Sunday, March 28, 2010

147 days to Bar Mitzvah: getting all reflective

Though his resume wouldn't show it, my grandfather was a great man. If your worldview involves checklists and fame, his was a pretty small life: absolutely middle-class, he toiled away for decades at jobs he didn't particularly like. In 1976, my grandmother told him they were moving west, to follow their kids and grandchildren. He was 58.

He was an old-timer, a member of Tom Brokaw's "greatest generation," the demo of Jews who bridged the gap between their parents' old world and their children's new one. He was a Chrysler man until my dad talking him into buying a Honda Accord. From that point forward, he and my grandmother owned Hondas. She still has their last one, a blue Element with one of the back seats removed to make room for her electric scooter.

When he was 16, having graduated from high school early, my grandfather spent some time on Coney Island, lifting weights on the beach. There he met my grandmother, who was a year younger. By the time he died, last October, they'd been married for 74 years. A little over a year ago he told me that in 74 years, they'd never spent more than two days apart.

By the time I sold their house in Sacramento, they'd been in California for 33 years, but they were still New Yorkers. In retirement, my grandfather had become known for endearing quirkiness. He was the guy going around with a can of paint to cover up graffitti. Sometimes, he took walks carrying a big stick. He used the stick to knock acorns out of trees.

I don't have much memory of him working. There's a flash of him sitting in their living room in Massapequa, New York, wearing reading glasses and using an old-fashioned adding machine, watching the paper unroll further every time he tallied something up. We heard stories -- right up until this past year -- of the ferocity of his temper when my dad was a kid. I never saw it that I can remember, even though one of our most treasured family stories involves him yelling at a three-year-old me, then me responding, "You say that to me?"

No, by the time my sisters and I showed up, he had mellowed. He was not a salty old guy but rather a sentimental one, whose every interaction created a lasting relationship. He seldom paid full price when he got pizza at that place on Coloma Street. They never asked him to.

We moved to San Francisco in part to have a chance to spend more time with my grandparents. I didn't want to end up like Kathleen Turner in "Peggy Sue Got Married," traveling through time in the hopes of getting one more day with my grandparents. We got ten extra years with them. Over the past decade, we went to Sacramento about once every two months. They came to the Jawa's school "Grandparents and Special Friends Day" twice.

He was one of the most reflective people I've ever known. When I was a little kid, living in Pennsylvania, we took walks out into the countryside. He never talked down to me, not even then. He'd tell me about the pratfalls that could await you as you grew up, and that some day, girls would be more important to me than cars or even baseball.

In the past decade, he got even more reflective. He hated being old and felt betrayed by his body. "It's not right," he'd say, "that they let you live into your 90s but don't give you a body that'll hold up."

Once, when I was about 12, he was messing with an outlet in the living room of my parents' house. Suddenly, waist-high flames shot out of the outlet. He paused, looked at my father and I, and said, "You know, that really burns my butt."

Whenever we visited Sacramento, my grandfather spent his time doing two things: getting stuff for us and sitting in one of the white living room chairs, beaming. One time, we had the first grade-aged Jawa demonstrate his newly-learned Hebrew skills. When I looked over at my grandfather, he was crying.

Because that's what he did. He was a hot-blooded Romanian, and he wore his emotions on his sleeve. After every visit, he'd walk out with us to their driveway, and then watch us drive away.

Eventually, Sandra Bullock reminded me that we should be using these visits to help my grandparents with errands and chores. Family members thought they should move to a retirement home, but they were having none of it. So we'd go to Sacramento, and I'd mow the lawn, help them gas up the Element. One time, my grandfather, the Jawa and I went to Costco and helped him pick out a new LCD television. But not until after the Jawa joined him on a parade lap of Costco, where they tried every food sample offered.

The end wasn't good. Last May, he tripped over his new sandals and broke his hip. The guy who came out of surgery wasn't the same.

He got "hazy," as my grandmother said. Sometimes he thought we were on a cruise. Many times, he thought we were in the military. "That's Jack," he told me once, while we were visiting him in the third assisted living facility in two months, pointing out an old guy who was wandering around the lobby. "He's with our outfit."

Last summer, I went to Sacramento once a week. He was always overjoyed to see me and always cried when I left. My grandmother was always there with him, except for times when I'd take her to do some of the things she'd never had to do -- put gas in the car, get money out of the ATM, check the mailbox.

Sometimes, you'd get a sense that he was still in there, somewhere. We took Sandra Bullock and my mom to see him at this terrible place, a private house, where he was staying. They wanted him out because apparently he was getting up in the middle of the night and raging.

We spoke to the owners. My mom and I laid down some threats, but it didn't really matter. We were already working to find a way to get him out of there. After the argument, we went and sat out in the backyard with my grandfather. As we were talking to him, Sandra Bullock started crying.

"What's wrong?" said my grandfather. "You're crying?"

She tried to say something, but it came out all choked and incoherent.

