little weary. He said that, “Every time you get upset or sad, you pull me back. Please don’t pull me back.”
It’s hard not to be sad or upset over the loss of someone you love so dearly, but I try. Grieving is a measure of how much you loved someone, as my counselor says, but I think what Grandpa meant was it can also be selfish. Grandpa’s scoliosis caused him so much pain and discomfort and limited him so much in his physical life that I believe he truly is enjoying the freedom his life without physical form is giving him. And that gives me hope.
So, Grandpa, thank you for all you did for me. Until we meet again, know that I love you and think of you often.