The Greatest

Maybe you think that title refers to Muhammad Ali. And maybe you’re right. Or maybe you just never had the chance to meet my grandpa, Wally.

I’ve written and re-written this entry in my head a million times in the past month and a half. And it never seemed right. Still doesn’t, really, but I’ve got to get it out.

Three years ago, we lost my paternal grandpa. He’d been sick but was getting better and just days before his death he’d had a successful surgery we’d hoped would heal him up.

It was a Wednesday night when he died, almost all of my extended family crammed in a room at the hospital, none of us wanting to leave.

My maternal grandpa, during the past few years, got sicker and sicker. There was pneumonia, there were falls, there was a couple times he seemed to have had a stroke. Through it all, though, he had his mind. His mind didn’t fail him, even when his body did.

My grandpa was the smartest person I’ve ever met. He graduated from Stanford, Harvard Business School, was helping my sister do chemistry homework when he was 92.

He was in Ripley’s Believe It or Not for a football-game feat his father had accomplished years earlier but no one else had.

He climbed mountains, literally, worked on movie sets and always had a list to make or a story to tell.

He wanted to know what was going on in school, with work, at the UofL game if you were the one using their old season tickets that day.

He made cards on his computer. When one hospital trip had him out of commission around my birthday, I still got a specially made one that said “Happy Belated” when he was home and feeling better.

He always had a camera and I joked that we must have a picture of every meal we ever ate together as a family.

Last Christmas, I bought one of those books where you could record your voice reading it. I had him and my grandma read “Twas the Night Before Christmas” so that one day, I could share it with my kids – their great-grandchildren.

In early September, things changed. He fell, but this time was different. He broke his hip.

With that one fall, my grandpa changed too. He was in the hospital, either on morphine or in excruciating pain. They decided to operate, hoping that things would be better afterwards, but told us going in there was a chance he might not even make it out of the surgery.

All of the sudden, this 94-year-old man β€” one that we were sure was going to live to at least 100, that would be over on Christmas morning just like he had for years β€” was given a 50/50 chance.

When he made it through the surgery, I (and I don’t know who else, maybe it was just me) naively thought things would get better. Sure they’d be different and rehab would take a while, but he’d be fine in the end.

But then things got worse. Except for the last time I saw him.

He was eating dinner when I got there and while my aunt Carolyn filled out some paperwork, I helped out and fed him, something I never envisioned having to do.

True to Grandpa form, though, he corrected my wrong technique. Ever the manager/engineer/boss, he took the spoon from my hand and showed me how to do it the right way.

And a couple hours later, when it was time to leave, I said my good-bye. I told him I’d see him soon, I loved him and I’m glad I got to see him.

The man that didn’t look or sound or act like my grandpa earlier that day suddenly did when he gripped my hand hard and said he was glad I came by.

When I left his room, I got about 10 steps into the hallway before I lost it, thinking it was the last time I’d see him alive. And, as it turns out, it was.

The night he died, the University of Louisville/University of Kentucky football game was on TV. There are few things – mainly his family, I think – that he loved more than UofL football. He left us in the middle of the game, which I think was strategic.

You see, he wanted a better seat for the game then his hospital bed. And he got the best one. And, wouldn’t you know it, his Cards won that night. I like to think he had something to do with it.

In the days that followed, like we’d done when my other grandpa passed away, my family rallied. We hugged, we cried, we ate, we drank, we told stories and missed grandpa.

After his funeral, which ended in the early afternoon, we came back to my parents’ house for food and family and celebration. Because that’s what he wanted us to do.

He wanted us to celebrate his life, to not be sad but to spend time together and enjoy ourselves. We celebrated his life, that’s for sure β€” so much so that when someone drove by and saw 50 people out front playing cornhole and drinking beers at 4 p.m. on a Wednesday they didn’t know what to think.

But I can’t help but thinking that the one who would have loved that the most, who would have been sitting there with his camera at the ready and a smile on his face, is the one who wasn’t there.

I’ll miss getting a card from him this Christmas and on my birthday.

I’ll miss him taking a picture of all of us as we sat around the table together for Thanksgiving dinner or Christmas breakfast.

I miss how when you were on the phone with him and saying goodbye and you said “I love you, Grandpa” he’d say “OK.”

I miss making him laugh and watching his eyes close, his head hang down and his shoulders shake.

I miss him being there for my grandma, his wife of 68 years, who is lost without him.

The night he died, I went to her room with her and held her hand while she cried. One of the things she kept saying was “He was too good a person.” And as I rubbed her back and tried to calm her down I said “Yes he was. He was the greatest person. The greatest.”

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