"Don't worry," he said in response. "It's going to be okay. Now you say it: it's going to be okay."

The last time I saw my grandfather, they were loading him into an aid car. An ambulance plane was waiting to take my grandmother and him to Arizona, where they'd be near my parents and he'd finally get the kind of professional treatment he needed. As they wheeled him out, he said to the EMTs, "Are you guys with our platoon? I saw you out there. You were doing a great job."

He was wearing oversized sunglasses and staring up into the sky, one of the greatest men to walk the earth.

They loaded him up. He was laying in the back of the truck. My grandmother was sitting next to him, a total nervous wreck after the truck showed up an hour late. Before they pulled away, he pointed at me. "The keys are in the breast pocket of my tweed sportcoat," he said. "It's in the hallway closet."

And then they shut the doors and he was gone. Our biggest worry at that point was that his overall health was too good to let him die. He'd be like this for years.

It didn't work out that way. About a month later, the lieukemia he'd had for several years came out of remission. Faced with the choice of prolonging his life or letting him go, my grandmother and father chose the latter. One afternoon, my grandmother sat next to his bed, holding his hand. His eyes were closed.

"If you can hear me, squeeze my hand," said my grandmother. He did it once, and that was it. He was 92, which should have made it okay, but it still wasn't.

Less than 24 hours later, I went with my father to clean out my grandfather's room at the assisted living place. It wasn't exactly joyful work. If we'd thought about it at all, we would have felt relief. I can't speak for everyone, but for me, my dad completely summed it up. "When my grandfather died, I remember my father saying that he couldn't believe he'd never see him again. I always wondered what he meant by that. Now I know."

That was six months ago. I'm not a big crying guy, so I haven't broken down over the loss of my grandfather, but you can't bring him up without getting me close.

That was it. No service, no funeral. He was just gone. More like missing. And I can't believe I'm not going to ever see him again.

Now I know at this time you're supposed to see solace and comfort in your religion. I thought about that a week later. Every Saturday service -- Bar Mitzvah or not -- ends with a prayer called "the mourner's kaddish." Before you say it, everyone who's in mourning stands up and one-by-one, says the name of the person they're mourning. So the next Bar Mitzvah we're at, Sandra Bullock pokes me and says, "You should say your grandfather's name."

I guess so, but at that point I couldn't think of anything I wanted to do less than to stand up and share my mourning with the congregation. I didn't want to sit shiva, I didn't want the rabbi to pray for my grandfather, I didn't want people coming up and feeling sorry for my loss. Part of that might be because I still can't believe that he's gone, but the other part was pretty visceral. At this time of crisis, I wanted nothing to do with the traditional mourning rites of my religion.

The Jawa felt differently. He stood up every week for three weeks, and in fact stood up again yesterday at Maetal Kogon's Bat Mitzvah.

And it's true that I end up thinking about him every time I go to a Bar or Bat Mitzvah, which is sort of ridiculous because, like many Jews, my grandfather was a self-proclaimed atheist. But there I am, thinking about him, sometimes because Sandra Bullock will tell me that last week the Jawa decided to dedicate his Bar Mitzvah to him, or because I'm thinking of ways to incorporate him into my speech to the Jawa at his Bar Mitzvah.

He loved Fresh Choice more than anyone. In 92 years, he never lost his appetite. At three p.m. every day, my grandmother would join him for a cocktail. He drank Old Granddad, which I thought was hilarious. He so touched his neighbors that in the months after the move to Arizona, several of them contacted me to see what they could do to help.

One Saturday, a few weeks after they'd moved, we were holding a garage sale. All of their stuff was out in the driveway -- the TV trays I ate from when I was five, the impossibly huge couch that Sandra Bullock and I would sit on, eating Ruffles potato chips with onion dip, every time we came to visit, the push lawnmower that I'd begun using to mow their lawn, each time sending my grandfather into new heights of ecstatic rapture. He simply could not believe his good fortune, having a grandson who'd volunteer to mow the lawn.

About halfway through the garage sale, an older lady was browsing through our stuff. "What happened to him?" she asked. I told her they'd moved to Arizona. "They?" she said. "I thought he was a widower. I'd see him out walking alone. I kind of was hoping to meet him someday."

Even strangers could tell. It was like he was emanating niceness.

So now he's gone and my grandmother is in Arizona. In ten years, we probably took more than 50 trips to Sacramento, a place we're likely to never visit again. I'm no New Age ghost story guy, but for my own reasons, I'm going to imagine that he's at our Bar Mitzvah, sitting up in the balcony, maybe, looking down at the Jawa, beaming. And my hopes for the Jawa are the same as they are for me; to be more like him.


GBW said...

Beautifully written.

Butter Goats said...

Best one yet. But you know that.

The Hammer said...

This was amazing and so touching to read. Grandpa will be there on Aug. 21. Mine was on Jan. 9, and I did not have anywhere near the relationship that you did.