I haven’t written in some time. The reason: I am sad. Last month I lost my grandfather.
Somehow I wish that I could tell you that I received a frantic call in the middle of the night and rushed back to Michigan to be at my grandfather’s side. But the truth is that he was 90 years old and had prostate cancer and a bad heart for many years. The last month, since roughly when I set out for New Zealand, things were not going well for him. Every phone call from home I would ask: “Is this it? Should I come back now?” But who ever really knows the answer to such questions?
When the opportunity to relocate first arose, I immediately called my father for advice. Our lives on this earth are short. And I was keenly aware when I moved to Australia that I would be losing precious moments with my surviving grandparents—my grandfather on my father’s side and my grandmother on my mother’s side. My father shared some wisdom that I couldn’t deny. You can’t spend your life waiting for people to die. I never would have left Michigan and moved to Washington, DC had I adopted that philosophy. He was right. But I was also no longer twenty years old and carefree. A near decade later my loved ones had aged, I was losing a close friend to cancer and change was increasingly difficult.
Postcards were the salve for my guilty conscious. I would send one to two a week in an attempt to relay my life Down Under into a void where telephone calls could no longer reach due to poor hearing.* It was a one sided conversation, but I took comfort that at least my grandparents knew I thought about them often.
Then, one morning, I received the call. My grandfather was entering hospice. It wasn’t clear how much longer he had left, but things were grim. I sat stunned at my desk for several hours as the chaos of a deal swirled around me. That evening, as I wrapped up my work at 1:00AM, I booked a flight to Michigan. The next day I transitioned work to my colleagues and felt at peace, knowing that nothing could change the course of events that were to come once I stepped onto a plane the following morning.
But I was too late. Or was I just in time? I arrived at 1:00AM into Detroit and as we drove past my grandfathers house I caught the last glimpse of his bathroom light on. The next day I awoke to a phone call from my aunt. My grandfather had the family over for pizza the evening I was on the plane. He woke up early the next morning and told my aunt to go back to sleep. A few hours later he was complaining of stomach pains. And then, he slipped out of consciousness and my aunt made the call. I rushed down to his house and held his hand as the dreary October drizzle drummed on the roof. Soon the whole family was there. His fingers grew cold and finally his puffing breaths stopped.
Life at my family home in Michigan will never quite be the same. Perhaps life shouldn’t be the same anywhere, but if I am honest with myself I know that I will feel the hole most acutely when at the family homestead.
My earliest memories are deeply entwined with my grandfather. I can remember spending time with him in the Fall in his garage on Kinloch Avenue cleaning a deer carcass and grinding meat. I can see him stooped beside my father over in the driveway of our home in Redford, Michigan building me a playhouse. I can smell his tobacco spit. I can taste the sawdust in the air of his garage when I drink an oaked wine. And I can hear him call me Shelly.
Growing up, I spent a great deal of time with my grandfather. We moved from the city to the lake on my fifth birthday. While my father and grandfather built what was to become our family home, we lived down the street in the cottage my grandfather built in the 1950s from the remains of my great grandmother’s home. After our home was built, I would run down the dirt road on weekends to my grandfather’s cottage and sit at his feet playing solitaire (a game my grandmother, his wife, taught me to keep me quiet).
And there was the cabin. My grandfather was my father’s best friend. They did nearly everything together. The thing they did best was mucking around at the cabin in the woods “Up North“. Our yearly rituals included unloading sugar beets into deer feed piles, planting pine tree seedlings and lots of cursing as ancient tractors wouldn’t start and trees were felled in the wrong direction by an over zealous chainsaw.
But for me, the best time with my grandfather started in 2001, when he moved full time to the lake cottage shortly before my grandmother died. Whenever I was home, I would walk just a few doors down and spend time with him. And as he slowed fractionally with each passing year, I was incrementally better able to keep pace with him. Let’s face it. A man like my grandfather did not have a lot of use for little girls when I was growing up.
Most importantly though, I was old enough to truly appreciate the time we had together. He was a joy to be around. He always had a smile on his face. He didn’t complain. And he would join you on an adventure at the drop of a hat. We would grab breakfast, look for an auction or try talking shop owners into giving him their old pallets to use for wood working projects. We were always up to something.
That was the thing about my grandfather—he was always on the go. He was a builder, making cupboards, tables and gun cases and always helping with construction around his children’s and grandchildren’s homes. As he aged and complicated woodworking became more difficult, he became possessed by bird houses. He was a wiry man with surprising strength. When he would totter on his replaced hip with a piece of lumber to cut for a bird house, I could still see the man who pinned me down and stripped leeches from my body with his pocketknife.
My grandfather always said that he had a happy life. His memories, whether as a boy hunting in the fields behind his house (an activity that got him a face full of lead buckshot and a missing finger) or his business installing wood floors, gave him great joy. Like any life, there were a few dark blips. But my grandfather was not the sort of person to dwell. He would rather dream about rolling dice at the craps table instead.
I adored my grandfather. I miss his habits (two breakfasts because he woke up so early in the morning and a cat nap in the afternoon). I miss his giggle. I miss his well worn insulated plaid jacket and stained khaki pants.
My grandfather didn’t quite make it to deer season this year. But now he is in the Happy Hunting Grounds.
Marvin Earl Heisner
July 6, 1923 to October 19, 2013
* This very blog was in part motivated by the same desire. I lost a significant part of the audience I was writing for when I lost my grandfather.